March 03, 2012 00:00 By Veena Thoopkrajae
"Being a woman won't affect my work as prime minister," said Yingluck Shinawatra shortly after she was named the first female prime minister of Thailand.
Her words were politically correct, given the public’s positive feeling.
Seven months have passed since she was elected to the top post. The early vow she made has become far less convincing to the public. Initially, critics didn’t like the fact that she wept several times in public, and questioned if her political apparatus was using her tears as a political weapon. But nothing has shaken her as much as the “Four Seasons” hotel controversy – an incident that even many feminists find hard to support her over.
While many view the subsequentrumour-mongering as a purely political attack against a female premier, the incident does leave a bad taste. Although we go down the dirty path where some politicians cash in on the controversy, the issue has helped opened up genuine discussion of feminism and leadership.
A group of female academics and NGO workers recently issued a statement entitled “Just Because She's a Woman” (“Chai Sak Tae Wa Pen Ying”), and to my delight, they are people who stay true to their feminist ideals. The statement, signed by over 170 people including leading academics, can be viewed on various news websites and blogs.
Yingluck’s supporters view the Four Seasons controversy as a nonsense allegation or a dirty political trick, but it has been examined thoroughly by the group. And I must say I can’t afford to disagree.
Yingluck must have forgotten her early words when she tired to portray the issue as an attack on a woman. She responded on her Facebook page that she did not reply to the rumours at first because she was not keen on playing political games. She also called it a nonsense issue. But she has missed the essence of the issue as a matter of public interest. Her visit to a hotel may be viewed as private unless it happens on a parliamentary meeting day. The public’s right to know and inquire is valid here.
The “Just because she is a woman” statement puts it clearly in the light of women’s rights, as it tries to eliminate inequalities based on sex. “According to Article 30 of the 1997 Constitution, men and woman shall enjoy equal rights. This means, regardless of gender, a prime minister must explain honestly when missing a parliamentary meeting.” The group also opposes Yingluck’s cry for women’s dignity in the allegation. “The rights claimed by women are correct in the case that women have seen their rights and dignity infringed upon by the law, society and culture. They should not be claimed for gaining sympathy over personal action, especially when that action is not obstructed by law.” To sum up, there is no relevant connection between women’s rights and dignity and absence from a parliamentary meeting.
The central point of the statement is that if one wants to promote equal rights and provide understanding, then women’s rights cannot allow special privileges to women. They are a set of rights that provide equality in all aspects. A woman who steals or cheats is not entitled to a light penalty because of her gender. Being female is not meant to be a benefit in any situation; you are just equal.
It is not wrong for Yingluck to say she will utilise her femininity to work fully for Thailand, but her recent set up of a special women’s fund also drew criticism from the same feminist group. Women, when compared to under-privileged groups in society, have no urgent need for such a fund. The statement notes a number of groups that Yingluck may have overlooked such as the disabled, elderly, single parents, hilltribe children and many more. In my opinion, the special fund for women widens the gap between men and women in our society.
Being a woman doesn’t necessarily hinder any female leader as long as she doesn’t exercise her femininity on the wrong occasion or in the wrong situation. The prime minister can always study the likes of strong women like Burma’s democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi; England’s “iron lady”, Magaret Thatcher; and the late Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan. None of them, as the statement says, ever used the excuse of “being a woman” in time of conflict or struggle.
If Yingluck’s goal is to be a good leader, she should review her feminism in order to silence her critics. The fact that her party’s members still attack male rivals by using the expression “wearing a skirt” is a telltale sign of the existence of discrimination against women among them. Perhaps she could start there, condemning all men in Parliament who use that expression.
Even better would be for Yingluck to prove to society that she is the one who wears the pants and doesn’t need to weep or exploit her femininity to escape a crisis.
(The “Just because she is a woman” statement [in Thai] can be accessed on prasong.com and ryt9.com.)