Special Report: Feminist Flashpoints in East Asia

November 19, 2009


A cursory review reveals that sexual violence is a common issue that is salient domestically as well as in the international politics of the region. One of the real challenges though appears to be expanding the space for political activism among women.


As President Obama travels through East Asia, he provides South Asian feminist scholars with an opportunity to look east and review those issues that have been contentious for women’s rights activists. Each of the President’s stopovers has its own feminist flashpoints that are either consequences of society’s engagement with the outside world or that have consequences for that engagement.

The movement of people is one of the main sources of concern for Japanese feminists. Women’s immigration from other parts of Asia into Japan when legal is largely in the “entertainment” category, with most immigrants working as bar hostesses, in factories, as commercial sex workers or waitresses. International marriages through brokers are known; along with the old pattern of Japanese wife/ non-Japanese husband now there are also Japanese men who seek non-Japanese but Asian wives either for more control in the marriage or for sham marriages that cover up and facilitate exploitation. (See Vera Mackie’s Feminism in Modern Japan: Citizenship, Embodiment and Sexuality, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003 for more.)

The Japanese also have to confront their status both as perpetrators and victims on the question of wartime sexual exploitation. If the use of “comfort women” during Japan’s mid-20th century occupation of Korea is a history Japan has to live down at minimum and apologize and compensate for at best, then Japan’s own experience with the US presence in Okinawa has been similar. Either way, women have simply been the spoils of militarization, not uniquely in East Asia but here this issue has acquired both feminist and nationalist resonance.

Singaporean women’s organizations have to walk a tightrope, calling attention to social inequities without criticizing the state; placing the blame on culture without blaming religion; being political by virtue of working on political questions, but all the while abjuring politics. Reproductive rights have been one arena of activism, but in insider-for-self-correction mode rather than as dissent or critique of the state’s agenda. Many women from other parts of Asia come to Singapore to undertake jobs as domestic workers. Their status and their rights become political issues in their countries of origin, but in my admittedly cursory search, it was not clear how much their presence registered with the local women’s movement. (Lenore Lyons has written a great deal on the women’s movement in Singapore.)

Shanghai is now one of Asia’s showpiece cities; Beijing is one of its oldest capitals. Through much of the twentieth century, women activists were as focused on nation-building and social modernization issues as their male colleagues. State feminism under the People’s Republic did self-consciously address the institutional and many structural issues relating to the status of women. In the public sphere, gender became irrelevant for both men and women in many ways. Since the 1990s, when China has opened up to the world and western feminist writing has been translated and made available, Chinese feminists are now critiquing this same effacement of gender identity and blaming this for the invisibility of women in many spheres.

From a South Asian perspective, what is most interesting is to look at the impact of how China has opened up and grown, on women’s lives, their decision-making frames and freedoms and finally, gendered expectations that they may now face. Given that China’s political opening is yet to equal its economic changes, it is hard to see what the emerging internal critiques and debates are among Chinese feminists. Whatever they are, they matter for international relations for two reasons. One, there are a lot of aspirants to growth along the Chinese model (or should I say, Shanghai model). For them, this could be an early warning of problems they should anticipate and address. Two, insofar as the Shanghai model is identified elsewhere with the replacement by American-style capitalist economics of socialist development models, its failures will be seen as American failures, exported to Asia. It is in US interests to appear introspective and self-critical with regard to socio-economic issues on the home-front.

Two important strands to the women’s activism in Korea appear to be improving working conditions for women and of course, the issue of “comfort women.” As elsewhere, sexual violence—its prevention, protection issues and victim support services—is a priority for most organizations. It was hard to find very descriptive accounts from which I could learn more.

Two issues seem to recur in this region. The first relates to democracy and space in the public sphere for social activism at all: in its absence or where it is strained, how likely is it that activists will prioritize women’s rights over civil rights and political reform agendas? Women are likely, yet again, to have to take a number and wait their turn. The other is that although my post scarcely suggests it, sexual violence is an important rallying point. Reading about Japan, I learned that in some cases, what were originally shelters for refugees were also taking in victims of domestic violence. That to me really underscores the continuum of violence in which most women’s lives play out. And violence in the name of the state—during war, to reinforce state rules, to ensure regime survival—is one stretch on this continuum.

States are bound by international convention to do business with other states. What this means is that when any head of state comes calling, s/he must meet and confer with whatever regime is in power. A strident discourse on human rights and democracy usually becomes background noise as a summit plays out—that’s diplomacy. But where then is the space for women’s rights issues to be raised and discussed in the international arena? Will we have seen something new in the course of President Obama’s international excursions this time and in coming months?

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