Wednesday, August 24, 2011

I Still Think Women Have It Good in Taiwan

So about a week ago (or so – hard to keep track of time on vacation) I wrote a post describing how good women have it in Taiwan – whether they’re expats or locals (although I think expat women have it a little better than Taiwanese women). Kaminoge pointed out an article stating that Taiwan’s birthrate is so low because of the issues women in Taiwan face due to the traditional society. There are other posts out there of late, as well.

And that’s an interesting point to delve into a little bit.

I still think women have it really great in Taiwan compared to most other countries, especially non-Western countries. I’d go so far as to say they have it better than women in just about any other non-Western country. I would much rather be a Taiwanese woman than, say, a Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Indian, Bangladeshi, African (of any country including North African countries) or Middle Eastern woman. Hispanic women also face some particularly tough challenges due to the machismo present in many Latin cultures.

Taiwanese women do have far more freedom, earn far more respect, have many more options and are treated far more equally than women in any of those cultures.

So if I’m right and the article is also right – and I do believe they are – the issue is that unlike the cultural areas listed above  (which I realize is just about all of them except for the West), Taiwan is in an advanced state of flux. A culture shift is taking place in Taiwan that is only just beginning in urban India and China and still doesn’t seem to have reached other developed, or developing, Asian countries.  So the women have more choices and more freedom, and yet there are still some vestiges of traditional society that heap expectations on their shoulders. It’s a tough middle spot to be in, especially for Taiwanese women of marriage and childbearing age.

Women in those other countries, by and large, don’t face those issues in the same way. Or rather, some do, but the vast majority don’t…because they still function in traditional ways in their traditional society. They still marry and have the kids that they are expected to have. They don’t fight back. They don’t have as many options or as much freedom to do anything other than comply. Taiwanese women now have the option not to comply, and the direct result is that they’re fighting back by not having children, not marrying and by establishing themselves as independent women. They may not consciously realize that they’re doing this, but they are.

I realize the past two paragraphs are chock full o’ vast generalizations, so I do want to point out that I am aware they are generalizations, that they do not apply on an individual level to everyone, and for every generalization I make there are countless exceptions.  There are Taiwanese women who still follow “the system” and Indian women who fight back. I know this.

I’d still say that Taiwanese women have it good. Let me give some examples of places I’ve visited:

India, where my friend Kannagarengam went through with an arranged marriage to a man she had never been alone with for more than a half hour at a time, and only a few times at that. This suited her fine within her cultural paradigm, but I wouldn’t want that and neither, I’d bet, would most Taiwanese women.

Nepal, with a similar marriage culture.

Central America and the Philippines, where it is accepted that a husband is likely to have a querida (but of course a woman isn’t allowed any extramarital activity). I realize that not all men in those countries are this way, but it is a cultural norm.

Turkey, where men gather in tea houses but very few are welcoming to women. Women sit in doorways or stoops to their homes to socialize while men have games (backgammon is popular), tea and trees or umbrellas for shade. Where inexpensive hotels are downright hostile to women traveling alone.

Bangladesh, where gender is so deeply segregated that for the men I met – and I did talk to a lot of men in Bangladesh because the women generally leave home far less frequently so you just don’t meet them – talking to me, an actual woman who was not a family member or wife, was an extreme aberration. Where you can look down entire streetscapes and see only men, to the point where a woman alone might feel uncomfortable.

I have not been to Morocco, but a friend of mine who lived there complained that she never got to try the delicious coffee or smoke nargileh, and rarely got to drink tea, because the places where one could do that catered solely to men. Women were not expressly barred but also not welcome.

Several countries where people have addressed my husband and completely ignored me, as though I don’t exist, and refused to accept that I’m really the person to talk to when it comes to travel arrangements.

India again, where as a woman alone I suffered sexual harassment several times – at one point a man actually got thrown off a train (a MOVING TRAIN, but it wasn’t moving that fast) for harassing me.

China, where my students, including the female ones, got very upset at the idea that a woman could and even should be as smart as her husband or boyfriend – they’d endlessly defend the idea that a woman shouldn’t be too clever or too successful or it would make her partner lose face. Where someone I knew was threatened by her boyfriend – he said he’d kill her if she wouldn’t marry him – and her father told her to marry him (she did, he was abusive – surprise surprise – and they got divorced. The town gossip mill blamed her).

Japan, where I’ve never lived but have visited. A friend has told me about how men not only won’t give a pregnant woman a seat on a bus, but might even expect the women to stand so that they can sit, as “they’ve been working hard all day”. (I find this hard to swallow but my friend stands by it being an actual thing that happens). Also, it's still extremely difficult for Japanese women to move up into management or executive roles at work - there is still a gender bias in Taiwan but it is far less prevalent, especially in finance.


Korea, where it is still commonplace for newspaper ads to advertise jobs specifically for women or men. The salary for the same job, right there in the ad, is lower for women than it is for men (Taiwan also faces this problem of lower salaries for women, but it’s not so blatant).


Would you want to be a woman from any of those countries who had little choice but to play by the cultural rules? I suppose it’s not an issue for women who are happy to do so and even want to do so (I would prefer a world of women’s rights and equality for all, but it’s hard to forcefully argue for that around women who themselves embrace the old ways. I don’t agree, but at some point it’s not my decision). But for any woman with feminist leanings (especially bolstered by a good education, if she’s lucky enough to get one), how does that sound like anything less than pure torture?

Contrast that to my student who is trying for a baby now. She married recently at the age of 35 and wants one child. She prayed to Zhusheng Niangniang for a boy, because “my mother in law wants a son. I don’t care, but she does. If I have a girl she’ll expect us to have another and I don’t want to listen to her nagging, so I hope I have a boy. But when my child marries, I won’t care if my grandchild is a son or daughter.” I see hope in that statement – a change for the next generation, as well as a difficult transition period for the current generation of women. That’s where the problem lies, if you ask me.

So sure, Taiwanese women are still facing the pressures of traditional society, and we’re seeing the pushback for that in the low birthrate, but it’s still a lot better than what they could be facing, and I do think the worst of it will be gone in a few generations.  The birthrate is not low because things are so bad – it’s low because things have gotten better.

5 comments:

Little Dog said...

it is indeed generalization, but you are right that taiwanese women do hold much higher place socially than women in around this area, i know as i learn form the highly educated teams (both men and women) working for me from korea to india and china to indonesia (including australia but it does not really count as comparison in this case). there has long been discussion among us local why it is so unique for taiwan. the only answer is that, in 1949, with the influx of poeple from china, taiwan went through changes where the original faimly structure for the new immigrants was forced to lose much of its grip on women. as in a times of changes, women tend to be a lot more resilient and adaptive (they are wonderful and i love them all). the mainland chinese family was the catalyst for the change. it is quite common that the mainland family usually has the lady in the house much more commanding as there lacks the generation above to enforce tradition set of the rules when the lady needs to be equaly responsible for the family. as the times goes, such a value got spilled into the taiwanese family and gradually became a common set of standard (of course with the introduction of more and more western ideas). you are right, we are the best but not without some special attributes to make it as it is now to compare with other countries.

Jenna said...

Little Dog - I disagree. I respect your opinion but honestly I don't think that's the case at all. Here's why.

1.) China is still a country of deep sexism. I would know, I used to live there. In fact I noted it as one of the countries that was not as good in this regard as Taiwan. So I don't believe that change in the structure of society regarding women's rights came from the waishengren. If that were the case China itself would be a more egalitarian country regarding women, especially as gender equality was actually promoted under the Communists...but it's not.

2.) Honestly, I find very generally speaking (not meant as an indictment on all waishengren, just a very general observation) that the waishengren - the older generation, not so much younger, but those who came from China and their kids who are now middle-aged - display far more sexist attitudes than the old-school Taiwanese. It's the waishengren mothers-in-law who seem to terrorize their sons' wives to produce sons (although I am sure the Hoklo mothers in law do this too, to some extent. Having friends who are mostly Hoklo and not so many waishengren, though, I have found that they don't seem to feel the same pressure to have a son). They seem to have old-school attitudes about men being managers and women being office girls.

In the deep south, let's be honest, who runs the business? In so many cases it's a family business and the person keeping it going is the wife. I stayed with my friend from Kaohsiung for Chinese New Year and noted that her mother worked seemingly as an equal partner in the family business. Among those in the north, especially in blue-leaning companies, you still get this idea that men lead and women look pretty behind desks.

I have found generally with the south vs. northern Taiwan that the women of southern Taiwan are tougher, lead more, run more family business and generally kick ass. I don't mean this as a slight on women whose families came from China in '49, but rather praise for Hoklo and Hakka women who so deserve it.

Also, which party has more political equality regarding leaders and candidates? By far the DPP. Can you name one truly prominent national-level female KMT politician? There are some noteworthy leaders but none who can touch Tsai Yingwen, Chen Chu or even Annette Lu (whom I don't like, but hey, she showed that women can and do lead in Taiwan).

So no...I don't think it was the Mainlanders who brought greater equality to Taiwan. In fact, quite the opposite: I think that old Mainland culture is what is holding Taiwan back when it comes to equality for women, and that the obasans of the south would have turned this country upside down if things had gone differently!

Little Dog said...

i respect your opnion but i also disagree with your argument. the change i described was a forced one, and i travel extensively enough in china to know what the immigrants went through was not what happened in china. it is particular to taiwan. my theory, or conclusion,is not a statement trying to judge or argue for superiority of mainlander over taiwanese family. it will be too superficial and unjust. the change in 1949 marked a very deep cultural change for the society here in taiwan. as someone, and many around us who went through these changes, we (whether we are from mainlander or taiwanese families) reflect on what happened and what make us unique.
i believe i also wrote all the changes i refer to in the "past tense" and in the "present tense" of what we are, which is something that really counts.

Jenna said...

Fair enough...I just don't think it's true at least when it comes to women's rights. Yes, Taiwan underwent some deep cultural shifts, especially in the north, during and because of the influx of Mainlanders.

It simply has not been my observation at all that that was the catalyst for what makes the Taiwanese unique in this regard. I still feel that, if anything, that's what has held them back and I'd say the somewhat separate evolution and cultural experience of Hoklo and Hakka culture in Taiwan that managed to escape what happened in China is what makes Taiwan unique in this particular regard.

It's nothing against waishengren families (I try to be careful with that term but hey, they use it for themselves) - plenty of them do have strong women at the helm and yes, they did mostly suffer a great deal (as did the Taiwanese who were here before they came - and "troublemakers" from both groups were targeted by the KMT afterwards).

I just have not noticed anything to the effect that that's what caused comparatively better women's equality in Taiwan (not that it's totally equal - it's very much comparative).

J said...

Frankly Kaminoge's response is a low blow that doesn't really offer anything to refute, except maybe for his apparent faith in the BBC's accuracy. The BBC article offers one quote from an unnamed Taiwanese woman about traditional culture, and then assures us that "these views reflect those of most people in Taiwan". Granted that you're basing your observations on personal experience, which is imperfect, but it's still a lot more than what the BBC offers.