Showing posts with label annette_lu. Show all posts
Showing posts with label annette_lu. Show all posts

Sunday, March 24, 2019

The ups and downs of International Women's Day in Taiwan


I've had a hard time writing this, because I don't want to sow further discord among feminist activists and various feminist groups in Taiwan, but...I just can't let it go.

I'm not too involved in Women's Day or Women's March Taiwan or any of those groups, in part because I have a hectic enough work schedule that I usually can't do groups (I never went to a single Indivisible Taiwan meeting because I was never free) and besides, it may surprise you to learn I'm just not a joiner. Beyond that, I sort of see feminism in Taiwan as something best led by Taiwanese women; I'm not really needed. If I'm free, I'll lend my support by attending public events, but I'm usually not free.

This year's women's march, dubbed WoMen (which means "we" in Mandarin) took place on a rainy Saturday (I wasn't able to attend due to work commitments). Looking at the news reports, you'd think everything ran smoothly and 80-100 marchers enjoyed talks, demonstrations and performances by a variety of women doing interesting things in the community. And that is what happened that day.

But it was sad watching the social media kerfuffle leading up to the Women's March when the original line-up for the march included a number of men, and was strongly criticized for de-centering women. The response was that feminism is still seen in Taiwan as something for women to fight for, that men don't need to or should not get involved - and that the "WoMen" event hoped to change this by showing a gender-diverse line-up.

Suffice it to say my days of feeling totally pumped and inspired by Women's Marches happening in Taiwan appear to be over.

I don't have screen shots or anything for this, as by the time I thought to gather them, the published line-up was taken down and - I am told anyway - changed. There was no further dialogue or communication about the event and its scheduled performances.

On one hand, I kind of agree with one critic that this was something of an "all lives matter" response - that the one day that centers women among all holidays shouldn't be used to showcase and praise male allies, but to showcase women, with men quite welcome to attend but not to take the spotlight.

I also do agree with the organizers, to an extent, that we need to do something about this particular problem in Taiwan specifically. It seems to me that they had good intentions, but bungled the approach. It absolutely is an issue, more so than in the West. I have certainly seen men show up to events to support women's equality in the US and act as allies. In Taiwan, I've heard a lot of ally-talk, and that's great, but not a lot of in-person support (the recent Vagina Monologues performance was a refreshing change; the audience was quite gender-diverse). What's more worrying, behind those words, there's not a lot of actual action taken by men to challenge the gender imbalance.

For instance, I have noted for some time that social movement activism in Taiwan is heavily skewed male (although women do participate). I know more than one woman who has given up on being involved, for a variety of reasons, or has a less-than-stellar opinion of people widely admired among Taiwanese progressives. I know that several social movement and progressive political leading voices are aware of the problem, but have not seen much attempt at all to address it.

Going back to the Women's March, however, I don't know that having a male-skewed line up was the way to address that issue. There must be a way to raise the number of male allies without having to center men at an event for women, and in any case, male performances at a women's event aren't going to draw in any man who wasn't already inclined towards allyship. There are surely ways to get the message out that gender equality isn't just something women fight for, but something we should all support, without handing the spotlight to men for an extended period on International Women's Day.

On the upside, despite these internal issues, by all accounts on the day in question people showed up, banded together and presented a united front for gender equality. That's something - it matters. I'd like to see more of that in Taiwanese politics (*cough* DPP *cough*).

But my disquiet runs deeper: on a surface level, it bothers me to see so few Taiwanese women involved in these public events. For sure, Taiwanese women did attend the march alongside many foreign women, but with only 80-100 participants, that number was clearly not large. From the media coverage, I didn't note any Southeast Asian female activist participation, although such women do exist. This still feels like an event mainly powered by the Western expat community and as such, I'm not sure how much it can really accomplish.

That said, looking at local groups, I find even more to raise my skepticism.

One of the collaborators on this event - and many other events - is Taipei Women's Rescue Foundation (TWRF). I will say now that they do do some good work. They arose from the Awakening Foundation, founded by former Vice President and current oddball Annette Lu (don't take that as an insult; I kind of like Lu, but I also think it's time for her to either get with the times or retire) and Lee Yuan-chen. Given Lu and Lee's differing backgrounds, Awakening and TWRF have no clear political orientation that I can suss out. That's great.

But...well, I've mentioned TWRF before, and in a not particularly flattering context. They are the people behind the comfort women museum. The museum focuses on Japanese colonial-era comfort women from Taiwan, and I agree their story is important.

However, it - and the KMT, who expends a great deal of energy keeping the comfort women issue in the public eye - has been criticized as taking political aim at Japan, in line with the desires of pro-China KMTers who want Taiwan to get closer to China and therefore drive a wedge between Taiwan and Japan's currently fairly close relationship. Comfort women aren't even the only wedge they use to try and accomplish this. All the while, many of those who claim to care about comfort women...don't actually.

How do I know? Because they only seem to care about Japanese-era comfort women (the still-living among them being quite old). The ROC had comfort women too, and being younger, more of them are still alive, but nobody seems interested in taking up their cause. Some of these women are currently fighting for the right to establish their own museum at the former municipal brothel, which is its own interesting story (the government quietly sold the building it was located in without informing them, and as far as I know their lawsuit to rectify this and stop the building from being demolished is still working its way through the courts).

So I have to ask why TWRF set up a comfort women museum for Japanese-era comfort women, but takes no interest whatsoever in ROC-era comfort women or their cause.

As such, I question their true motivations, and am skeptical of their current involvement in women's issues, and leaves me uncomfortable about my own support.

Suffice it to say that this post has no clear conclusion. It's messy and unclear, and I'm unclear about my own messy feelings on the matter.

All I can say is that Women's Day this year left me feeling frustrated and not particularly inspired.

That's all I really will say on the matter, because I actually do think those of us committed to similar causes need to show each other support, not tear each other down.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Book review: Women's Movements in Twentieth-Century Taiwan


When talking about Taiwanese history, it's quite common to come across a belief that modern Taiwanese beliefs have their roots in the 1970s, and did not really exist before that. From "there was no real sense of Taiwanese identity or a Taiwanese identity movement before the 1970s/the Kaohsiung Incident" to "there is no history of feminism in Taiwan before the 1970s/before the end of the Chiang Kai-shek era" and more, it surprises me how many people truly think this is the case.

Of course, when it comes to Taiwanese identity, this is manifestly false. There are records of autonomous rule movements as early as the late 1800s, and several sources reference similar autonomous movements in the Japanese colonial era. When it comes to women's movements, the same applies. While several feminist pioneers did bring ideas of gender equality to the mainstream in the 1970s, the first stirrings of modern autonomous (that is, not connected to, supported or funded by the government) women's movements in Taiwan have their roots in the Japanese era, although there's no evidence to suggest that the 1970s feminists were directly influenced by them.

It seems to me that misrepresenting both of these movements as originating in the 1970s rather than several decades earlier is an intellectual sleight-of-hand meant to create the idea that both are new, "Western" notions that have no natural roots in Taiwanese culture or history (therefore creating a platform from which to criticize modern Taiwanese identity and feminism). In both cases, such notions are disingenuous.

This is just one of the many things I learned from Women's Movements in Twentieth-Century Taiwan, a slim volume (for an academic book) by Doris Chang. And, for an academic title, it reads surprisingly smoothly.

As an individualist feminist, I appreciated being challenged on the different notions of what feminism could be. I am not a relational feminist - I don't believe my equal place in society comes from the fulfilling of my different but complementary duties vis-a-vis a family or collective society - but as Chang makes clear, this is indeed a form of feminism, and one of two strands that continues to exist in Taiwan (and, arguably, the one that can strike the best compromise with traditional notions of role, duty and family in Taiwan). Chang further clarifies, however, that this is not the only strand of feminist thought present in Taiwan, as many would believe: radical feminism, woman-identified, X-centric and individual feminism also exist.

If I took one thing from this book, it's a reminder that Taiwanese society is not so simply categorized as traditional/collective/Confucian/whatever adjective you want to describe your idea about ~*~The Mystic East~*~. It's far more complex than that, and there is a place in public discourse for ideas that don't fit neatly into this narrative.

Chang makes other important points as well: for example, until fairly recently, the story of women's movements in Taiwan was once controlled by a China-centered narrative which began not in Taiwan, but with the founding of the Republic of China in, well, China. Taiwan only enters this narrative after 1945 (you can guess why), with women's history under Japanese rule being erased: non-existent, foreign or irrelevant to the story that the Sinicizers want to push.

Hmm, that sounds similar to Taiwanese national history as a whole, doesn't it? Not so different from teaching schoolchildren that their country was founded in 1911 (nevermind that that happened in China, and nothing important happened in Taiwan on that day) and then erasing Japanese era history in Taiwan to cover the Republic of China's Greatest Hits, Vol. 1 instead, no?

Chang also provides short histories of notable women in the early and mid-twentieth century, and devotes entire chapters to scions of the movement such as Annette Lu and Lee Yuan-chen, showing that the only reason we believe history to be full of notable male characters but few notable women is because we've constructed it that way, not because it always happened that way.

She also discusses the ways in which autonomous women's movements differed from government-affiliated ones. You won't be surprised to learn that the Japanese and ROC-affiliated women's movements promoted not feminism, but the fulfillment of traditional gender roles (shocking, I know.) She covers Soong Mei-ling's use of women's organizations mid-century to work toward national goals with very little concern for the actual issues facing middle-class and poor Taiwanese women.

I was interested to learn about the origin of those "Model Mother Awards" as well (you won't be shocked to learn they began in the worst years of the ROC dictatorship, because doling them out supported national goals), and her touching on the ways in which women's labor helped catalyze the Taiwan Miracle, although I think she could have made that point more forcefully than she did.

And, of course, she covers the ins and outs of elitism in women's movements, the relationship of women's movements to democracy/pro-Taiwan movements, Awakening and the Taipei Women's Rescue Foundation, the cooperation and rift between liberal feminists and lesbians, domestic abuse hotlines and more, finishing up with the ways in which the pioneers of the 1970s were able to really flourish (as well as separate into different groups) with the lifting of Martial Law, and the bevy of women's rights laws that were passed between the mid-1980s and the end of the 20th century.

I have one abiding criticism of Women's Movements in Twentieth-Century Taiwan, which is that it follows a bluer narrative than you would expect. That is not to say it doesn't criticize the KMT, the Republic of China or its leaders (it absolutely does, often viciously and entirely rightly), but that it includes certain problematic historical constructions that if anything are surprising. Here is just a taste (underlined emphasis points are mine):

In 1987, the Kuomintang lifted martial law and ushered in Taiwan's democratization. 

(No, the Kuomintang was forced by the Taiwanese to do that.)

The Dutch colonized the island....the government of the Qing dynasty incorporated Taiwan into the Chinese Empire.

You already know how I feel about this.)

With the defeat of Japan in World War II, the Allies transferred the governance of Taiwan to the Kuomintang government.

(Nope. And the KMT knew this - scroll down).

The Taiwanese duality of both sameness and with difference from mainland China has contributed to the Taiwanese people's unresolved national identity since the 1940s. 

(While identity has absolutely been a core question in Taiwan, the origin of ambiguity in Taiwan's national identity comes from colonial regimes from China - first the Qing, now the ROC - who insist on promoting a Chinese-centered national identity. If they had not pushed that point from their foreign perspectives so forcefully, Taiwanese national identity would not be in question. In fact, these days the question is mostly resolved, but the book was published in 2009 so I can forgive this.)

There are a few more examples, including many jarring uses of that horrible word "mainland", implying a territorial connection that simply isn't there - the current PRC government of China has never ruled Taiwan - but you get the point.

In any case, it was a worthwhile book if you can look beyond the odd blueness of the language used - as engaging as an academic text can be (though a bit heavy on the 'thesis statements' as though someone is grading it), full of lots of knowledge drops. Despite one or two confusing narrations of timeline (I'm still not sure when and why the New Life movement moved away from May Fourth Movement ideals and toward more traditional precepts, and the section on that did not clarify), I learned a lot and am happy I read it.

If you are not already knowledgeable about women's history in Taiwan, I recommend you do, too.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

I read a book and obsessed over Annette Lu

This passage is about Lee Yuan-chen, not Annette Lu, but the point applies regarding how she's been treated.

Add former Vice President Annette Lu (呂秀蓮) to the list of people who vex me. Reading more about her contributions to the feminist movement in Taiwan was the most impactful part of Doris Chang's Women's Movements in Twentieth-Century Taiwan for me, so I'd like to devote a post to talking about that before I drop a more complete review.

The book devotes a long chapter to Lu, who these days has a reputation for being both off-kilter and out-of-touch. It's not hard to see why.

When looking into what people dislike about Lu, I find stories that range from an odd trip to Indonesia as vice president (reported sympathetically in the Taipei Times) to comments on AIDS that many took as blaming gay men for the AIDS crisis as "God's punishment" (and frankly, I have to agree with that interpretation of her meaning) to a confusing proposal for Taiwan's diplomatic neutrality to completely unwarranted attacks on Mayor Ko and last year's Universiade. And, of course, announcing her intention to run for Taipei mayor when she is, frankly, not all that popular and doesn't seem to realize it. And, of course, there's her support of the ill-fated 'independence referendum' which takes so much energy that could be used to combat real threats to a more liberal future for Taiwan, and pours it into a big fat waste of time.

Then there is what I saw myself: She came to the 330 protest to support the 2014 Sunflower Movement (I don't have a link, I'm telling you this because I watched her walk by with my own eyes), despite the movement having little to do with her, and the general feeling that the DPP was trying to capitalize on the movement to build their own support when the Sunflowers themselves were not particularly interested in DPP party politics. Actions like this were a part of why many Taiwanese on the fence about the Sunflowers came to believe they were a DPP plot, when they were nothing of the sort.

Chang, on the other hand, focuses specifically on Lu's activities in the 1970s, and makes it quite clear that Taiwan would not be where it is today vis-a-vis women's equality if not for her. A thread of belief is drawn between her - the first and most prominent Taiwanese feminist of the second half of the twentieth century - and the women's groups of early-20th century Japanese Taiwan, but makes it clear that from a research/scholarship standpoint, there is no evidence that the movement Lu ignited (no, it is not an exaggeration to say so) was directly related to earlier women's rights activities in the country. I do not think it is too much of a stretch to say that perhaps the reason why Taiwan is ahead of the rest of Asia when it comes to women's issues is in large part thanks to her. She didn't do everything - there are many other notable Taiwanese feminists of the 80s and 90s - but she struck the match in the 1970s and that means something. She printed books, founded associations and opened hotlines during a time when one could be arrested or 'watched' for doing so: and she was.

Her feminism was not perfect: she was in favor of ending arranged marriage (still somewhat common in Taiwan even as late as the 1970s) and she herself chose not to marry. She spoke out in favor of women succeeding professionally, as she had done. However, she tried to build support through compromise: not attacking the (wrong) idea that women still had specific duties in the home that should not be done by male family members, with no ideas as to how to ease the 'double burden' this dual set of responsibilities - familial and professional - puts on women. She was not in favor of pre-marital sex (though advocating for not discriminating against those who chose to engage in it). She tried to marry feminism with the idea of Confucian duty, and frankly, it didn't work well for good reasons.

In fact, she came into feminism long before she became a dangwai or pro-independence activist, to the consternation of many of her less party-bound (or simply blue-leaning) feminist peers who felt that the fight for women's equality should not be bound to other political goals (many if not most did not join the dangwai as Lu did).

Her doing so anyway - and suffering for it, having been imprisoned and tortured with other pro-Taiwan activists for her role in the Kaohsiung Incident - could be said to be part of why feminism in Taiwan is now linked to some extent with pro-independence, human rights and other liberal activist movements. It's a logical progression: women's movements supported by the KMT, especially in the White Terror era, were not equality-minded at all but rather promoted the continuation of traditional gender roles and beliefs about gender and duty. It only makes sense that a different set of beliefs about equality would eventually be tied into an anti-KMT, pro-Taiwan platform. Yet without Lu, this might not have happened.

This national amnesia about her contributions to the women's movement means that her current beliefs are often presumed, perhaps unfairly. Some say she opposes marriage equality, but the only source I can find for that are interpretations of the aforementioned AIDS comments. Having been made 15 years ago, I'm not sure that's a strong enough case to interpret her feelings on the issue today. Soon after those comments, she drafted a basic human rights law that included marriage equality, which didn't pass.

Yet, people assume that one (extremely stupid and bigoted, to be true) comment about AIDS represents her entire worldview, which I feel is unfair, and it seems nobody has asked her what she thinks of marriage equality today.

This has led me to believe that perhaps she doesn't get enough credit, even as we acknowledge that she has not represented the zeitgeist for decades and regularly makes groanworthy statements today. It doesn't surprise me: scions of other liberal movements are regularly forgiven for their later missteps - Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins come to mind - but women like Lu? Well, I wonder why they aren't. Why are her past contributions so easily forgotten? If her statement on AIDS, which rightly deserves all of the criticism thrown at it, is used to frame her entire belief system, why is the same not often done for so many male public figures?

I can't help but notice that, while other human rights advocates of her era such as Shih Ming-te are also rightly criticized for their out-of-touch and off-kilter (and often downright insane-sounding) pronouncements today, some are quick to point out that serving time in prison under the KMT dictatorship would drive anyone to be a bit, uh, nutty. Yet few seem to remember that Lu spent over five years as a political prisoner as well. Shih gets the background context for his behavior, Lu just gets eyerolls.

(That said, if I could vote, I would not vote for her for Taipei mayor. She's done a lot, but she would not be a good mayor, period.)

There is still more work to be done: Lu is brushed aside - sometimes rightly so, sometimes perhaps without due consideration of her important contributions to the women's movement - and the slow liberalization of Taiwan chugs along. The southern and older social conservatives who make up much of the DPP's pro-independence supporters are growing old, and will be replaced by younger, more progressive voters. In the here and now, though, these older conservatives still matter, yet we forget that there are people like Lu who began challenging them, however imperfectly, decades ago.

The younger, more liberal generation itself has work to do. As Chang notes in Women's Movements in Twentieth-Century Taiwan:

Due to the male-dominated power structure of Taiwan's democracy movement, the professed ideals of liberty, justice and equality did not necessarily translate into male activists' equal treatment of and respect for female activists. 

This was true when the book was written, and it was true in Lu's time as well. She challenged it, and made it to the vice presidency.

The problem is, it's still true today. Look at the Sunflowers, whose large-scale protest she attended. How many prominent Sunflowers are male? How many are female? How often are male NPP legislators (Freddy Lim, Huang Kuo-chang and Hsu Yung-ming) in the public eye? How often are the female legislators (Kawlo Iyun Pacidal, Hung Tzu-yung) in the public eye?

Despite a great deal of progress having been made, do we really think that today's liberal progressive youth is that much better vis-a-vis women's equality than in Lu's generation?

Because as I see it, Lu understood this before the rest of us did. Maybe she's out-of-touch now, and it is frankly time for her to retire. She is now hindering the movements she once championed. But that doesn't mean we give her enough credit or that we can ignore the ways in which the work she started still is not done.