Showing posts with label womens_history. Show all posts
Showing posts with label womens_history. Show all posts

Friday, July 12, 2019

No, China is not more gender-equal than Taiwan

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I don't have a relevant cover photo so enjoy this picture of an antique shop in Taipei


People often ask me why I've chosen to settle in Taiwan, or why I've stayed here so long but only spent a year in China.

I point out that while I have always found people in China to mostly be friendly and hospitable, the food ridiculously good and culturally and historically it's fascinating, there are a few things I just can't stomach which make it difficult for me to live there. One is political freedom (including practical matters like easily getting online to access the open Internet, or just being able to speak your mind publicly without fear). Another is the pollution. Still another, I say, is sexism.

"Wait, China is more sexist than Taiwan?" is a common reply. "But everyone knows women in Shanghai have more power than men!" But "Mao said that 'women hold up half the sky'"? But "there are more women in STEM fields in China than Taiwan!" And once, memorably - "but it's much easier to get reproductive health care in China!" (In Taiwan both birth control and abortions are available but one isn't covered by national health insurance and the other is somewhat restricted). 

Without denying that these claims are true - except possibly that stereotype about Shanghai - I still say that China is absolutely less gender-equal or even friendly to women than Taiwan. Why?

Let's start here: a few hard numbers.

Taiwan tops Asia in gender equality (meaning it's ranked higher than China), as a higher literacy rate (98% with a 2% gap between men and women as opposed to China's 96.3% with a larger gender gap, if that number can be trusted). The wage gap in China is (likely) around 22%whereas it's around 14.5% in Taiwan. So just by the numbers China is simply not more gender-equal than Taiwan. 


* * *

Yet the arguments persist, so let's take a look at them, starting with the oft-repeated "but Mao said women hold up half the sky!' and 'whatever male comrades can do, women can too!"


He did say those things, though it takes a lot of soft-focus wishful thinking to think that those goals were fully realized, or that they have brought about a contemporary China that is "more" gender-equal than Taiwan.

And it's true that women's participation in the workforce skyrocketed under Mao, with more women doing traditionally masculine jobs. And as universal primary education (which included girls) was a goal of the CCP under Mao, and that goal was eventually met, we can surmise that literacy rates improved as well (on a tight schedule I can't find anything specific about this but it seems to be a safe assumption - and as far as I can tell there isn't any clear gender equality data from that era). However, even then there was great variation in literacy rates. As late as the 1980s, rural and older women sometimes had literacy rates below 3%. And the Marriage Law of 1950 did seek to end concubinage, promote freely-chosen (read: love) marriage and allow divorce (but don't think that's the end of that story).

Beyond that, what you get when you try to defend this position is propaganda-tinged, oversimplified and not wholly justifiable. It is not an obvious conclusion that Mao's reforms would necessarily include gender equality, as Marxism and Leninism are all about eradicating class differences and don't necessarily say anything about the patriarchy as male domination (in fact, the number of self-styled Communist men I've met who are sexist as hell and don't even realize it is...less surprising than you'd think.) In any case, one of the greatest obstacles to setting up Mao's ultimately disastrous 'ideal' was the resistance to ending traditional gender roles.

It's even been argued - and I'd agree - that discourses that have been touted as 'ensuring gender equality' in Communist China were actually used to silence discussions of gender, depoliticize gender as an issue, and make it difficult or impossible to debate or acknowledge gender inequality or advocate for improvements. Rather than make male and female equal, the point was to erase the female. In any case, it's hard to say that the CCP ever really stood behind gender equality when, through its entire rule in China, women have never been at the helm of power. That's not the case in Taiwan.

In fact, by 1953, here's where Mao's China was in relation to gender equality:

...the government realized that the economy could no longer absorb the amount of labor power that it had mobilized. Besides, the implementation of the new
Marriage Law, unlike the Land Law, brought about strong and widespread opposition from male members of the society. Murder and suicide of women who sought to
terminate their marriage reached such a high level that the government decided that collective stability rather than individual freedom, particularly freedom of women, was
now to be given priority.
 
For the next several years, there were more stiff regulations about divorce, and the government advocated women’s domestic duties and the importance of harmonious family life. Campaigns were launched to encourage women to be socialist housewives and model mothers, emphasizing the domestic responsibilities of
women. 

The situation did improve from there, with women brought back into the workforce soon after (though mostly to do work more typically associated with women - think caregiving work, kindergarten teaching etc.) This persisted - discussed in the link above - through the Cultural Revolution. Overall gains can be seen but they were "mixed" and "inconsistent". (From there this source starts to sound like it's trying to prove that Mao-style Communism was better for women than...not that, and that's where I get off that train.)

In any case, looking at the legacy of Mao-era China, it doesn't seem like it's done modern China much good. Female leaders? Nah. Wage equality? As a link in the next part shows....nah. As late as the 1990s, it hadn't put women on truly equal footing in education or employment. Workplace equality remains a massive issue. As of today, women in China are sometimes - perhaps often - treated more like sex objects or a dating market in Chinese workplaces. Education equality? Mostly yes, until you hit the PhD level, which is another way of saying "not entirely". The article gets it just right: being educated (up through Master's level) is a plus in East Asia, and desireable in 'wives' in more affluent circles. Getting a PhD, however? Well then you're just a terrifying, genderless freak who scares men away and clearly doesn't prioritize family and children. (This can be a problem in other countries too - it's not unique to China).

I'm sorry, but I just find the notion that because Mao said a thing one time, that this thing was true of China in his time, or is true of China now.




* * *


Although it's arguably the least meaningful of the arguments listed above, I want to talk about the whole "Superwomen of Shanghai" stereotype next. Even if it were true, one exceptional city doesn't make up for an entire nation of patriarchy. And I have serious doubts that it's true. The marriage market (a literal, physical market) in Shanghai is famous, and filled parents and grandparents trawling for spouses for their offspring. I could accept that as a 'cultural thing', but it's clear that the offspring in question aren't entirely pleased about it: 


"Does your daughter know you're here?" I ask. 
"Yes. But she hates it. She tells me to go on the dates myself. Kids these days hate parental involvement in these matters," Tsai says.

And there's no denying that these marriages are not actually based on people the younger generation might actually want to marry, but something more oriented to the family and their reputation:
Marriage already is such an important part of a Chinese family's reputation but parents these days only have one chance to get their future planned out right.


That too, I could accept if it were a way of doing things that every generation - including the one being married off - had signed on for. But it clearly isn't. While most Chinese women probably do just want to find love and have a family like most people around the world - it's a very human desire - but it seems clear to me that these sorts of tactics (among others) aren't 'traditional' so much as 'last resort' aimed more at fulfilling specific life goals (such as wanting a family) and societal expectations, as well as making older relatives happy than at actually finding love. In any case, I'm not convinced marriage is a good deal for women in most parts of the world, and China is no exception.

(If you're wondering how I can say that as a happily married woman, it's because I happened to get ridiculously lucky. My expectations of a feminist, egalitarian marriage are stratospherically high and the chances of finding a man who'd be on board with them, whom I otherwise loved and loved me back, were actually quite slim.)

So it's hard for me to agree that Shanghai is some beacon of women's equality when one of the most unfeminist events in the world takes place there. Besides, while I've heard that line a lot, it's always been anecdotal and from an 'orientalist' perspective (as this is), not proof of a real trend.  I haven't seen any data to back it up, nor is it clear that any exists. If anything, I've seen the opposite - the gender wage gap may be narrower in Shanghai, but it still exists. There seems to be a lot of talk about how "Shanghai husbands do housework" but no research into whether or not this is actually true.

What there is a lot of, however, is propaganda without any real proof: 





Because come on, it's not like we can trust Global Times, Shanghai Daily or China Daily (I wouldn't trust The Star, which is Malaysian, either.)

It sounds to me like perhaps Shanghai's relatively urban and international culture as compared to the rest of China has maybe (maybe) resulted in a slightly better social contract for women, and that was turned into this whole thing where "in Shanghai, women have it better than men!" because apparently giving women something just a little bit better than utter garbage is equivalent to giving them the sun, moon and stars more making them "superior". And it surely doesn't mean the rest of China is doing particularly well:
The current situation of gender equality can be read with certain global indicators. China’s Gender Development Index is situated in Group 2 out of five groups of countries, and estimates its Gender Gap at 0.945 on a scale of 0 to 1, 0 being the most unequal and 1 the most equal. The female Human Development Index is at 0.718 and the male’s HDI is at 0.753 (United Nations Development Programme, Human Development Reports Table 4: Gender Development Index). Life expectancy and years of schooling roughly reflect the same reasonable difference between Chinese men and women. However, the discrepancy in the estimated gross national income per capita is of no less than 5,125$ (10,705$ for women vs 15,830$ for men). 
This observation hints at the fact that gender equality might have improved in certain areas, while stagnating or perhaps even declining in others, as a result of Post-Mao economic and social reforms.

* * *

"But...there are more female engineers in China than Taiwan!" or "China has a huge number of women in STEM!"

Does it, though?

While I won't defend the male-dominated nature of STEM fields in Taiwan (or most of the world), I can't find any data to support that point, though I feel like I've seen some before. If anyone knows of any such data, please pass it along. In any case, pretty much every source points out that women's participation in STEM in China is actually lower than it should be, and sexism is rampant. China is not listed as a country where women have achieved parity in STEM by the World Economic Forum (and if you think "well they probably just hate China and don't understand it's 5000 years of culture, in a recent crap video they put out they listed Taiwan as "Taiwan, China", so...).

So I'm honestly just not sure this is true, or if it is I can't find any proof.

* * *

As for women and reproductive health, come on. The sources above already detail how historically, the CCP has used women - their bodies, their labor, their roles in society and the family - in whatever way suited them and "the country" (but really just them). That's just as true today. When the needs of the party happened to bear a passing resemblance to feminist objectives of greater gender equality, they latched onto that as a justification for their authoritarian nation-building that Westerners might be sympathetic to. In other words:

China has some of the least restrictive abortion laws in the world, but that has nothing to do with state support for bodily autonomy—it’s because abortion coincided with the government’s desires. Female bodies have always been treated as state property that yielded what the country needed....

Mao Zedong’s famous quote, “Women hold up half the sky,” is often touted by those who cite China’s high female employment rate (reaching its peak in the late 1970s at 90 percent employment for working-age urban women) or number of self-made female billionaires as evidence of significant progress toward gender equality....
But beneath this apparent commitment to empowering women, much of the feminist messaging has always been propaganda more concerned with boosting the labor force than actually promoting women.

This was true in the past and it's still true now. Women's reproductive rights in China follow a similar trajectory.
Meanwhile, the popular narrative has gone from “delayed motherhood is beneficial for women’s health” [the official message in state media when they wanted to convince people of the so-called sensibility of the One Child Policy to meet national goals of controlling the population] to “pregnancy during university improves employment chances in the future.” “Painless abortion” ads were seamlessly replaced by “painless childbirth” ads. Huang Xihua, a National People’s Congress representative who is outspoken on women’s topics, has condemned the high number of abortions that she blames for damaging women’s health, and she has also recommended that the marriage age for women be lowered to 18. All of these narratives are wrapped around the will of the party itself, which is that “giving birth is not only a family matter but also a national issue." 
The new natalism has the old skeleton of state control, molded with fresh flesh. 

When the CCP wants women to have fewer babies, they aim their propaganda cannons that way. When they want them to have more babies (or decrease the labor force while increasing the population), they get pointed another way. It never had anything to do with women's reproductive freedom. How could it have, from a government so blithely unconcerned with the notion of 'freedom' in general? 

The “one child” propaganda of yesteryear is being condemned for “morbid unluckiness” and supplanted by a celebration of traditional family values and natural feminine roles of daughter, wife, and mother. Banners, newspapers, TV shows, industry experts—every available medium is being turned into part of a propaganda machine touting the benefits of giving birth for the nation.

(The rest of that article is fascinating, by the way, and you should read it.)

Don't ever forget - China may have easy access to abortion (for now - do finish reading that article), but that has also led to forced abortions. As you would expect, those who suffer the most from being coerced into abortions are not wealthy, married or Han. They're the poor, unwed, rural or ethnic minorities. The CCP doesn't just want to decide whether people should be having more children or fewer - they want to control who has what they would consider 'high-quality' (affluent, in wedlock, Han) children.

Just try and tell me that this is 'reproductive freedom' in any sense. It's just another way to control female bodies for state benefit.

* * *

I'm not trying to pretend that Taiwan is some sort of utopia for women - it's not. So much needs to be done, from wage equality to fixing reproductive health care (to make it affordable and accessible to all women) to fixing the divorce and adultery laws, and enforcing the gender equality laws that are already in effect. We need to make sure that women actually get access to everything the law affords them. We need to change societal attitudes to be more modern, and this is entirely possible within a Taiwanese context.

But, come on. Let's not pretend that because Mao said a thing about women one time that sounded progressive, that China is doing better than Taiwan. Wage inequality is less severe here. Women are more likely to be literate (by a small margin). Nobody is forcing women to have abortions (though forcing women to bear children they don't want because they can't access abortions is another story). Although parents still meddle in their children's affairs - "the Lins are coming for dinner and their handsome son who is studying to be a doctor will join them! Won't it be nice to meet him? Do wear something nice!" - there aren't news stories about marriage markets full of grandparents that their grandchildren are horrified to hear about.

So please, stop pretending China's beating Taiwan in this regard. It simply is not. 

Sunday, June 2, 2019

The ROC is erasing the history of comfort women's sexual slavery by romanticizing it

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I am reasonably sure that not one of these women is real


Once a year or so, we go to Kinmen for work and then plan an extra day to relax, drive around and do whatever, usually booking a traditional 洋樓 (yánglóu, or 'foreign style mansion', though they don't look terribly 'foreign') for a few nights.

This year, our first stop was the Military Brothel Exhibition Hall in Jinhu township along Qiongjing Road (瓊徑路) - if you want to go there, it's easiest to just plug it into Google Maps. I've been aware of ROC military comfort women for some time (yes, quite a bit like comfort women forced to service the Japanese military in World War II), and that the practice was particularly predominant on Kinmen as it was a major military outpost.

Having felt for some time that the issue of Japanese comfort women, while also important, has been given priority over ROC comfort women with the issue manipulated for political purposes, I wanted to see how this museum portrayed the issue. Did it get anywhere near actually tell the story of women forced into prostitution to 'meet the needs' of ROC soldiers?



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No.

I learned more about the soldiers who went to the brothels, and how the brothels operated on a bureaucratic level, than the women who actually worked in them.

The exhibit, which is in English and Mandarin, hemorrhaged copious reams of verbiage justifying the 'needs' of the soldiers (as above - and this wasn't the only culprit). A huge percentage of the words on the wallboards attempted to convince visitors that these 'teahouses' were necessities of war, because how could our boys on the front line continue to fight without getting their sexual requirements met?

I don't really need convincing that any given group of people (except ace folks) spend a large percentage of their time thinking about, wanting to and trying to get nasty. That's just human. Just about everyone likes to bone down. Fine. And I don't need convincing that sex work is important or necessary - I'm in favor of legalized prostitution, in a system in which the sex workers themselves have power over their work - not a pimp and certainly not a government.

But the exhibit also spent a great deal of time telling you about the different 'tea houses' all over Kinmen and why they existed or how successful they were. You even got to learn about the quality of 'service' at each one and what 'grade' each teahouse was given (which...let me tell you. Forget wanting to work at a 'Grade D' brothel - can you imagine how insulting - and terrifying - it would be for a woman to be assigned to one?)



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Every single thing gets its moment in this exhibit - except for the women. The men and their needs are centered, and there's a lot of description of the humdrum bureaucracy of the brothels. You get to see a replica of the tickets that servicemen were issued, and the rules and regulations they had to follow. There are a lot of pink and purple shades and soft floral patterns - you know, because it's women's stuff - which is an attempt to soften the truth, and was hardly the reality of the matter. The attempted romanticization is more than a little off-putting.

You heard about the women's health checks and other rules concerning their lives - including that they weren't allowed to leave, yeesh - and that they were 'recruited' as 'waiters', are expected to get the impression from this that they chose to ply their trade in Kinmen and that the military took good care of them. You could read - briefly - about how 'bitter' and miserable their lives were in Taiwan proper, trying to convince you yet again that this was a good thing for the women, and everyone was consenting. After reading that, you'll learn how often the women had pap smears, but still nothing at all about who they were as people.

The very brief text that actually discusses the women and their lives uses the phrase 'finding their way to the frontline', as though they journeyed to Kinmen of their own volition.

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Of course, they did not.

In the famous case that caused the 'teahouses' of Kinmen to finally close in the late 1980s, an underaged woman (16) was tricked/forced to go to Kinmen and then, after refusing to engage in sex work, was told she had to do so for several months before she could return to Taiwan (link in Chinese).

I also have it on good authority (and the Taipei Times backs up) that most of these comfort women were not consenting and not taken care of well. Most of them were prostitutes working illegally  (only 'municipal brothel' prostitution was legal) who were caught and essentially forced to work in these 'teahouses', often - as the link above mentions - made to have sex with 60-70 soldiers a day. As I highly doubt they agreed to that many clients, that essentially means they were raped 60-70 times a day.

And someone on the committee that designed this exhibit is aware of this, as you can see:


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Sure, the women were not forced into prostitution as a trade, but if you write 'nor did they willingly go to support one side in a war', you are implicitly sending the message that someone forced them to do so.

That's not consenting - it doesn't matter that they were prostitutes before. You can't force someone to work for you, even if you pay them. That's slavery. The government can't knock on my door and tell me I must teach in a particular government school and then frog-march me to a classroom. This is no different just because it's sex work.

And yet, that one line in one (rather terrible) poem is the only clue that these women were essentially forced to be raped by soldiers six days a week. What's worse, the NewTalk link above describes the attempts of Kinmen-born writer (and I guess politician? It's not clear) Chen Changqing to retcon the history of military prostitution into a consensual industry in which the women were well-cared for despite the preponderance of historical evidence to the contrary.

Beyond that, the exhibition hall does not tell the stories of any of the individual women who worked as military prostitutes, even though many are still alive. One could easily ask them, and many of them would likely want their stories told.

You don't even see pictures - just stylized anime-like airbrushed cartoons of generic beautiful women. They don't actually exist. Even though surely photos of the actual women who worked in these teahouses could be found, and photographs of still-living ones could be taken. I'm sure some of them (though surely not all) would give consent for their images to be used, if exhibited as a part of a well-designed and impactful exhibit. But, of course, nobody asked them.

Much easier to write a few platitudes about 'bitter lives' and place them next to soft-focus cartoon women than to face what your government did to real, actual women.



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I have to wonder why they did it this way. Was it because whoever was in charge of this didn't want to make the ROC government look bad (especially on Kinmen, where the KMT remain popular)? Was it because they - though possibly not the women themselves, given the activism of the women who worked in municipal brothels in Taipei - regard the actual work of such women so shameful that they felt they were doing these women a favor by romanticizing it while keeping the women's actual stories quiet? Was it because the moment you tell the truth of what the government did to these women, it raises the question of compensation? Or was it straight up sexism: did whoever was put in charge of designing this just not even consider that the women's stories mattered?

The government has been much more forthright about the work of Japanese-era comfort women from Taiwan. A museum was created for them, while quietly trying to squash the attempts of ROC-era comfort women to do the same thing, as the links above show. Is this because the Japanese era is in the more distant past, and most of those women have died? Is it because it allows them to blame  Japan, not themselves - blame which can be strategically trotted out for political purposes? Is it because the women forced into sex work in the Japanese era often weren't prostitutes to begin with, so it's less 'shameful'? Or is it perhaps all of these?

In the end, it bothers me not just that this story was told badly, but that politics seems to determine who gets their stories told at all.




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I want to be pleased that the government isn't trying to pretend this part of Taiwan's history never happened. I want to rejoice that they're not trying to bury it as so many governments do to the more unsavory stories of their past.

But I can't - I just can't believe someone thought it was a good idea to set up a 'military brothel exhibition hall' and then spend the whole time justifying the brothels' existence, without even trying to tell any of the honest, true, detailed, human stories of the actual women who worked there.

If nobody is willing to have their story included - which is possible, but I doubt would be the case - then you can at least tell the absolute truth of how the women came to work there and what their lives were actually like beyond a list of 'rules and regulations'.

If there's one thing this exhibit can learn from museums cataloguing horrible things which exist around the world, it's that you don't need to justify the past. You're not fooling anyone. We know that romanticization is just one step removed from erasure. 

It happened, and what matters now is that we look at it squarely and honestly, and whenever possible we try to make it right. The Military Brothel Exhibition Hall does not do that, and all I can suggest is that they take a good, hard look at their first attempt and try to do better. 



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Sunday, March 24, 2019

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

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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.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Sexual assault: Taiwan's great under-reported problem - my latest for Ketagalan Media

My latest piece for Ketagalan Media takes this previous post of mine as a starting point, and investigates an important issue in Taiwanese politics further. In short, it seems as though the reason why there are so few sexual assault scandals in Taiwanese politics is not because they just don't happen, but because if they do, they are likely not reported. On the other hand, in the US, women are beginning to speak out more, but the powers that be just don't care. We're not taken seriously - not even to the point of meriting a real, serious - not a joke of a circus show - investigation. 

Some numbers for you, from the piece: 


The US population in 2015 was 321 million, and reports of sexual assault in the US in 2015 totaled 431,837 (male and female). That indicates a per capita reported assault rate of 0.00134. Taiwan’s population in 2015 was 23,485,755, with 10,454 reports of sexual assault in Taiwan 2015 (gender not specified), for a per capita rate of 0.00044.

This is a massive disparity: even considering differences in population, the US still has a far higher report rate of sexual assault than Taiwan, by a factor of three.

Does it make sense that people in Taiwan are three times less likely to be sexually assaulted than in the US? It is unlikely that there is simply less sexual assault in Taiwan overall (although crime in general is on a down swing and Taiwan remains a very safe country). The picture for comparison is clearer when we look at the gap between estimated sexual assaults and the number reported for the two countries: in the US it’s estimated that about 2/3 of sexual assaults are not reported, or around 70 percent. In Taiwan, it is estimated that the number of actual sexual assaults compared to those reported is seven to ten times higher.

Estimating the actual number of cases, Taiwan’s number of actual assaults per capita is somewhere between 78% to 111% of America’s.


Sources for these numbers are linked to in the piece itself. 

And there's this, a point that cannot be made often enough: 


Having spent twelve years in Taiwan, I have encountered “cultural” excuses for gender-based violence here, generally along the same refrain of “it’s Taiwan’s traditional culture” or an appeal to outdated views of gender which are common across both Asia and the world (one need only look at many American conservative views to see how such sexism plays out in the West). There is no truth to these “cultural” excuses: Taiwan has undergone a seismic shift in how society views gender for several generations, yet culture and traditions in Taiwan, regardless of changing attitudes towards gender and sexual power relations, remains robust. The United States has been evolving in its views on gender since the 19th century, and yet I would argue culture in America remains identifiably “American.”  Cultures can embrace gender egalitarianism and still retain their essence.



Anyway, enjoy! 

Monday, October 1, 2018

Two roads diverged over wood

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From Wikimedia

Since my last post about men behaving badly and the woman-haters who defend them, I've been thinking about Taiwan's specific situation vis-a-vis politics and sexual assault.

Perhaps it is too simplistic to say "America sucks, but in Taiwan, if there is even a whiff of sexual misconduct your political career is finished!" More accurately, one might say that in the US, only in recent decades are people beginning to fully understand what sexual assault means, and are slowly gaining the courage to point fingers at powerful men (the assailants are almost always male).

In Taiwan, however, it is simply less likely that sexual assault will be reported. I did a little back-of-the-envelope number crunching for 2015 (I have statistics for Taiwan 2017, but had trouble finding specific information on sexual assaults in Taiwan for 2016, the last year that data seems to be available in the US. So, 2015 it is.)

US population in 2015: 321 million
Reports of sexual assault in the US in 2015: 431,837 (male and female)
Per capita: .00134

Taiwan population in 2015: 23,485,755
Reports of sexual assault in Taiwan 2015 (gender not specified so I assume both): 10,454
Per capita: .00044

That's a huge difference - considering differences in population, the US still has a higher report rate of sexual assault than Taiwan.

I highly doubt that there is just less sexual assault in Taiwan, and that's why there are so many fewer reports. In the US it's estimated that about 2/3 of sexual assaults are not reported, or 70-some-odd percent. In Taiwan, it is estimated that the number of actual sexual assaults c.f. those reported is seven to ten times higher. We also know that domestic abuse is a massive problem in Taiwan, and dare I conjecture that domestic violence and sexual assault share enough characteristics (they are both about power and control, they both disproportionately affect women, they both generally stem from misogyny or a sense of entitlement over women's bodies) that where there's a lot of one, there is probably a fair amount of the other? I do dare - and low report rates of both likely have some connection to the way the Taiwanese judicial system is likely to treat women who report, not to mention cultural stigma surrounding reporting gender-based violence and the "defamation" lawsuits women who make allegations but don't wish to press charges may face.

Taking that further, it's hard to imagine that Taiwanese politicians somehow commit sexual assault at a lower rate than the general population (a rate that is much higher than statistics would lead one to believe), especially given the relationship between violence - including sexual assault - and power. I suppose once in office, some of them might realize that committing such a crime would ruin their career irreparably, but it would be silly to think that such selfish (because such a realization is not really about respect for women) reflection would extend back to their youth.

Considering that Lien Chan is widely believed to have committed domestic abuse (frankly, I find it more than likely that the allegations are true), and the penchant of Taiwanese politicians - or pretty much all Taiwanese men in positions of power - to visit 酒店 or hostess bars, it just seems unlikely that Taiwan's public figures have clean histories regarding women.

Rather, it seems a lot more obvious to me that sexual assault by Taiwanese public figures before or after they take office go unreported - or are shut down before fingers are publicly pointed at identifiable people - rather than that they don't happen.

What this means is that Taiwan may not, in fact, be much better than the United States in this regard. In the US, women feel increasingly willing to hold powerful men to account, publicly, for their misdeeds. The vast majority of the time, these women are telling the truth - research shows that, to the best of our knowledge, only 2-6% of sexual violence accusations are false. Culture is changing in the US, both in ways that can be felt (certainly, as a child of the 1980s, I can say that this culture shift is real), in ways that can be researched, and in ways we can document. Even looking at the Wikipedia entry for sex scandals of federal elected politicians, there has been an uptick as the years go on - almost certainly because women are more likely to step forward now.

Taiwan doesn't seem to have gone through that transformation yet. It's not that sexual assault is considered acceptable here - it's certainly not - it's that ideas of what constitutes sexual assault here sometimes (not always, but sometimes) feel like they're straight out of the 1980s, and the stigma surrounding reporting seeming more like what my mother and grandmother might have faced, rather than me. I mean, this is a country where raping a domestic employee once doesn't bar you from hiring another one after a period of time.

But, there's an entrenched feeling that those in power still just don't care. In the US, Dr. Blasey Ford's testimony against a screaming, weeping Brett Kavanaugh is considered by experts - and basically every woman who has had something like this happen to her, which is a huge number of us - to be credible, there's a fair chance he'll still make it to the Supreme Court. The same thing happened in 1991 with Anita Hill. We know that the President of the United States is unfaithful to his wife, and there are 22 sexual assault allegations against him as of today (20 as of when this was written - included here as it's a better source). Yet, he gets to be president, and his supporters either defend him, or are willing to believe that that many women are lying. (I, personally, think it's so obvious that Trump is a sexual abuser and possibly a rapist that I find it astounding someone might think otherwise.) Every few years, it's a massive battle to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act.

So, great, we can speak out now and someone might actually listen, but it still has ruinous effects on the women - hurting careers, exposing them to more trauma and harassment - and hasn't made much of an impact on the political machine, or sexual assault rates in general.

In Taiwan, if you manage to publicly accuse a political figure of sexual assault - overcoming all of the pressure not to do so and knowing you'll likely be torn apart in the gossip rags and forums full of angry young dudes (have you seen PTT? Jesus) - and people actually listen to you, great, his career will be over.

But good luck getting to that point.

Alright then - two roads diverged, but they're really worn about equally the same.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Every single woman has feared for their life around a man - in Taiwan, or anywhere.

Hold up while I relate two personal stories in service of a larger point.

Years ago, before I married, I went out on a date. I didn't know the guy very well, but felt relatively safe meeting him in public. As I often did, I planned a later meet-up with friends so there'd be a clear end-time to the date, no matter how well we got along.

Conversation flowed, there was maybe a small spark - but I hadn't liked the somewhat insistent way he'd asked for the date (yet was too young to know that really ought to mean an immediate rejection). Despite myself, I kind of liked him and thought I'd see him again, even though I knew straightaway our life goals were not compatible (I was going to be returning to Asia at some point in the middle future; he was Asian, but had no interest in this.)

I was young and stupid enough to think it would be safe to take him up on the offer to drive me to my meet-up with friends rather than taking the Metro and being a little late.

He drove a little too fast through DC. I was about to say something when he started asking me which streets we were passing and where he should stop, and I couldn't answer him because he was going so fast I couldn't read the street signs. I said as much and he snapped at me: I don't remember what he said, because I was so taken aback with how suddenly his personality had turned, and how inappropriate it was to snap at someone for that reason. He asked me again which street we'd passed, I said again that I didn't know because he was driving too fast for me to read. He sped up and snapped at me again for 'telling him how to drive', at which point I finally found my voice again, and said "stop here", even though we weren't there yet.

He didn't. He went even faster. I said, 'if you don't stop now I'm getting out at the next red light'. I almost added '...and calling the cops', though I knew it wouldn't have done any good. He came to an abrupt halt and waved me out of the car without a word.

I was still several blocks from my destination, but I felt like my life depended on my not being in that car anymore. Later he sent me a text message calling me a 'psycho bitch', and of course I never contacted or saw him again.

It wouldn't be the last time I was attacked for criticizing, disagreeing or rejecting a man, however. Not long after that I met a guy at a bar. He was visiting from a city a few hours away, but after a few effervescent chat sessions, he said he'd be back in town one weekend. Two days before, I was about to buy us tickets to something and told him so, when he said in fact he'd decided he wasn't coming, because he should attend a job fair in his own city. When I decided I just didn't want to deal with that kind of distance dating - the kind where you don't even know the person well and never know if travel plans will be scuppered at the last minute - I said as much, that it wasn't about him, and maybe the next time one of us happened to be in the other's city we could meet as friends but we would not be dating.

Cue a long tirade about how I was a stupid fat slut psycho bitch (oh, there's those words again! I know this song!) who obviously has serious mental issues and will always be alone because I'm such a slutty fat bitch psycho (I guess his vocabulary wasn't as impressive as I was looking for in a partner anyway). Blah blah blah, bitch slut psycho fat, yadda yadda, mental problems slutty bitch fat psycho, fat mental psycho problems bitch...you know, like magnetic poetry for assholes.

I wonder if men have figured out that these words literally do not mean anything to women anymore, because their illocutionary force is merely men wanting us to know that we should never disagree, criticize or reject them for any reason. "Fat" doesn't mean "a doctor would say you are overweight". "Psycho" doesn't mean "I am genuinely concerned about your mental health". "Bitch" doesn't mean anything at all. They all mean "you criticized me and I don't like that waah."

That second guy was nothing: just words on a screen. I didn't even read most of them. The first one, though? He could have refused to stop the car. He could have grabbed my phone if I'd tried to call 911. He could have killed me. He'd probably be infuriated to hear me say that, but from my perspective, he could have. 

What's the difference between him and a guy who actually kills a woman for rejecting him?

Not as much as you'd like to think.

And what turns the man who is just words on a screen into the man who won't let a woman out of his speeding car? Not a lot.

What turns other exes (not just dates) of mine, who probably wouldn't even admit their sexism was a part of what broke us up, from casually sexist remarks into the kind of guy who does either of those things? Again, not much. 

So, when I read about a wave of murders in Taiwan by men against women (more now than when this story came out) - many of which are over women rejecting men - I do agree wholeheartedly that the issue is the normalization of violence in Taiwanese (and frankly, every) society. However, I don't immediately jump to "it's the media" or even that there are dissectable, removable, examinable 'causes' or 'roots' in society that can be excised while keeping society otherwise intact.

It's a whole system of beliefs that starts with very mild behavior - men talking over women, interrupting them, attacking them for speaking out, trying to tear them down when they stand publicly for a privilege and sense of entitlement many men don't realize they have. This escalates to acting as though they have primary decision-making powers in a relationship and can "allow" a woman to do or not do something, to that same sentiment in a family (that a male family member can "allow" a female one to do something or not), to controlling/manipulative behavior, to violence right up to murder.

Violence, then, isn't normalized in Taiwanese - and every - society. The whole spectrum of this type of men's behavior is. In this way, I agree with New Bloom: it's intrinsic to toxic masculinity. Not all masculinity is toxic - my husband and male friends are plenty masculine without ever acting like this, and it is possible to raise boys into men who don't act this way - but it is normalized as male behavior for a vast swath, if not the majority, of men. The vast majority of men are not murderers, but this behavior is on one end of a spectrum with a very deadly other end. And it's so normal that women who want something better spend ages dating man after man who displays some of the milder behavior, often to simply compromise and stick with a guy who is only kind of mansplainy or kind of talks over her, or is nice to her but kind of an asshole to other women.

And every man who lets other men get away with it, or holds women to far higher standards than he does other men, is a part of the problem. 

(I am sure some dipclown is going to distort this argument into "mansplaining = murder!", but that is of course not what I mean. Let me make that clear now, although it won't matter to the trolls.)

What I'm trying to say is, the media in Taiwan is sexist, but their so-called 'reporting' and other commentary isn't what drives this. Sexism in society drives sexist media. It's the other way around. People watch because it's that combination of unacceptable yet already normalized - they don't normalize it because of what they watch.

And the 'wave' of murders...I'm not even sure it's really a wave. Men murdering women seems to have been a pretty regular thing in Taiwan in the past: the only difference I really see now is that people are talking about it more, and the stories get a little more airtime. (In this way it reminds me of India: everyone seems to think India is dangerous "now". But frankly, the crimes which make international news now don't seem to point to an actual uptick in violence against women, though I wouldn't be surprised, with the sweep of male entitlement that seems to always ride along with voting in a religious fundamentalist/nationalist government like the BJP - or Republicans in the US - if there actually was one. It just seems like problems that have always been there in India are finally getting more media time, and more discussion.)

Although Taiwanese media has many, many (many) problems and faults, and media coverage in Taiwan is without a doubt sexist, that society is discussing these types of murders more - and they are getting more media time - in Taiwan isn't one of them.

And we can't just 'find the root causes' of male-on-female violence in Taiwanese society and reflect on them, as though they can be destroyed as something separate from the whole. They are the whole, and trying to cut a surgical incision that takes out only the violence won't work.

That will still leave all the men who shut women out, who talk over them, who are so sensitive that they can neither bear to be criticized by a woman nor criticized in any way that implies, despite being otherwise good men, that they, too, carry some of these traits. It leaves all the ones who write mental fat psycho problems bitch slut slutty bitch problems fat slut bitch psycho mental (or whatever) to women who reject them, who won't let them out of cars, who follow them home and wait outside their apartments for them (as happened to a friend of mine in Taiwan).

In short, it requires upheaval of an entire social order.

I could go in here about patriarchal blah-blah Confucian society blah-blah Asian Beliefs blah-blah-whatever, but I won't. It wasn't that long ago that Western nations had just as much patriarchy, if not more so, and in many cases they haven't actually improved far beyond Taiwan. In my mother's own lifetime birth control was difficult to get in the US, let alone an abortion. Hell, a bank account in a woman's own name was hard to get, let alone a credit line! Marital rape was legal in the US until frighteningly recently. It wasn't that long ago that domestic violence was not necessarily grounds for divorce. Let's not pretend we are somehow perfect or untainted.

So I don't mean to dump only on Taiwan - this is a global problem, and the night I feared for my life was in the US (I have feared for my life on other occasions - notably, once, in India - but they weren't the result of a date gone wrong or my 'rejecting' a man). And I don't mean to say that all of Taiwanese culture must change to fit my Feminazi SJW Penis-Mutilating Manhater Agenda. A pretty awesome Taiwanese society - or any society - can be re-imagined and move forward on more egalitarian foundations.

But first, we have to admit to ourselves that the current foundations are rotten, and always have been.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Book Review: Lord of Formosa

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It is a pleasure for a work of historical fiction to come out on an area of history I am particularly interested in (Taiwan, obviously). It is an even greater pleasure when that work of historical fiction is not only engaging, but generally accurate. Joyce Bergvelt's Lord of Formosa has earned both of these adjectives.

Lord of Formosa is essentially a biography of Koxinga (國姓爺 or 鄭成功), the 17th-century scholar/pirate/businessman/military leader/talented crazy dude, from his early life on the Japanese island of Hirado (off Nagasaki) with his Japanese mother, Tagawa Matsu to his upbringing at his father Zheng Zhilong's (鄭芝龍) estate in Fujian, followed by his rise as one of the most talented loyalist military leaders resisting the encroaching Manchu (Qing) conquerers to his conquest of the Dutch colony on Taiwan. It's interspersed with viewpoint chapters from the Dutch colonial officers as well as Koxinga's parents.

It tells the story, in short, of a man given the Imperial Surname (國姓爺) by a dying empire, a man given the title 'Success' (成功) who was, in the end, not all that successful.

The story itself is somewhat tragic: Koxinga fulfills what the novel depicts as his 'destiny' but pays for it dearly. He has to choose between remaining loyal to the collapsing Ming dynasty or to his father, and watches the devastation of his family at the hands of the Qing.

"He literally died of a broken heart," an acquaintance of mine noted.

But no, to hear historians tell it, he probably died of syphilis.

In this way, the thick novel is cinematic in scope, at times reading like a biopic. It would make an excellent film, and I can only hope someone will pick up the rights and do just that (as long as it's not a Chinese company hoping to use it as a propaganda vehicle for their government's aggressive territorial expansionism).

From the beginning, I was interested in how accurate Lord of Formosa really was. So, just after reading it, I picked up Tonio Andrade's Lost Colony, figuring it would be a good nonfiction counterpoint. I'm partway through that book now, and am surprised more by how much is accurate than the small details which are spun with more artistic license.

However, this isn't even the highlight of the book: the best part is simply how much fun it is to read. Despite being extremely busy, I read Lord of Formosa in three days, staying up late one evening to finish it. You know a book is good when it's 3am and you know you aren't going to get enough rest that night, but you just keep going because sleep won't happen anyway.

I also appreciated how forthright Bergvelt is with her characters' flaws. Zheng Zhilong is, to be frank, a total douchehole both in terms of his defection to the Qing and his treatment of his first wife. If his son Koxinga was any kind of hero, he was a deeply flawed one: often cruel and despotic, suffering from fits of uncontrollable rage which might have been brought about by the aforementioned syphilis. Of course, the syphilis would have been brought about by all the mostly-nonconsensual sex he was having.

What I'm trying to say is that Koxinga might have been brilliant, but he was also super rapey.

His regretting it later (in the novel's telling) doesn't change that. Oh, and like father, like son.

In fact, that Bergvelt successfully created a story that includes a variety of relevant, realistic female voices - not all of them kind, pure-hearted heroic martyrs - in a story and era that is so deeply, unrepentantly penis-driven (my masts are bigger than your masts - let us do naval warfare!) is a literary feat. While she could have done more with the housekeeper, Lady Yan and Koxinga's wife Cuiying, she does enough to show that behind every story of dueling dicks, there are women who also drive the plot. And yet, she doesn't shy away from exactly how those women are treated.

The Dutch, who are portrayed not entirely unsympathetically, still come across as stupid - not really understanding Asia or the goings-on in the colonies they ruled - as well as greedy and racist. This was historically accurate: they did consider Chinese men to be 'effeminate', not a fighting force that could vanquish their (smaller) military might. That's racist. They didn't care nearly as much about the welfare of the people on Formosa, be they indigenous or Hoklo, as they did their profits. This is not only historically accurate, but also racist. 

On the other hand, Koxinga was kind of racist too - believing he had the right to take Taiwan because most residents by that time were Chinese (mostly brought over as laborers by the Dutch, who worked them like serfs) and therefore Taiwan ought to be a part of China, is just a different way to be racist. He didn't 'liberate' Taiwan from colonizers - he was just another kind of colonizer.

If I have any criticism of Lord of Formosa, it's that that point could have been made more forcefully.

Bergvelt takes a few artistic liberties. There was a fortune-teller in Japan who was more of a plot device than real character. I'm not sure how many of the Hoklo characters on Formosa were real people (though at least two - Guo Huai-yi and He [Ting]-bin certainly are). It is not clear how Tagawa Matsu died, although Bergvelt's telling of it is plausible, or even likely. Koxinga is depicted as growing less rapey over time (but still, again, super rapey) due to the effect his mother's death has on him. I'm not sure this would have played out in quite that way in real life - more likely, he was incapable of comprehending that the sex he unilaterally decided to have with women who didn't resist per se but also didn't consent is just as rapey as what Qing soldiers were doing. In other words, he didn't stop being rapey - he was just another kind of rapist.

That said, Bergvelt is a talented writer, understanding seemingly innately where to hew to historical accuracy and where to apply a bit of soft focus or streamlining. The story moves forward when it needs to (although I would have liked to have seen more of Koxinga's childhood in China) and lingers where it needs to.

Whether you are into historical fiction, want an engaging read of a period of Taiwanese history in particular, or just like a good novel, I strongly recommend it.