Embracing Diversity: A Path to SEA Democracy, Gender Justice, and Decolonial Feminism

In this explainer, we summarise the findings previously explored in publications on gender justice and democracy in Southeast Asia. Reflecting on our research journey, we delve into the concept and practices of “learning from other resisters”, a term closely associated with decolonial feminism — a spirit that permeates our entire research. By learning from other resisters, we can understand as well as embrace the diversity of our backgrounds, methods, and thoughts, ultimately strengthening our solidarity to achieve an inclusive democracy.

This is the concluding explainer in New Naratif’s first series of publications exploring Southeast Asian democracy through the lens of feminist, gender rights, and regional human rights activists. The report introducing this SOGIESC-informed Democratic Participation Research can be found here, while our first, second, and third explainers are also already available.

Growing up in Bali, Indonesia, my interest in women’s issues and gender justice stemmed from observing the daily lives of my parents and the women in my family. The patrilineal structure of Balinese society influences many aspects of life, including but not limited to social structure, customs, and welfare systems. I witnessed how Balinese women shoulder a triple burden, managing reproductive and domestic tasks, pursuing income-generating work, and adhering to customary responsibilities. These roles are not mere tasks; they are perceived as integral to women’s identities. They have roots in customary laws known as awig-awig – which earn deep respect and compliance from Balinese society. As a result, paving the way for gender justice once seemed impossible to me.

To this day, I often find myself grappling with a profound sense of helplessness in the face of entrenched patriarchy. Finding a way out seems challenging knowing that the issues at hand are deeply structural and systemic. Realising that any knowledge is highly contextual and situated, however, I continuously attempt to critically examine my perception and knowledge of gender justice in the Balinese context. As the American scholar Donna Haraway (1988, p.590) said, “The only way to find a larger vision is to be somewhere in particular.” I need to get out of my head, to engage with people, and to learn from their stories. How do other women perceive justice? What concerns them? 

Therefore, in my research practices, I strive to apply what Palestinian-American anthropologist Abu-Lughod (1991, p.153) calls an “ethnography of the particular”, focusing on the intricate life stories and personal connections of individuals in their specific contexts. This allows me to cautiously explore grand concepts like “justice” while giving priority to the narratives of those I engage with.

I employed this same cautious approach in developing the first series of SOGIESC-informed Democratic Participation research. While not adopting a full ethnographic framework, I was committed to embracing the diversity of responses and to understanding the context of each of my research participants. While precision may have eluded me in synthesising concepts of gender justice and democracy in the region, I constantly reflected on the unique complexities shaping participants’ perspectives. 

My research process has revealed that the feeling of helplessness was not uniquely felt by me; it resonated with almost all of the activists I engaged with. Yet, amidst this helplessness, we continue to resist; I with my research, and they with their own methods.

The SOGIESC-informed Democratic Participation research project aimed to explore Southeast Asian democracy from the perspective of feminist and gender justice activists in the region. From September 2022 to October 2023, we conversed with fourteen feminist and gender justice activists in seven Southeast Asian countries: Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, and the Philippines. We also held one focus group discussion with four activists (FGD1), and one community peer review with five participants (CPR1). By studying existing and potential movements in Southeast Asia, we hoped to understand how we can strengthen democratic movements and radical emancipatory politics in the region. In this series, we have published one introductory report and three explainers.

From the introductory report written thoughtfully by Thet Wai, we have learned the history of the systematic marginalisation of women in Myanmar, the state of democracy in Myanmar, and the feminist strategies of Burmese activists. These revelations then led us to converse with activists from other Southeast Asian countries, to better understand the structural and systemic factors hindering democracy in these countries.

From our conversations, we identified three common factors. Discussed extensively in Explainer 1, they are:

  1. Laws that are founded on heteronormative values which hinder citizens from exercising their rights, especially gender rights.
  2. Repressive laws that pose threats to freedom of expression. These hinder activists and the general public from speaking out against the situation about gender rights and democracy.
  3. Religious fundamentalism within governments. There is a tendency for authorities to monopolise the interpretation of sacred religious texts, shaping them as ideologies to reinforce patriarchal structures. 

In Explainer 2, we expounded on other challenges to advancing gender justice in the region. For example, the prevalence–and even normalisation–of sexual and gender-based violence cases remain some of the biggest hurdles. Furthermore, exclusionary practices and male domination within activist spaces and governments continue to persist. These realisations led us to explore how activists perceive feminism, culminating in our own working definition of Southeast Asian feminism.

Lastly, in Explainer 3 we assessed the potential of transnational movements for gender justice to dismantle the colonial, capitalist heteropatriarchy. We delved into the possibility of facilitating transnational movement-building by looking at the advantages and challenges of such movements. We also offered recommendations on how to build and strengthen them, emphasising the spirit of intersectionality and the importance of celebrating any progress made. 

The Importance of Gender Justice for A Healthy Democracy

While in previous explainers we delved into the specific encounters of gender justice activists, in this concluding explainer we attempt to situate these experiences within broader discussions surrounding democracy and democratic practices. It serves as a reminder that gender justice is crucial to a healthy and inclusive democracy. 

First, what is democracy? In a democracy, power rests in the hands of the people. This means that decisions are often made by the majority. Nevertheless, as Thum Ping Tjin writes in “Majority Rules, Minority Rights” (2023), part of the Principles of Democracy series, such a system works only when there is sufficient protection for minorities. Thum goes on to highlight the difficulties of respecting majority rule while maintaining minority rights, especially in Southeast Asia with its vast linguistic, ethnic, and religious diversity. In such a context, creating an inclusive democracy is easy to imagine, but hard to implement.

Thus, the first step to achieving an inclusive democracy is to acknowledge our differences. True representation occurs on an individual level, rather than being based on religious, ethnic, or other identity markers (Thum, 2023): “Only by seeking to treat each and every single person as unique and equally deserving of dignity and respect, can we truly protect minority rights, for ultimately, we are all minorities.” Of course, this includes people of different sexual orientations, gender identities, gender expressions, and sex characteristics.

While ideally, democracy should strive towards inclusivity, our conversations with feminists and gender justice activists have shed light on the reality that gender justice remains elusive within democratic systems. This discrepancy arises from a multitude of factors deeply ingrained within societal frameworks.

The struggle for gender justice is also part of a wider problem we have observed, in which Southeast Asian democracies still chiefly serve the existing political and capitalist elite. As the Indonesia feminist N10 puts it, for example, “Democracy ought to be the best system as it values equality, but in fact, oligarchy makes it challenging to actualise it.” We thus perceive this research as an effort to prevent democracy from being exclusive to elite socioeconomic classes and those in power — mostly consisting of men (Wai, 2023, p.9). 

Having established why gender justice is imperative in democracy, let us venture into the question of what a democracy that promotes gender justice looks like. N3, a Burmese activist whose work is about decriminalising sex workers, stated that in democracy, all of us including the government must not discriminate against people, and should view every person as an individual. This point was later emphasised by N7, an activist championing Burmese women’s political rights and participation: 

“Listening to the voices of the public and recognising that power belongs to the people are fundamental principles of democracy. Elected officials are meant to serve the public with goodwill and without discrimination.”

According to N11, an advocate for LGBTQIA+ rights in Laos, LGBTQIA+ rights movements are important elements in the roadmap to a democratic society. However, as discussed in Explainer 1 and 2, gender minorities still find it very difficult to participate in democracies. N12, a queer feminist in Malaysia, for instance, relayed how queer Malaysians do not feel free and safe in their own country. “The lesser evil is still evil, too evil. Queer people don’t see themselves being part of the state or being able to participate in the state processes and even they don’t feel like they’re part of anything.” N12 added that this has resulted in a lack of sense of belonging to Malaysia, leading many queers to want to migrate or seek asylum elsewhere.

While representation of minority voices is an important aspect of inclusive democracy, we found that male domination persisted within government and activist spaces despite increasing efforts to encourage women’s political participation. Thus, combating this issue requires a more holistic approach to representation. We must remember that the state can cunningly embrace gender representation to maintain an appearance of progressiveness, while continuing to oppress minorities through its laws and policies. Nevertheless, this does not imply that representation in democratic spaces becomes meaningless. N13, an Indonesian queer archivist, emphasised that democracy ideally transcends mere majority rule. Women and individuals of marginalised genders should not only have the opportunity to vote but also serve as elected representatives. “I hope in the future in Indonesia, there will be numerous places where people, including women, trans individuals, and queers, can serve as representatives for their communities at the government level, all while upholding a sound gender perspective,” he added.

This sentiment brings to mind the story of Hendrika Mayora Kelan, the first known transgender Indonesian to ever hold public office. She works in the consultative body of Habi Village, Sikka Regency, East Nusa Tenggara. Going through a life journey filled with discrimination and hatred from her community, “Bunda Mayora” (Mother Mayora), as she is affectionately known as, was urged by the mothers in her village community to run for the election. Her unwavering advocacy for transgender rights and active involvement in village church activities have garnered respect far and wide. She serves as an inspiration, proving there is still hope in democracy; Her story serves as proof that a trans woman and other marginalised genders can aspire to anything she desires. However, we need to also remember that Mayora’s experience is not the norm. As explored by Asia Pacific Transgender Network and UNDP’s report (2018), most transgender people still face discrimination and a lack of equal employment opportunities.

Gender justice is about achieving full equality and equity among women, men, and LGBTQIA+ people in all aspects of life. This entails enabling each individual, regardless of gender identity, to define and shape policies, structures, and decisions that impact their lives and society at large. It necessitates equal rights, access, control, and benefits in all public policies. This closely aligns with the fundamental values of democracy – a true democracy is both inclusive and egalitarian. This is the democracy we strive for and are currently advocating for together.

Learning from Other Resisters

Through this research process, I too have been learning a lot. It allowed me to decentre my knowledge because I centred the people, honouring their experiences and taking them as valid knowledge. I helped to bridge activists’ statements and weaved them into research explainers, but fundamentally, this research has been built upon their own perspectives on the issue of democracy and gender justice. This aligns with the essence of the decolonial feminism project, described by Indonesian feminist scholar Intan Paramaditha (2022, p.36) in her article “Radicalising ‘Learning From Other Resisters’ in Decolonial Feminism”. Decolonial feminism avoids centering on a singular, dominant, and all-encompassing knowledge, interpreting feminism rather as “an unfinished project, an orientation rather than a finite, stable place.”

The methodology I employed in this research also aligns closely with Argentinian feminist scholar María Lugones’ methods of working towards decolonial feminism, proposed in her seminal article “Toward a Decolonial Feminism” (2010). By listening to, acknowledging, and learning from other fellow resisters of the colonial, capitalist heteropatriarchy, we can identify both our differences and potential ways of building solidarity. In this way, we will no longer perceive our oppression as something purely universal.

Learning from other resisters, as suggested by Lugones and refined by Paramaditha, is a fundamental aspect of building an inclusive democracy with an emphasis on gender justice. Reflecting on my experiences throughout this research project, I will distill four key points that may serve as references for learning from other resisters. The overarching idea is that the spirit of decolonisation involves recentering both people and their knowledge and learning from it.

  1. Acknowledge our state of work

To learn from other resisters, the first and foremost step is to understand our own capabilities. What do we know? What don’t we know? What steps must we take to gain deeper knowledge? Are we ready to do the learning? 

Acknowledging that we have made our best efforts while recognising that there are always gaps to fill in our learning can foster humility in the learning process. By understanding our readiness, we can determine how far we can progress and how much more ground we can cover if we undertake this journey together. As Paramaditha (2022, p.37) stated, “decolonial feminism must begin with critical inquiries about our capacity to work… as well as the implications of the connections we create with others.”

  1. Be ready to make mistakes 

Learning is an experimental process where mistakes are inevitable. In our endeavour to learn from other resisters, it is essential to own these mistakes. Acknowledging our present errors and the possibility of creating errors in the future is vital. We need to be ready to take the pain of these mistakes and navigate the friction between our ideas and those of other resisters. This dynamic approach ensures that our learning process remains open and safe for everyone. There is no obligation to always be right when our collective learning aims to discover effective ways to confront this massive and systemic oppression. As the French feminist scholar Françoise Vergès said, the struggle will “…bring difficulties, tenons, and frustrations, but also joy and gaiety, discovery and expansion of the world” (2021, p.20).

  1. Understand that we are not walking a singular path

This research project represents an effort to highlight the diversity in our tactics for resistance within the context of Southeast Asia. Our participants engage with various groups, some of which are peasant women, sex workers, and indigenous communities. They undertake many different types of activities, such as creating queer archives, establishing gender-based violence hotlines, and disseminating feminist knowledge through social media. Some work at the grassroots level for environmental justice, while others collaborate with urban middle-class communities to promote class awareness. Others strive to change public policy for greater inclusivity, particularly for LGBTQIA+ individuals.

In our endeavour to learn from other resisters, we must acknowledge that we resist together in different ways. The paths we choose and the goals we pursue may differ. However, we must also recognise the interconnectedness between our diverse paths and goals.

We cannot rely solely on one framework; there is no single way, theory, or movement that can save us all. Learning to diversify our tactics is crucial for building a meaningful, inclusive democracy. Engaging with other resisters is another integral part of this process.

  1. Believe that we are all interconnected and feminism is intersectional!

Experiences of women and marginalised genders individuals are inherently intersectional. This research, for example, showed that many encounter constraints in expressing themselves safely due to their gender. These limitations affected their access to employment, education, healthcare services, and more. The limitations faced are also determined by factors such as class, race, and/or religion. This goes to show that while we all experience sexual and gender-based oppression, it does not impact us in the same way or to the same degree.

Learning from other resisters can enhance our empathy by recognising that not only do we experience gender-based oppression in varying degrees, but also understanding the interconnectedness of one factor with another that shapes how oppression is experienced. Consequently, resisting heteropatriarchy requires addressing not only  gender dimension but also a spectrum of other issues — colonialism, class, race, religion, economics, education, health, environment, politics, and more. That is why feminism is intersectional at heart. We cannot discuss gender without acknowledging other pertinent issues, and vice versa, as everything is intricately interconnected. Learning from other resisters will help us discover and even construct bridges to solve such issues simultaneously.

Redefining Feminist Solidarity Through Diversity

Learning from other resisters is an integral part of solidarity as it fosters understanding, empathy, collaboration, and a shared commitment to addressing structural and systemic issues. The solidarity we aspire to, as articulated by postcolonial feminist scholar Chandra Talpade Mohanty (2003, p.7), is rooted in “mutuality, accountability, and the recognition of common interests as the basis for relationships among diverse communities.” The practice of solidarity, in alignment with the spirit towards decolonial feminism, emphasises a willingness to work and fight collectively. While the commonality of oppression plays a role in shaping solidarity, it is essential to acknowledge and respect differences to strengthen this unity. 

Through this research, I have had the privilege of hearing the narratives of over twenty activists with diverse backgrounds. Their diversity goes beyond the geographical and socio-political-economic contexts of their respective countries; they extend to the specific communities they serve, the methods they employ, and the unique motivations behind their actions. Nevertheless, much like myself, they recognise that their struggles are collective struggles that cannot be tackled with a one-size-fits-all approach. Acknowledging and understanding these differences becomes essential to enrich our strategies. It also forms the foundation for collaborative efforts to bridge diverse perspectives. 

Of course, it is important to note that such differences do not naturally inspire solidarity. Often, movements fracture or dissolve due to internal disparities. As explained in Explainer 2, differing perceptions of feminism and differing strategies of advocacy can inadvertently lead to even more marginalisation. Thus, how we encounter our differences and how we choose to work through them matters.

This diversity in understanding feminism also enhances our research. They help us identify gaps in our knowledge so we can work to bridge them, strengthening our efforts. Additionally, the varied experiences of activists in response to social, political, and cultural conditions in their respective countries offer valuable insights into the progress of our democratic processes. Our research participants, for example, work with a wide range of communities including grassroots organizations, urban upper- and middle-class communities, indigenous groups, government officials, human rights lawyers, sex workers, and more. The wealth of information they provide not only enriches our research, but it serves as proof that the pursuit of gender justice spans diverse backgrounds and communities.

With this collective spirit, we have created a working definition of Southeast Asian feminism as “a set of values to dismantle sexism and the underlying capitalist-heteropatriarchal structures that oppress us in various ways, guided by the principles of intersectionality, equity, and care, in Southeast Asia.” 

In crafting this concluding explainer, however, I find myself scrutinising even this working definition. I have come to realise that it is best not to hastily attempt the homogenisation of the term “Southeast Asian feminism”. Upon revisiting transcripts and previously published explainers, it becomes evident that each research participant has their own nuanced understanding of feminism. Some are even cautious about using the term. This realisation reveals the complexity of the journey ahead in defining our collective understanding of “Southeast Asian” feminism. 

Nevertheless, this ongoing process provides a valuable opportunity for us to reconsider, reshape, and engage in meaningful discussions about our vision for regional feminism. We navigate this journey individually, yet concurrently align ourselves in solidarity. As said by N14, an Indonesian feminist and climate justice activist:

“Feminism is a belief that injustice is meant to be faced and we have a lot of friends to do that. It’s a grip that helps us work towards justice. It’s a tool to free ourselves from any kind of oppression. It’s about preserving our anger towards our situation, exchanging stories with other women, and resisting the control of sexuality, social reproduction, and capitalism.”

In carefully developing a more nuanced definition of “Southeast Asian feminism”, I have been called to prioritise learning from other resisters. This is because it is only by being attentive to each context that we can understand where we must work individually, and where we can collaborate. The “system” that we resist is complex, with multiple, overlapping, and intersecting aspects. It is historically constructed, and continually recreated through everyday practices and interactions. It also implicates individuals in contradictory ways (Mohanty, 2003, p.104). This complexity makes everything we have discussed in the previous explainers — repressive laws, restrictive norms, religious fundamentalism, omnipresent male domination, and even concrete cases of sexual and gender-based violence — challenging to dismantle. It is never simply “community versus the state”, as the community itself is unstable and diverse. Thus, it is essential to understand each other, along with the colonial, capitalist-heteropatriarchal system, as complex beings and systems – not just static categories. The system is ever-evolving, and as resisters, we need to evolve with it.

Conclusion

Indonesia’s Internet and Electronic Transaction Bill stifles the voices of pro-democracy and gender justice activists. Malaysia’s Sharia laws criminalise LGBTQIA+ individuals. Thailand cleverly uses gender representation as a tool for continued oppression, by having special female officer units in the Royal Thai Police. The Burmese military in Myanmar conduct systematic sexual violence, following the junta’s return to power. Cambodia adheres to the traditional code of conduct for women, “Chbab Srey,” which reinforces heteronormative gender norms. Many LGBTQIA+ individuals in Laos continue to be stigmatised, making the long-awaited anti-discrimination laws crucial. The Philippines grapples with Catholic and Christian fundamentalism, which obstruct progressive laws and discriminate against women and marginalised genders.

This is a glimpse of the state of democracy in Southeast Asia, shared by our fellow feminist and gender justice activists. Yet, we continue to march on. 

Throughout this research, I have been intrigued by the resilience that our research participants exhibit in their work. They find hope by engaging with each other and working collectively. While their numbers may be small, their collective efforts are making an impact. I find this collective resilience beautiful and inspiring. It proves that to nurture imagination for a better future, or even to demand the impossible, we must work together. This act of collective imagination and learning from other resisters is crucial in fostering this hope.

Hence, I hope that this first series of SOGIESC-informed Democratic Participation research publications not only presented the challenges activists have faced. It has also showcased the amazing work they have been doing so that we can learn from them, be inspired, and build solidarity with each other.

Personally, this research project has enabled me to relearn the meaning of feminism, gender justice, democracy, intersectionality, and solidarity. It is a departure point in my journey to work towards decolonial feminism, unlearn democracy, and work towards gender justice in solidarity with other resisters. I am, still, at that departure point and want to continue this learning journey together with you.

So, here is our “what’s next.” We would like to invite everyone to engage in continuous learning and introspection, challenging what we already know about feminism, solidarity, gender justice, and democracy. It is within a collaborative “space” that we can embark on such a journey, embracing our mistakes and errors so we can find the most effective formulations to address systemic challenges.

I will end with some questions for us to ponder. What type of space do we require to collectively learn from one another? How can we build such a space? How can we nurture solidarity in this space and beyond it? What form of democracy is best suited to our specific contexts? How can feminism contribute to realising the promises of democracy? What kind of resistance do we envision? Where should we begin?

The border is never fixed; everything is in flux and continuously evolving. We must be prepared to embrace different alternatives, and to make space for imagination, in fostering a more robust democracy that prioritises gender justice — for a better future.

References

Abu-Lughod, L. (1991). Writing Against Culture. In R. G. Fox (ed.) Recapturing Anthropology: Working in the Present (pp. 137–162). Santa Fe: School of American Research Press.

Crenshaw, K. (1991). Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color. Stanford Law Review, 43(6), pp. 1241–1299. https://doi.org/10.2307/1229039 

Haraway, D. (1988). Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the

Privilege of Partial Perspective. Feminist Studies, 14 (3), pp. 575–599. https://doi.org/10.2307/3178066 

Lugones, M. (2010). Toward a Decolonial Feminism. Hypatia, 25 (4), pp. 742–759. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1527-2001.2010.01137.x 

Mohanty, C.T. (2003). Feminism without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity. Durham & London: Duke University Press.

Paramaditha, I. (2022). Radicalising ‘Learning From Other Resisters’ in Decolonial Feminism. Feminist Review, 131(1), pp. 33–49. https://doi.org/10.1177/01417789221102509  

Thum, P.J. (2023, September 12). Principles of Democracy: Majority Rule, Minority Rights. New Naratif. https://new-naratif-final-staging.ew1.rapyd.cloud/majority-rule-minority-rights/ 

Thum, P.J. (2023, August 23). Introduction: What is Southeast Asian Democracy? New Naratif. https://new-naratif-final-staging.ew1.rapyd.cloud/introduction-what-is-southeast-asian-democracy/ 

Vergès, F. (2021). A Decolonial Feminism. London: Pluto Press.

Winter, S., Davis-McCabe, C., Russell, C., Wilde, D., Chu, T.H., Suparak, P. and Wong, J. (2018). Denied Work: An audit of employment discrimination on the basis of gender identity in Asia. Bangkok: Asia Pacific Transgender Network and United Nations Development Programme. https://weareaptn.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/APTN-DeniedWork-Main.pdf

Author’s Note

In crafting this concluding explainer, I have reflected deeply on all the articles published throughout this research project. I see this research as an initial discovery, a modest contribution paving the way towards a Southeast Asian democracy that places a strong emphasis on gender justice. Hence, it is crucial to complement this research with the creation of the “space”, as discussed earlier in this piece — a space where fellow feminists and gender justice advocates can convene, listen, and learn from each other, thus moving forward collectively with our unique approaches. I definitely need tons of input for this.

Additionally, I wish that this research can be extended with a more specific focus, perhaps by country in Southeast Asia. I encountered challenges in encompassing the diversity and complexity of the seven countries included in this research, especially within the constraints of a relatively small study. By doing more focused research, we can delve into our respective contexts, recognising both similarities and differences, to collaboratively formulate the most effective steps forward.

This research project is made possible by the National Endowment for Democracy, Grant No. 2022-0543.

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