Reflecting and Envisioning Transnational Southeast Asian Feminist and Gender Justice Movements

Having explored structural and systemic factors as well as daily challenges hindering the work of Southeast Asian feminist and gender justice activists, in this explainer, we delve into the possibility of facilitating transnational movement-building. We first explore existing transnational feminist and gender justice movements that our research participants have formed or joined. Then, we reflect on both the advantages and challenges of such movements before offering recommendations on how to build and strengthen them. Importantly, we also celebrate the progress already achieved by past and current Southeast Asian feminist and gender justice movements.

This is the last explainer in New Naratif’s three-part series 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 and second explainers are also already available.

Based on discussions with our research participants, we would like to put forth 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.”

Implicit in this definition is an acknowledgement of the fact that Southeast Asian countries have been historically structured by colonialism, and united by a common experience of either direct aggression and domination by imperialist powers or indirect manipulation in service of imperial interests (Jayawardena, 2016). Despite facing similar levels of state repression, each country exhibits distinct styles of governance that give rise to varied opportunities, and thus to diverse forms of social activism (Ford, 2013, p. 2). “We of course have a lot of differences, but our shared history leads to the structure that we have today,” stated a participant in CPR1.

It is important to consider both differences as well as similarities to foster a sense of solidarity, as articulated during our conversations with participants. Some were already informally in touch with like-minded organisations, while others had made efforts to join, or even establish, formal regional feminist and gender justice solidarity networks. Some Southeast Asia-based networks mentioned include the Southeast Asia Feminist Action Network (SEAFAM) and ASEAN SOGIE Caucus. Broader networks covering the Asia-Pacific region, such as the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD), Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers (APNSW), and Asian-Pacific Resource & Research Centre for Women (ARROW), were also referenced.

Thus, the idea of a transnational network is not novel. As Michele Ford explores in Social Movements in Southeast Asia (2013), it has become a pivotal aspect of understanding globalisation from a grassroots perspective. Adopting the definition provided by Keck and Sikkink (1998), Ford defined these networks as comprising “relevant actors working internationally on an issue, who are bound together by shared values, a common discourse, and dense exchanges of information and services.” A crucial and characteristic aspect of how they function in Southeast Asia involves collectively utilising a human rights framework to challenge state practices (Ford, 2013, p. 6). 

The presence and success of transnational movements reveal the importance of working not only within our respective countries, but also looking beyond them to foster regional understanding and solidarity. However, these endeavours are not without challenges. The upcoming sections explore such advantages and challenges, drawing from our discussions with Southeast Asian feminist and gender justice activists, including through a focus group discussion (FGD1) and a community peer review (CPR1) session.

A cracked statue of Athena with her mouth taped shut, on top of a background in traditional batik motif. Artwork by Raphaela Vannya.

The Advantages of Transnational Movement Building 

“When we’re part of a marginalised group, I think it’s really important to build alliances. At the end of the day, the oppositions that we are dealing with, they’re huge, right? We’re dealing with the state, religious institutions, huge structures that are well-resourced and can speak so much louder than us. So how do you get more power? It’s by aligning yourself with other people. It is very important to build alliances so that we can really consolidate our voices and amplify our voices together.” 

N12

The quote above was expressed by N12 upon reflection of their work as a queer activist. Aiming to debunk myths, stereotypes, and misconceptions about queer people through their work, N12 views the creation and sustenance of transnational networks as essential to this process. “I think we can’t do that effectively if we work alone because there’s a lot of hearts and minds to change, right?”

Their sentiment resonates with our other research participants. Regional and global solidarity movements appear to be drawing closer together and gaining strength in recent years, a trend attributed to the internet’s influence. According to N6, “Activist groups or movements, especially coming from lower socioeconomic classes, are becoming more and more visible thanks to social media.”

One key example to look at is the online movement known as the #MilkTeaAlliance. An online pro-democracy and human rights movement primarily involving internet users from Thailand, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Myanmar, it originated as an internet meme in response to the growing influence of Chinese nationalist commentators on social media. Since then, it has transformed into a dynamic multinational protest movement opposing authoritarianism and advocating for democracy. Having developed in the absence of a central leadership, the movement’s elusive nature poses challenges for authoritarian states in terms of accurate identification and tracking. Thus, the formation of the #MilkTeaAlliance demonstrates how building transnational solidarity is not only achievable, but can make transnational social movements more accessible.

For our participants, building lasting and inclusive solidarity requires the ability to work intersectionally, by uniting all people across diverse sectors and backgrounds—particularly women and LGBTQIA+ individuals. The goal is to recognise and appreciate shared feminist values while acknowledging the interconnectedness of various issues. “So instead of fighting one another, we work together in solidarity, [in order for us] to be able to demystify feminism, and make people understand that feminism is good for all of us,” N6 noted. Returning to our working definition of Southeast Asian feminism, we thus stress the importance of understanding feminist issues from an intersectional perspective, to truly dismantle sexism and the structures upholding it.

For N14, a powerful sisterhood and network is embodied in transnational feminist and gender justice movements. Within this framework, activists find value in the exchange of materials, information, advocacy, and strength. N14 also emphasised, however, thinking critically about how such movements are built: “[They ideally work] with grassroots women and communities, developing awareness methods, materials, and movement; then [they push] the agenda to the international stage.” This perspective illuminates how our participants perceive the workflow of successful transnational movements as a bottom-up, inductive process. This involves prioritising the lived experiences of marginalised individuals, noticing emerging patterns, and subsequently amplifying these issues to larger audiences.

In this way, transnational feminist and gender justice movements in Southeast Asia, with their distinct emphasis on addressing local issues in consideration of specific contexts, can serve as platforms to challenge Western-centric definitions of feminism. Essentially, they provide an opportunity to redefine both “Southeast Asia” and “feminism”. This aligns with Jayawardena’s (2016) argument that although some aspects of Third World feminist consciousness were informed by Western, liberal, and modernising discourses, it was not a Western imposition or a mere adoption of colonial ideas. Instead, it emerged in response to the circumstances created by imperial and capitalist penetration—an ongoing reality that requires our continued attention.

“So we would not only focus on the global feminist issues like women’s rights and access to healthcare and education. We also direct our movement to become more locally-led. This way, we can start talking about, for example, LGBTQIA+ rights or abortion rights within our region, considering our religious landscape.” Here, N6 implies that Southeast Asian activists may be better equipped for advocacy work around sensitive topics, as oftentimes they themselves experience such issues intimately in their daily lives as citizens.

The importance of activists being intimately rooted is evident from a widely publicised incident involving Matt Healy—frontman of The 1975—at the Good Vibes Festival in Malaysia this year (CPR1). In his speech, Healy vehemently criticised Malaysian authorities for their anti-LGBTQIA+ laws, before kissing his fellow band member on stage. Although his message seemingly resonates with the struggles of Malaysian gender justice activists, his actions were highly criticised by many such activists. They expressed the concern that Healy’s insensitive approach, far from helping, could instead jeopardise the hard-won progress of LGBTQIA+ people, potentially inciting fresh hatred and violence towards them. One participant from CPR1 even characterised Healy’s actions as “white saviourism”, suggesting how his positionality as a white man led him to engage in such forms of “activism”. She added, “This implies a disregard for the work of local activists, thus they should do it for us.” 

Healy’s actions echo a long lineage of intervention. In her essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” (1988), the feminist and postcolonial scholar Gayatri Spivak argues how Western powers have historically positioned themselves as saviours or liberators of women in non-Western societies. Such intervention, according to Spivak, may not have necessarily stemmed from a genuine concern for women’s—or individuals of marginalised genders’—rights, but instead functioned as a tool to justify and perpetuate colonial dominance. Such were the intricate power dynamics at play and the potential of reinforcing colonial narratives, even if embedded within endeavours that claimed to uplift downtrodden individuals.

Hence, it is imperative to collectively define and navigate our respective paths within the region, instead of letting anyone else dictate them for us. In contrast to the uninformed individuality of the Healy incident, transnational movements rooted in local contexts allow us to collaborate towards our shared vision of an inclusive regional democracy, with strategies rooted in our issues and contexts. This also serves as a poignant reminder to exercise caution and mindfulness in our activism.

A feminine figure on top of a shell, reminiscent of Venus, is crouching in tears on top of a traditional batik motif. Artwork by Raphaela Vannya.

Challenges in Building Transnational Movement

“I like the idea of transnational movement building. But it will be really difficult to make it effective due to the diversity of our contexts and struggles.”

This sentiment, which was identified as the main challenge towards building transnational movements, emerged during CPR1. Given the distinct feminist and gender justice struggles prevailing across the region, in building transnational movements, individuals or organisations alike may need to invest additional effort to align their activism with that of their counterparts due to their unique challenges. Despite socio-historical similarities between countries, significant internal differences persist domestically. Such complexity poses challenges in moving forward and achieving shared goals simultaneously, potentially leading to staggered progress, where movements unfold at their own pace. In acknowledgment, a participant in CPR1 suggested that: “In this transnational movement framework, I think we might consider allowing ourselves to work on our own paces, rather than adhering to a ‘blanket’ approach.”

There is a pervasive assumption that transnationalism invariably benefits local movements by providing opportunities to “scale up”. However, the intricate dynamics involved in the dissemination of resources and ideas within transnational networks often go overlooked. This oversight stems from a tendency to perceive the movement of resources and ideas as unidirectional—that is, from the “core” to the “periphery”—neglecting the nuanced processes through which these transfers unfold while unfairly characterising local movements as being mere “passive recipients” (Ford, 2013, p. 7). A CPR1 participant noted that the existence of two extremes in activism, ranging from highly localised to widely dispersed efforts, must also be acknowledged. Consequently, a significant challenge in transnational movement-building is finding an inclusive medium that accommodates these diverse organisational approaches. For instance, while social media has played a crucial role in connecting various activist movements, fostering cross-border understanding, and nurturing solidarity, spatial limitations, particularly for those engaged in grassroots work, remain significant (CPR1). 

The next challenge pertains to language. While English is considered as the international language, not all activists are proficient in it. In the Southeast Asian context, a language barrier exists between activists from countries in which English remains widely used (e.g., Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines) and others. Additionally, proficiency in English in the latter category is often associated with a certain level of privilege, such as disposable income or the luxury of time to learn new languages, in line with the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s (1986) theory of capital. Bourdieu writes that aside from just money, access to sociocultural capital helps individuals maintain their position in society, while revealing how these forms of capital are unequally distributed among different socioeconomic classes.

This observation was highlighted by two participants in CPR1, who expressed greater comfort communicating in Indonesian during the peer review session. The language barrier significantly limits representation of some activists on regional and international stages, which consequently prevents many crucial issues from receiving appropriate attention from a broader audience. As noted by N6, “With little visibility for women from Southeast Asia, unless you’re from, for instance, the Philippines, with very good English skills, it was difficult for you to join these regional movements.” Note how colonial legacies, which play a role in the adoption and usage of particular languages, continue to leave an impact.

Language also structures the dissemination of knowledge, potentially transforming what could have been broad-based movements into relatively “elite” endeavours. This is particularly so when the language used within these movements is highly specialised, academic, or laden with jargon, potentially rendering such movements exclusive to those who speak the language—often these individuals come from the middle or upper socioeconomic classes. This exclusivity can result in a lack of cross-class engagement between activists, rendering the less-privileged “invisible” within the process.

As a result, regional-level movements are often perceived as addressing broad, overarching issues. This lack of specificity has even led some participants to view transnational movement-building as a secondary focus. As N11 expressed, “[w]e see that regional cooperation is important for big issues, but when it comes to specific problems, it is not the most useful. When it comes to solving national issues, I believe that the people from the country know best what to navigate, how to navigate, and solve the problem.” The distinction N11 made between “big” and “small” issues reveals how transnational movements are often viewed as exclusive in determining their priorities. They may also lack class consciousness. N3 provided a poignant example of how this exclusivity plays out in practice, when they reflected on the example of sex workers and their associated stigma. “When we examine each country in our regional partnerships, no country includes sex workers in their feminist movement. They view sex workers as providing service to men and are sold to serve men; not as workers and potential feminist agents.”

Further, internal challenges related to organisational structure and financial constraints can also affect transnational movements. Internal organisational dynamics are inextricably linked to their broader environment. As mentioned in CPR1, pro-democracy groups in Thailand, for example, rely on voluntary work, public donations, and merchandise sales to sustain themselves. Such concerns over sustainability may lead to the potential exploitation of activists, contributing in turn to the failure of activist initiatives. If instead such movements secure funding from abroad, there is a risk that repressive state forces may then attempt to discredit them by labelling them as “foreign-led.” Most of our participants acknowledged struggles in financing their activism, showing that this is a pressing issue needing further attention, input, and collaboration.

Financial constraints also contribute to the fact that NGOs often operate independently of each other, viewing other NGOs as “competition” in the race for donor support. As N7 expressed, “I thought of doing mass movement in the past, but it never happened. Because nongovernmental organisations were busy building their own ‘kingdom’, competing with each other and we remained entrenched in existing problems.” Indonesian activists coined a specific term for this behaviour, “ego sektoral,” denoting the gatekeeping of information among like-minded organisations despite their shared visions and goals. Part of the problem stems from a lack of self-criticism within the movement. The ability to engage in self-critique is crucial for creating safe spaces and ensuring the sustainability of healthy activism. Unfortunately, some activists still find it challenging to do so, citing concerns about “disrupting the movement” or revealing internal flaws. This resistance may reflect a tendency within movements to preserve the perception that their own approaches are always the most effective or unassailable.

Recommendations for Building and Strengthening Transnational Movements

Whether through direct participation in such networks, or through their own efforts to establish transnational solidarity, our participants have identified both advantages and challenges inherent in building regional feminist and gender justice transnational movements. We have synthesised five key recommendations from our discussions. We hope that this list can serve as a valuable reference for those contemplating the establishment of a transnational movement, or the revitalisation of existing ones. More optimistically, these points can serve as a foundational guide for initiating movements of varying scales.

Before proceeding, we must stress that engaging in activist work requires a sense of intersectionality and class consciousness, especially since activists engage with individuals from many different backgrounds and socioeconomic classes. These recommendations thus place a high regard on the importance of both to prevent the formation of, however unintentionally, an “elitist” transnational movement accessible only to the few.

  1. Identify Commonalities and Variations

Addressing the advantages and challenges of transnational movement-building requires we have a nuanced, regional-level understanding of both the shared histories and diverse struggles of Southeast Asians. As highlighted in CPR1, the first step is to explore the unique history and context of our respective countries. However, this does not mean becoming insular; rather, the focus of such an endeavour should be on identifying possible connections within the broader regional context (whether in terms of gendered inequalities, cultural backgrounds, or activist movements, for example). We must find ways to collaborate based on shared struggles while remaining attentive to the challenges faced by activists in their national contexts. 

This process can cultivate a profound sense of solidarity and contribute to identifying, to borrow a term from CPR1, the “core message” of any movement. We propose that our shared history and collective struggle to dismantle sexism underlying oppressive and multifaceted capitalist-heteropatriarchal structures can serve as one such unifying narrative; and perhaps even as a foundation for defining Southeast Asia feminism. As articulated by N12, 

“We often say that we need to build our capacity, improve our skills, and all of that. But I think a lot of times people just want to have conversations so that they can learn from each other, understand what’s going on, and respond to what they’re hearing. So I think having that and also having space to just talk and listen is important.”

  1. Foster Knowledge-Sharing Through Inclusive Engagement and Alliances

Fostering inclusivity requires a commitment to learning and collaborating across diverse backgrounds. This means actively engaging and forming alliances with individuals spanning a spectrum of identities, such as women, LGBTQIA+ individuals, indigenous people, grassroots activists, and men. We also need to be open to working with various organisations, such as governments, political movements, or religious groups, as reflected by our research participants’ work.

Overcoming language barriers involves respecting and incorporating diverse languages, such as through translation work, operating multilingually, utilising art to convey messages, or employing accessible but nuanced terminology, among others. As noted by N14:

“Supporting a just circulation of knowledge involves the development of research methods, action-oriented research, and campaigns that are not only conceptually rigorous but also easily comprehensible, engaging, and empathetic to the public.”

  1. Amplify Voices “From Below”

The next crucial step is amplifying issues and voices emerging from grassroots communities. The strength of a transnational movement lies in numbers; collectively, a movement has a louder voice which can be wielded against oppressive institutions.

But amplifying voices does not imply speaking on behalf of others. Rather, it is about creating a space and fostering encouragement for grassroots communities to articulate their concerns in their own words. Otherwise, the act of representing subaltern voices may potentially distort or suppress them through translation and interpretation (Spivak, 1988). Therefore, we need to critically examine the power dynamics within transnational movements, so that we can allow voices of the marginalised to be heard without inadvertently repressing them further or distorting their experiences. As aptly stated by N6: 

“We need to bring the knowledge back on the ground while at the same time doing everything possible to bring the voices of the grassroots people, making them visible and heard by the international community.”

  1. Foster Collective Care Within Movements

Activism, as highlighted in FGD1, extends beyond a mere “job”, but becomes integral to daily life. Therefore, placing collective care at the core of activism is essential. We grapple not only with the issues that we advocate for, but also with the structural and systemic factors impeding our efforts. Some participants admitted that as much as they love their work in activism, they still see it as an endless and exhausting task that requires huge emotional capacity. Overcoming challenges will not be possible without caring for one another in daily life; after all, the personal is political. As a participant from FGD1 beautifully articulated:

“So my practice is to make space for people. To let people know that they’re not alone, lots of people are fighting for them. At the end of the day, change isn’t brought only by people who are going out there and just really throwing bricks and screaming, fighting in the front lines; but also by people who stay home, who make sure that these people have a place to go, even when they have nowhere else. By creating spaces for collective care, eventually, we can find our solidarity or even our universality in understanding compassion.”

  1. Exchange Success Stories to Sustain Hope

Challenges, whether structural, systemic, institutional, or personal, are multifaceted. They occur at the local, national, or regional levels, cumulatively breeding pessimism, hopelessness, and a sense of powerlessness. Such feelings align with the goals of repressive authorities. Thus, to keep our inner fires of activism ablaze, we also stress how essential it is to share success stories and achievements from our collective efforts. Drawing inspiration from the successes of our peers enables us to explore innovative strategies and identify common tactics that align with our shared vision. N13 expressed the desire for more success stories from fellow activists, stating that: 

“I really hope that the success of LGBTQIA+ activists in other countries in Southeast Asia can be an inspiration for my nation too. Although I know the context of Indonesia may differ with other countries, it’s interesting to see how activism movements work and adapt with each [national] context.”

A statue of a feminine bust wearing a sarong, all cracked and broken, on top of a traditional batik background. Artwork by Raphaela Vannya.

Taking Pride In and Celebrating Our Achievements 

The fifth recommendation above leads to a broader reflection: What have Southeast Asian activists achieved in building an inclusive democracy and advancing gender justice?

First and foremost among these is successful advocacy for legal changes, as exemplified by the passage of the Sexual Violence Bill in Indonesia, and the introduction of the Anti-Sexual Harassment Act 2022 in Malaysia. According to N12, “It’s not even so much about the changing of laws, but it’s also about the impact that it gives on people. There is a transformative effect in the psyche of people—they are more liberated after the change that people thought was really impossible to happen.”

Another noteworthy category of accomplishments is the emergence of youth-led feminist movements inspired by pro-democracy activists. N6, for example, expressed enthusiasm about the refreshing new leadership of Thailand’s feminist movement, which is now spearheaded by younger activists who fearlessly address issues that the older generation shied away from. This shift instils hope and suggests that the future of feminism and gender justice lies in the hands of bolder and younger individuals. As N6 emphasised, “They have the bravery to lead movements and represent the communities without any limiting beliefs and conditioning. They just say to older generations, ‘I don’t have to follow you because the way you’ve been doing things for so many years hasn’t been working.’”

The increasing vocal presence of women in the field of activism, who employ diverse means to express dissent, is also a success to be celebrated. As N2 observed in Thailand, women who in the past mainly focused on domestic issues when organising protests, now engage in a broad spectrum of topics. This shift indicates the enduring efforts of feminist and gender justice activists in raising awareness about gender-related issues, which have now gained acceptance in society. On a smaller yet significant scale, N14 also celebrated how more and more women from rural areas in Indonesia, previously lacking opportunities to speak, were now articulating their issues in front of others.

Activists are also adapting to the times. N10, for instance, took pride in the comparatively novel but growing discussion of the intersection between gender and technology in Indonesia. “It’s really small but now everyone talks about online sexual and gender-based violence, and more people discuss the importance of women’s and LGBTQIA+ people’s online privacy. I can’t prove that it has a direct correlation with what we did, but I’m just happy to see that maybe, we inspired them.” 

Meanwhile, in the face of public scepticism and stigmatisation of feminist and gender justice movements, a notable achievement is how activists have managed to reach individuals of diverse cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds, as well as institutions. To illustrate, N7 was able to work harmoniously with colleagues of various backgrounds in Myanmar. “Through our organisation’s platform, we have assisted single mothers and extremely vulnerable women. We have also amplified the voices of women and marginalised groups, which are moments to cherish.” 

The growth of LGBTQIA+ movements in the region is also cause for celebration. N13 found joy, for example, in the positive reception to the queer archiving initiative his organisation led. The initiative, which culminated in the creation of catalogues and exhibitions, garnered favourable responses from a broad audience. The archive has not only encouraged people to dive deeper into understanding Indonesian queer lives, but has also inspired queer individuals to contribute and engage in this archival work. Meanwhile, senior queer activists have shown great enthusiasm for the initiative, recognising its importance. N13 took this as validation of his organisation’s work, affirming the importance of embedding the legacies of queer activists in history. He emphasised how queer archiving enables fellow queer individuals to better understand their history and feel a sense of belonging:

“It’s really nice when people are like, ‘Oh yeah, now I know that before me, there were my predecessors, who were also queer,’ like that. Because, well, queer history doesn’t appear in mainstream history—we don’t teach it in schools nor does it appear in mainstream historical discussions. So where are the gays, where are the lesbians, where are the trans folks? Turns out that there are records [showing] that, for example, these people already existed and had organised themselves long before we existed. It’s like, wow, I’m part of something bigger, I’m part of something that has history.”


Conclusion 

Having examined the structural and systemic factors hindering gender justice in Explainer 1, along with the everyday struggles activists face in Explainer 2, we argue that establishing and engaging in transnational movements can potentially be a viable response to overcoming such obstacles. As diverse, intersectional, collaborative, and deeply rooted movements, they present many advantages for activists. However, given the substantial challenges activists face, which differ according to the unique contexts of their respective countries, there remains a degree of scepticism about the feasibility of effective Southeast Asian transnational feminist and gender justice movements. 

Nevertheless, scepticism does not mean that there is a lack of imagination for change. As the anthropologist James C. Scott (1985) asserts, the absence of direct knowledge or experience of alternative social orders does not hinder subordinate groups from generating revolutionary thoughts. The imaginative capacity to challenge and overturn dominant ideologies can exist regardless of conditions on the ground. The experiences of Southeast Asian activists mentioned thus far epitomises such imaginative capacity. One might add that the very act of nurturing our imagination is thus essential to keep our hopes up for a better democracy. 

Transnational movements, whether formal or otherwise, may provide activists with a platform to connect and foster solidarity. Importantly, they also reaffirm a belief that despite the seeming endlessness of challenges faced by activists, these struggles can be overcome collectively. Imagining a transnational movement presents an opportunity to also envision an inclusive Southeast Asian democracy, where gender justice is not merely an ancillary or tangential component, but rather, is imperative for its realisation. It reminds us that, although the journey may be arduous, it is not a solitary walk. In fact, by engaging in transnational movements rooted in inclusive feminist and gender justice values, we may find greater joy and a profound sense of fulfilment in our activism. 

Most importantly, in line with our working definition of feminism, we need to dismantle oppression by embracing the principles of intersectionality, equity, and care—values we must collectively cultivate and uphold within transnational movements.

So, are you excited to work collectively across borders? Are you ready to keep imagining other worlds while working towards an inclusive democracy together?

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Author’s Note

This explainer is part of the first series of the Democratic Participation Research project, continuing from the first publication, “A New Feminist Narrative”. As the research process underwent a redesign within our team, we decided to publish our report in the form of a series of explainers, rather than lengthy PDFs. 

The participants of this research are fourteen feminist and gender justice activists from various backgrounds 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), along with one community peer review with five others (CPR1), to gather further insights. 

The primary limitation of this research lies in its scope, as we were unable to include all Southeast Asian countries. For that reason, voices from Singapore, Vietnam, Brunei Darussalam, and Timor-Leste are not featured. The direction of our research is heavily reliant on the participation of activists, and due to our limited timeframe and resources, engaging with activists from these countries was not feasible. While we acknowledge this limitation, we hope that this series of explainer articles will spark discussions about Southeast Asia’s democratic participation from various perspectives, including those of the countries not represented in our study.

We employed a small-N study design, focusing on a limited number of cases for in-depth insights rather than statistical representativeness. Participant anonymity was ensured, identified by labels (N1, N2, N3…) chronologically from the oldest to the latest interviews. Data collection, comprising online interviews, the FGD, and the CPR, occurred from September 2022 to October 2023.

I would like to thank Thet Wai for designing the research, conducting the majority of the interviews, and letting me continue with the research. After a year of data collection, the CPR1 session held in October 2023 played a vital role in rejuvenating my perspective as I worked on this Explainer. I express my gratitude to Wai Liang Tham for not only assisting me in summarising the insights from CPR1 but also closely aiding me in refining the arguments through effective editing. On top of all, I am thankful to the research participants for building this research together.

Artist’s Statement

The figures in the header image, clad in various clothes reminiscent of various South East Asian traditions and religions, embody sisterhood and solidarity across borders: tending together to a flame, making sure that it is never extinguished.

The image also subtly alludes to the depiction of the Ancient Roman Vestal Virgins: six priestesses, representing the daughters of the royal house, who tended the state cult of Vesta, the goddess of the hearth. 

The Vestal Virgins was tasked with tending to Vesta’s sacred fire, taking turns to keep the flame alight. Even though the Vestals enjoyed privileges unknown to most women at the time, they still lived under strict supervision and damning regulations: for instance, Vestals who allowed the fire to go out were punished with whipping. Even worse, Vestals who was found to lose their chastity was sentenced to living burial, and their sexual partners, if known, were publicly beaten to death.

This alludes to how ‘Southeast Asian countries have been historically structured by colonialism, and united by the common experience of either direct aggression and domination by imperialist powers seeking a foothold in the region or indirect manipulation in service to serve imperial interests’.

Credits

Reflecting and Envisioning Transnational Southeast Asian Feminist and Gender Justice Movements
Democratic Participation Research Series 1 Publication 4

Publication Year 2023

Author Oktaria Asmarani

Editors New Naratif’s Research Department

Graphic Design Ellena Ekarahendy and Mufqi Hutomo

Illustrator Raphaela Vannya

Funding The Democratic Participation Research Project is funded by the National Endowment for Democracy, Grant No. 2022-0543.

Publisher New Naratif is a movement for democracy, freedom of information and freedom of expression in  Southeast Asia. We aim to make Southeast Asians proud of our region, our shared culture and our  shared history. We fight for the dignity and freedom of the Southeast Asian people by building a  community of people across the region to imagine and articulate a better Southeast Asia.

This research report, excluding its illustrations, is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. To view a copy  of this licence, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/4.0/.

All illustrations are property of their respective illustrators.

Please cite this report as Asmarani, Oktaria. 2023. “Reflecting and Envisioning Transnational Southeast Asian Feminist and Gender Justice Movements.” New Naratif. Democratic Participation Research Series 1 Publication No. 4. New Naratif. https://new-naratif-final-staging.ew1.rapyd.cloud/reflecting-and-envisioning-transnational-southeast-asian-feminist-and-gender-justice-movement/

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