Structural and Systemic Factors Hindering Democracy in SEA: A Feminist Perspective

This Explainer investigates the structural and systemic factors hindering the practice of inclusive feminist and gender justice-informed democratic action in Southeast Asia. We identify common and critical challenges, including but not limited to ineffective law enforcement, the surveillance and curtailment of freedom of expression, and religious fundamentalism.

This is the first Explainer in New Naratif’s three-part series exploring Southeast Asian democracy through the lens of feminist, gender justice, and regional human rights activists. The report introducing this SOGIESC-informed Democratic Participation Research can be found here.

“Democracy is not all about the election; because what’s the use of those celebrations when women still cannot speak even in their own homes? That’s an indication that she’s not yet free to express her thoughts and needs, and the patriarchal system conditions her to not be aware that she does have her own needs.”

This was how N14, a feminist and climate justice activist in Indonesia, expressed her doubts about the state of democracy in her country. Having worked closely with women at the grassroots level throughout her decades-long activism, she holds onto the hope that women and individuals of marginalised genders will someday realise the importance of their voices and be taken seriously within a heteropatriarchal society—that is, a society structured by male dominance within a world of “men” and “women”.[1] While she and many other like-minded activists continue to strive towards enabling this change, they acknowledge that it is a daunting task. 

Can we really say that we are part of a democracy, and that we participate in it? Do we have the freedom to express ourselves freely? Are we able to channel our voices and ensure that they are heard by both the relevant authorities and the general public?

We engaged in conversations with 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. In fighting for a more inclusive and democratic society, they are all aware of the structural and systemic factors hindering progress. Before going into these factors, however, we must first address a few fundamental questions. What are systems and structures? Why are these terms usually discussed together? How are they perpetuated?

What are Systems and Structures?

The philosopher Sally Haslanger (2023) defines these terms in the context of racial justice. The following analogy can help us understand her definitions better. The structure represents the rules and roles in a game, while the system is not merely limited to “gameplay”, but encompasses the entire game itself: including the players, levels, challenges, storylines, and the interactions between them. In other words, the structure signifies the stable and patterned organisation of various elements within a system, including social norms, roles, and institutions. In contrast, the system implies the network of relations and interactions among individuals and those elements which enable the whole thing to work.

Haslanger’s definition is valuable for helping us to conceptualise the challenges faced by activists, and by extension the general public, in pursuing regional democracy. While structures and systems can be defined, demarcating cleanly between these two concepts is a challenging endeavour. Hence, we explore them in tandem below, in recognition of their interconnected nature. 

Our participants foregrounded some common factors. Structurally, certain Southeast Asian countries still have laws infringing upon human rights, particularly gender rights. Even where progressive laws exist, the lack of enforcement and anti-discrimination protections for gender minorities undermines their effectiveness. Systemically, some state actors enforce draconian laws and threaten freedom of expression (e.g., by employing repressive tactics such as online attacks and firing tear gas) to stifle those who speak out on feminist and gender rights issues. These threats are further exacerbated by the rise of religious fundamentalism within government institutions.

Three Key Factors

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

No. 1: An Overview of Laws and their Enforcement

We can think of laws and rights as coexisting symbiotically. While laws ideally serve as the guardians and enforcers of rights, it is one’s rights that provide the moral and legal foundation upon which just laws are built. Their interplay forms the bedrock of democratic societies, where individuals may strive to balance individual freedoms against collective responsibilities, thus fostering equality, justice, and human dignity for all. 

However, the law can be both an instrument of liberation and repression.

Laws that structurally impede human rights, especially gender rights in this context, are prevalent regionally. The notions of ideal citizenship upheld by these laws are influenced and supported by the idea of a patriarchal household, which implies male dominance and heteronormativity. Mohanty (1991) drew upon Connell’s (1987) work to argue that the framework of this legal structure reflects a notion of citizenship that relying on a dominant form of masculinity characterised by rationality, calculation, and orderliness. This conception is evident in the bureaucratic division of labour and the regulation of gendered and sexual relations at the levels of individual families and populations, such as seen in sexual behaviour policies and the creation of military forces (Mohanty, 1991, p. 22). From a legalistic perspective, not only does the state assume that the citizenry comprises men and women only, but it also enforces heteronormativity and heterosexual relationships. Thus, these laws actively perpetuate a self-reinforcing cycle of patriarchal values.

To be clear, heteropatriarchy, with its roots in colonisation and capitalism, has had a long history (Vergès, 2021, p. xii). Within their colonies, European colonisers imposed a uniform system regulating gender and sexuality during the colonial process, intending to eliminate diverse indigenous systems in this domain. The presence of non-binary, non-patriarchal, and non-heterocompulsive social organisations of sex, gender, and sexuality was “proof” that indigenous communities “needed” to be colonised, be “tamed” into the capitalist economy, and be “civilised” through coerced conversion to Christianity. The systems of capitalism, colonialism, racism, and heteropatriarchy are not independent entities that interact or conspire to create the current situation; rather, they are mutually interwoven and mutually beneficial (p. xiii).

Against this historical backdrop, contemporary regional laws regarding women’s rights, LGBTQIA+ rights, and gender-based discrimination continue to uphold and perpetuate patriarchal values.

In Indonesia, following years of discussions, protests, and delays, the enactment of the new criminal code (known as the Kitab Undang-undang Hukum Pidana, or KUHP)[2] provides the state with fresh mechanisms to penalise a broad spectrum of ideological, moral, and political transgressions. Despite the passage of The Sexual Violence Bill in mid-2022, Komnas Perempuan, or the National Commission on Violence Against Women (2022), pointed out that the KUHP raises a range of concerns in relation to human rights. Some provisions may lead to overcriminalisation, potentially causing undue harm to women due to their restrictive nature, while endorsing the practice of criminalising women, including those who advocate for human rights. They include Articles 408–410 (which restrict anyone other than medical providers from disseminating information about contraception to children or abortion)[3] , Article 411 (which prohibits extramarital sex), Article 484 (which criminalises “immoral sex”), and Articles 463-464 (which outlines Indonesia’s restrictive laws against abortion) (Walton 2018; Human Rights Watch 2022).

In Malaysia, as highlighted in the Human Rights Watch and Justice for Sisters’ report (2022), several legal instruments pose a significant threat to the rights of LGBTQIA+ people. Among these include Sharia laws in individual states, some of which authorise the use of caning as a punishment for consensual same-sex relationships and for individuals who do not conform to traditional gender roles. The secular federal penal code, which applies to the entire country and encompasses most criminal activities, also criminalises consensual same-sex relationships, carrying a penalty of 20 years in prison and mandatory whipping for anyone “convicted” of engaging in these. N12, representing an organisation focused on human rights and LGBTQIA+ issues in Malaysia, elaborated on the seriousness of the situation, discussing both Sharia and secular legal systems. 

“In total at the state level, there are 53 state Sharia laws that criminalise LGBT people based on sexual orientations, identities, expression, and also consensual sex. Whereas at the federal level, other laws, specifically Section 377, A, B, and D, although gender-neutral, disproportionately affect LGBT people.”

There are some nuances between different national contexts to be aware of. While Malaysian laws governing sexual activities are highly specific, Indonesian laws tend to be more broad and vaguely formulated, leaving them open to wide interpretations and applications (Sullivan, 2022). These provisions are often referred to as “pasal karet” (“rubber clauses”) by Indonesians. However, this vagueness enables selective enforcement, especially against LGBTQIA+ people. The legal objective, according to the sociologist Vedi Hadiz (ibid.), is to instil fear that one could be penalised for their words and actions, thus undoubtedly limiting individual behaviour.

In Myanmar, under the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), a set of four laws, known as the ‘Race and Religion Protection Laws,’ were introduced in 2015. One of these laws, Pyidaungsu Hluttaw Law No. 28/2015, allowed the government to regulate population growth by implementing ‘birth spacing’ policies, requiring women to wait 36 months after giving birth before having another child. This means that the state can take control of women’s reproductive rights, thus limiting their autonomy and freedom. Despite that, some significant policy milestones still emerged over the past decade through persistent advocacy by feminist and gender justice activists. Notable accomplishments included the introduction of the National Strategic Action Plan for the Advancement of Women (2013–22) and the passing of the Prevention of Violence Against Women (PoVAW) Bill (2019). However, the 2021 military coup has threatened to undo the progress made on women’s rights (Kyaw, 2021). For instance, the fate of the PoVAW Bill remains uncertain under the new administration, leaving survivors and victims of domestic violence without adequate protection.

In Laos, the 1991 Constitution recognises the equal rights of women and men. It also defines four forms of violence: physical, sexual, psychological, and economic. However, this underlying binary categorisation reinforces heteronormative values. While there is no specific law criminalising same-sex relationships, the absence of laws protecting LGBTQIA+ individuals remains a concern for activists. “There is a need for anti-discrimination laws in the future as Article 35 and Article 37 of the Constitution group everyone into the same context, failing to address stigma and discrimination towards minorities,” noted N11, an advocate of LGBTQIA+ rights in Laos.

In Thailand, on the other hand, participants noted that although there are progressive laws on paper, their effective enforcement remains a challenge. According to N2, a Thai feminist activist working on gender-related data visualisation and storytelling, “Many things are written in the law, but there is no mechanism to run it in real life.” Thailand boasts, for instance, the 2015 Gender Equality Act, which promises to protect all individuals from gender-based discrimination, and relatively liberal abortion laws. Same-sex relationships are also decriminalised. However, this Act, which was initially considered progressive, has come to be known as “Thailand’s Invisible Gender Law” because of its failure to address gender discrimination due to its ambiguous and vague wording (Thai Enquirer, 2020). Access to safe and affordable abortions also remains limited due to factors such as their unavailability in certain provinces and the refusal of many doctors to perform abortions based on their personal values or religious beliefs (Charuvastra, 2023).

Meanwhile, Cambodia has laws preventing discrimination against their citizens, such as established in the 1993 Constitution of Cambodia (amended 2018). It also has the 2005 Prevention of Domestic Violence and the Protection of Victims law, but this law still operates in a heteronormative framework (i.e. between “husbands” and “wives”). Even though adult, non-commercial, private, and consensual same-sex sexual activities are legal, the need for a marriage equality law, which will further benefit LGBTQIA+ individuals, is crucial. 

Similarly, the Philippines also has Republic Act No. 9710, also referred to as “the Magna Carta of Women”, which also prevents discrimination. However, the Philippines has yet to pass the SOGIE Equality Bill, which aims to introduce a set of laws to prevent discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, or expression. The bill has faced multiple rejections in Congress since 2000, while the rise of religious fundamentalism in the Philippines has contributed to significant political resistance against the bill. Christian fundamentalists (who claim to represent megachurches) publicly condemning and labeling it as “imported,” “misrepresenting Filipino values”, and “a precursor to same-sex marriage” (de Guzman, 2023).

This overview of laws governing gender rights in Southeast Asia reveals significant structural barriers restricting gender justice. Our participants affirm that these laws affect the lived experiences of the people whom they work with, and thus their work often centres around advocating against such discriminatory laws. Even when progressive laws officially protect women and LGBTQIA+ individuals, such as in Thailand, the lack of enforcement and impracticality of application continue to restrict their usefulness.

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

No. 2: Threats to Freedom of Expression

Equality before the law is the cornerstone upon which meaningful democratic participation can be built. When individuals are seen and treated equally under the law, they are empowered to engage in this process on an equal footing. However, legal reforms and initiatives are insufficient unless an environment is created in which people feel free to speak and express themselves. This leads us to ask if Southeast Asian activists can freely advocate for gender justice.

A report by FORUM-ASIA (2022) on women human rights defenders (WHRDs) in Asia revealed that, after pro-democracy defenders, this was the second-most targeted group of defenders in 2019–21. This statistic suggests that both defenders are perceived as highly dangerous to the state because of their commitments to upholding fundamental human rights, such as the right to live, speak, and express themselves freely.

WHRDs experienced 460 violations out of 1,899 recorded cases across 21 Asian countries. Comparing women who advocate for human rights, along with nongovernmental organisations and individuals of any gender who support women’s rights and gender-related issues, WHRDs are often subjected to judicial harassment (270 cases), arbitrary arrests and detention (210 cases), intimidation and threats (107 cases), and physical violence (97 cases), even resulting in 21 deaths. State actors were responsible for 382 of the 460 recorded violations, with the police alone accounting for 255 cases. WHRDs faced unique challenges, being targeted both for their activism and because of their identity as women.

“The democracy is shrinking. The government is making a lot of laws that would swing our rights to free speech and our rights to assembly. Since 2016, the government has been doing a lot of harassment and extrajudicial killings. They also arrest people by red-tagging our members. We have many leaders who are now in detention and some are still hiding.”

N8, who closely works with peasant women in the Philippines, noted a decline in freedom of expression since Rodrigo Duterte’s presidency began in 2016. With an increased presence of military and police officials in the government, efforts to suppress national democratic movements have intensified. These efforts include red-tagging—that is, labelling and accusing any individual or organisation critical of the government as leftists, subversives, terrorists, or Communists (Simbulan, 2011). The Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 and Executive Order No. 70 (EO 70) have worsened the situation, leading to arbitrary arrests, harassment, intimidation, surveillance, and even extrajudicial killings.

Activists in Indonesia are also keenly aware of attempts to suppress their freedom of expression. “Our law says that we have freedom of speech, but in reality, we’re not that free to talk, especially when you talk about gender issues,” stated N10, who is part of an Indonesian feminist collective focusing on gender and technology. 

Family members of WHRDs also often become targets, where such moves are meant to intimidate the WHRDs and obstruct their work (FORUM-ASIA, 2022). This was experienced by N5, whose organisation is an intersectional feminist movement primarily engaged in online gender-based violence assistance, campaigns, and advocacy for women and marginalised gender issues. N5 candidly shared how she felt unsafe while carrying out her activism, which eventually led her to relocate from the capital to a safer location elsewhere in Indonesia. She recounted multiple instances where police officers visited her mother’s office, consistently inquiring about her. “So it actually even got to the point of kind of harassing my family,” she stated. In response, N5 began self-censoring on her personal social media accounts. Where she used to be highly active in sharing feminist content, her posts have now shifted towards non-controversial subjects such as food or her pets.

“People asked if I no longer care, but I’m just scared, I just want myself to be safe. I don’t have enough emotional [capacity] as I’m still supporting victims and survivors.”

Returning to the KUHP, SAFENet’s 2022 Annual Report (2023: 13) enumerates how various articles can potentially threaten freedom of expression. These include Articles 240 and 241, which address offences related to defamation of the government, and Article 263, which deals with the dissemination or circulation of false news or information. Indonesia also has the Internet and Electronic Transaction Bill (UU ITE), which has been riddled with controversies since its introduction in 2008. SAFENet (2023) reports that the majority of threats and legal actions under UU ITE and KUHP are directed at critical groups, including activists, journalists, and students who use digital media to express criticism against the government.

In online spaces in particular, gender justice activists encounter various forms of violence, such as sexual harassment, rape, and death threats. These acts were predominantly carried out by religious fundamentalist groups and online trolls, a situation similar to what N10 described: “The threat could come from random people, and sometimes, it’s from a group claiming to act on behalf of a religion. They argue that discussing topics like sexuality is not in line with Indonesian or Eastern cultural norms.”

The situation is worse in Myanmar, where the junta uses social media to conduct a campaign of terror against the democratic opposition (OHCHR, 2023). Its supporters use online platforms to harass and incite violence against pro-democracy activists, with women being particularly targeted and harmed. Pro-junta accounts often employ hateful and discriminatory rhetoric to discredit feminist and gender justice activists, subjecting them to “doxxing” – which involves nonconsensually publishing private information, including names and addresses. In addition, “doxxed” activists are usually falsely accused of having relationships with Muslim men or supporting the Muslim community, in line with the prevalent domestic Islamophobic narrative (ibid.).

As we can see in this section, the political context systemically limits democratic participation. N1, who works with an ethnic minority group in Myanmar, emphasises the extremely limited space for domestic activism. Despite several waves of reforms since 1962, these changes still occurred under military rule, providing little room for genuine activism. Seemingly progressive changes do not necessarily equate to being truly democratic. As N1 aptly stated, “[t]o build a robust feminist movement, we require a substantial amount of time and the freedom of speech. Despite claiming a democratic system in the past ten years [prior to the coup], the challenges have intensified, and our goals seem distant.” This sentiment is echoed by N7, a member of a women’s group dedicated to enhancing the political rights of Burmese women.

A key dynamic is fear: one of the “state’s favourite weapons” in producing conformity and compliance (Vergès, 2021: 8). This was also highlighted during FGD1. “It’s depressing as now we normalise police brutality to the point it becomes jokes while on the other hand, it also builds some fear, a big fear in society, that it’s not safe to do a protest as you can literally get real violence from the police,” observed participants about excessive police force in their countries. The arrests of and violence experienced by their fellow activists had a profound impact on participants, leading many to opt for less vocal stances. As N14 remarked, the easiest way to silence activists is through intimidation.

“[The police] make their presence known to instil fear, discourage us from speaking out or taking action, and ultimately compel us to remain silent. This is the state of democracy we have today.”

No. 3: Religious Fundamentalism within Governments

Our participants from Malaysia and Indonesia specifically noted another threat to realising an inclusive democracy: religious fundamentalism within both the state and society. “[R]eligious fundamentalists can work formally through the state and informally through institutions and individuals” (Claudio, 2015, p.15). From our conversations, we found that activists correlated discriminatory laws, digital and physical attacks on them with the increasing influence of religious fundamentalism. One participant in FGD1 remarked that “[t]he thing about Malay-Muslim men is that they use religion a lot to defend their stance. It’s hard because of the very heavily religious agenda that is associated with feminism in Malaysia.” She even mentioned that she no longer used “feminist” to label herself and her work due to this situation.

Despite the vast diversity of religions, cultures, and peoples across Asia, certain shared features emerge in relation to religious fundamentalisms and gender (Derichs & Fleschenberg, 2010). The first is a tendency for the authorities to monopolise the interpretation of sacred religious texts and shape them as ideologies, thus reinforcing patriarchal structures. Second, women and individuals of marginalised genders often become the primary targets of fundamentalist forces, which aim to stigmatise differences and prescribe codes of behaviour by either restricting or exaggerating their roles. We pay particular attention to how these features strengthen patriarchal systems by permeating state institutions and governance.

The anthropologist Aihwa Ong (2006, pp. 33-34) noted that in the past, indigenous Muslim leaders in what is now Malaysia resisted colonial rule by strongly upholding a juridical-legal interpretation of Islam. This interpretation continues to influence postcolonial formalisations of Muslim practice, resulting in the persistence of male power within religious authorities even after formal independence. Consequently, official efforts to modernise and standardise the interpretation and implementation of Islamic laws have been increasing over the past decades (p. 48). The intensification of state-led Islamisation is also tied to competition between rival political parties and the ensuing establishment and empowerment of religion-centred institutions (e.g., an Islamic civil service bureaucracy, Sharia court systems) (see for example Farish, 2014). 

N4, whose works focus on human rights in Malaysia, shared concerns about the resurgence of the Islamic movement in Malaysia, particularly noting the unexpected rise of the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) as a major opposition party in the recent 2022 general election.[4] “It’s quite scary for a lot of people, especially the non-Muslims as the minority, because being in a parliament, you can enact a lot of pro-Islam policies and laws. The movement is very grassroot so nobody saw it coming,” stated N4. This situation is accompanied by the emergence of anti-LGBTQIA+ movements in social media and religious raids, which signal a growing trend of persecution.

Further, the Malaysian government actively suppresses narratives that support the existence and equality of LGBTQIA+ individuals. As noted in the report by Human Rights Watch and Justice for Sisters (2022), officials in successive administrations have consistently framed their approach to sexual and gender diversity within the context of “prevention” and “rehabilitation,” often employing the threat of punitive measures. Consistent with this rhetoric, the federal Islamic Affairs Department (JAKIM) and various state-level Islamic departments also organise camps involving efforts aimed at changing the sexual orientation and/or gender identities of Muslim LGBTQIA+ individuals.

Meanwhile in Indonesia, while the criminal code inherited from Dutch colonial criminal law has historically not criminalised same-sex relations, in recent years a push for such criminalisation has been mainly driven by vocal groups which perceive homosexuality as a Western import, despite its historical presence in Indonesian cultures (Walton, 2018). As discussed by the policy researchers Jaffrey and Warburton (2022), Article 411 in the KUHP prohibits all sexual relations outside of marriage represents a significant victory for Islamist groups. Following the polarising 2019 presidential elections, President Joko Widodo’s government adopted a “repressive pluralist” agenda to counter political opposition, including banning Islamist groups and removing religiously conservative civil servants from state agencies. But to avoid alienating broader conservative Muslim groups, Jokowi and his allies have chosen to appease them by accommodating some demands related to moral issues. This strategy aims to prevent larger conflicts and maintain at least a degree of support from conservative religious factions. In this way, fundamentalism flexibly aligns itself with various religious doctrines as well as political trends (Claudio, 2010, p. 15). 

The rise of religious fundamentalism has led to Indonesian feminist and gender justice activists becoming more apprehensive, such as observed by N13, a member of a queer archiving collective. N13 reflected that in the 1980s to early 2000s, activists enthusiastically collaborated with their collective. Activists working in recent times, however, are more hesitant, fearing the potential consequences of being identified as collaborators. As N13 stated, “One of them even raised concerns about whether we could ensure their safety once we made their archives public. Upon reflection, this caution seems rational, considering the massive and systematic threats to the LGBT community that have emerged post-Reformation era, particularly in the 2010s.” 

In contrast, Catholic fundamentalism is evident the Philippines. Faced with weakened social institutions and a government struggling to secure support, many Filipinos turn not only to the official church but also to fundamentalist religious movements. According to Aguiling-Pangalangan (2010, p. 90), fundamentalist groups often exert influence through practices like electoral bloc voting. Bishops and priests actively discourage voting for politicians who endorse reproductive health and women’s rights legislation, deploying large banners in churches branding them as agents of the devil. Meanwhile, religious fundamentalists keep opposing the passage of the SOGIE Equality Bill in Congress, as mentioned earlier.

Another example is as follows. Despite the widespread acceptance of drag performers in Filipino society, particularly in urban areas, there are instances of legal and religious discrimination against LGBTQIA+ individuals. Recently, the drag performer Pura Luka Vega was arrested for their provocative rendition of “The Lord’s Prayer” as Jesus Christ, wearing the Black Nazarene costume, a revered symbol in the Philippines. The arrest was made on the grounds that Luka violated Article 201 of the Criminal Code, which targets “indecent or immoral plays” that “offend any race or religion”. Citing “blasphemy” and a “desecration to Christian religious faith”, politicians, senators, and bishop representatives criticised and supported the criminalisation. Luka defended their performance as an artistic practice and a way of reconciling their Catholic faith with queerness

To sum up, while religious fundamentalism is commonly linked to male Muslim actors, it is crucial to acknowledge that fundamentalism is a diverse trend, rooted in various religious and cultural contexts. It may be portrayed as the preservation of established mainstream values and a resistance to cultural shifts, or as a plea for radical change, dismissing prevailing norms as distortions of purer and earlier traditions (Claudio, 2010, p. 15). State and society become significantly intertwined, thus suggesting the scale of the difficulties faced by activists.

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

Conclusion

The experiences of feminist and gender justice activists in Southeast Asia underscore the need to address not only the legal aspects of democracy, but also the social environment in which freedom of expression is vital. In this intricate context, feminist and gender justice movements are not operating in isolation, but rather within the framework of broader structural and systemic factors that influence and shape them.

As Mohanty (1991, p. 13) noted, we need to understand how such factors, especially as manifested in power dynamics, shape our social and political lives. These dynamics do not just create divisions or situations where some people oppress others. Instead, there are multiple and ever-changing structures of control that interact and position individuals differently, within their specific historical contexts.

Sexism, racism, misogyny, and heterosexism are structurally and systematically ingrained in our social and political systems. Mohanty noted that these interconnected forces are “an integral part of our social fabric” and are further influenced by regressive ethnic nationalism and capitalist consumerism (2003, p. 3). In addition to acknowledging and conducting a thorough analysis and critique of the behaviors, attitudes, institutions, and relational dynamics influenced by these interconnected systems, present-day intersectional feminist politics must also encompass a vision for change and concrete strategies to bring this vision to fruition. As N6 aptly stated, “You need to know that [state actors and all the structural and systemic factors] are just meant to mentally stop and silence you, but you shall not be silent. You need to speak up in a very constructive way. Bring up the issues, bring up the evidence, [ensure] everything is credible and evidence-based. You come up with good recommendations and give them the solution, but you need to expose patriarchy and sexism.”

“And if it makes them feel bad about themselves, it’s because they’re being triggered as they have patriarchal and sexist ideas and mentality. But it’s not our job to make them feel good.”

The question that remains is this: how do these manifestations of structural and systemic factors then affect the daily experiences of Southeast Asian peoples? Why are they so challenging to dismantle? What are other challenges to advancing gender justice faced by the activists? What is the state of our democracy, as gauged from the lived experiences of activists? 

We will explore these questions in Explainer 2.

Footnotes

 [1] Patriarchy has been defined and understood in various ways – here, we include a link to a broad range of attempts to explain how it operates.

[2] The Indonesian Criminal Code traces its origins back to the Dutch colonial era, having been initially instituted in 1918 as Wetboek van Strafrecht voor Nederlandsch Indie. Following Indonesian independence in 1945, the Sukarno government reaffirmed the Code in 1946, renaming it the KUHP. The efforts to amend KUHP have been ongoing since 1963 with various public controversies. The new KUHP will start taking effect on January 2, 2026.

[3] The similar concern regarding reproductive health is also raised by activists on the passage of the Indonesian Health Bill. Further on this, check our Southeast Asia Dispatches episodes on the Indonesian Health Bill and Trans Healthcare.

[4] Notably, PAS’s rise in recent years is arguably tied to the increasing popularity of the secular Democratic Action Party. One nuance to consider here is the polarisation in terms of their respective supporters’ religions and ethnicities (Farish, 2014).

References

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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 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. I am grateful to Fanya Tarissa for assisting me with the country notes, and Song Eraou and Wai Liang Tham for their dynamic editing. On top of all, I am thankful to the research participants for building this research together.

Artist’s Statement

The first known democracy in the world was in Athens over 2500 years ago. Using images of Greek statues and goddesses (Aphrodite & Athena), I aim to invoke the immediate impression of the feminine birthright to speech and equal rights, as an extension of democracy, being sullied.

As mentioned in New Naratif’s Principles of Democracy series, the state of democracy in Southeast Asia has been coloured by debates around its universality, with leaders occasionally calling it “foreign” or “Western”. By bringing together Greek statues on a traditional textile motifs as backgrounds, I wish to invoke these debates. Is democracy—and feminism—doomed to fail because it is not universal, as some authoritarian leaders might have us believe? Or is democracy failing because we have not listened enough to the feminine birthright to speech and equal rights?

Black and yellow are the color of police lines, as could be seen on the mouth on the figurehead in the header image. It evokes both the ineffectiveness and the aggression of the law enforcements in their response to feminist problems. The figurehead is surrounded by praying and persecuting hands encircled in prayer beads, reminiscent of a saint’s halo—a callout to religious fundamentalism. The swords and spears surrounding the figurehead, along with the black and yellow tape on the mouth, further underline surveillance and curtailment of freedom of expression.

Credits

Structural and Systemic Factors Hindering Democracy in SEA: A Feminist Perspective
Democratic Participation Research Series 1 Publication 2

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. “Structural and Systemic Factors Hindering Democracy in SEA: A Feminist Perspective.” New Naratif. Democratic Participation Research Series 1 Publication No. 2. New Naratif. https://new-naratif-final-staging.ew1.rapyd.cloud/structural-and-systemic-factors-hindering-democracy-in-sea-a-feminist-perspective/

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