Swimming Against the Tide: Everyday Struggles of Gender Justice Activists

In this explainer, we examine the existing challenges towards advancing gender justice in Southeast Asia. Based on conversations with regional feminist and gender justice activists, we find that deeply entrenched patriarchal values are evident from the persistence of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). Other significant obstacles include male domination and exclusionary practices against gender issues in governments and ostensibly progressive activist movements alike. Coupled with widespread societal resentment towards the feminist movement and its values, we also explore how these activists define and perceive “feminism”, and consider the significance of the labels that they use in their activism. From a broader perspective, all these challenges are enabled by unjust structures and systems, thus contributing to the deprioritisation of gender justice and posing a fundamental barrier towards building an inclusive democracy.

Trigger warning: sexual and gender-based violence, homophobia, transphobia.

This is the second 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, while the first explainer is available here.

“People say, ‘Why do you talk about women’s rights? Women have rights in Cambodia, so why are you still talking about that?’ We are facing this challenge at the moment. Like, people think that we are equal, but we are actually not.”

N9, a women’s rights activist, remarked dispiritedly on her experiences in Cambodia. Despite decades of progress in the women’s and gender justice movement worldwide, the fruits of these changes are not uniformly distributed. Similar sentiments were shared by our other participants, none of whom regarded themselves as living in equal societies. 

Looking beyond conventional statistics of progress, such as the closure of the gender gap or improvements in gender parity, how can we assess the fulfilment of gender justice in Southeast Asia? How can we boast of having democratic institutions when women—and not to mention individuals of other marginalised genders and sexualities, such as LGBTQIA+ people—still do not experience a sense of equality?

In this explainer, we draw from our interviews, focus group discussion (FGD), and community peer review (CPR) with regional feminist and gender justice activists to outline how existing challenges, which are enabled by the systemic and structural factors which we discussed previously, hinder gender justice in Southeast Asia. We begin by understanding how patriarchal values and institutions, coupled with male dominance in activist spaces, continue to have an impact on Southeast Asian life through the marginalisation of gender-related issues. These dynamics set the stage for a review of reflections on feminist movements in the regional context.

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

SGBV and Entrenched Patriarchal Values 

In the unique and diverse socio-political regional landscape, deeply entrenched patriarchal norms, which were already present in religious and customary practices, were often magnified under authoritarian rule. These have privileged men as primary actors in the maintenance of power and control. Today, patriarchy manifests itself in concrete and violent ways, as evident from the disturbing prevalence of SGBV cases across the region. The norms and expectations associated with patriarchy contribute to their presence, justification, and normalisation. In this section, we explore how violence is distinctly gendered regionally, thus highlighting how feminist and gender justice activism still has a long struggle ahead.

In Cambodia, where N9 works, women and girls remain vulnerable to human trafficking, SGBV, modern-day slavery, and forced labour exploitation, both at the national level and in community settings. This challenging situation is exacerbated by the traditional code of conduct for women, known as “Chbab Srey”, which reinforces harmful gender norms, accepts violence against women, and perpetuates victim-blaming in domestic violence cases as well as derogatory stereotypes of women who challenge traditional gender roles (Wyatt, 2022).

Similarly in the Philippines, deeply entrenched patriarchal customs and traditions can be seen in the pervasiveness of victim-blaming, in the silence surrounding domestic violence, and in the privileging of machismo values. Women are often associated with femininity, weakness, and subservience. Wife-beating, rape jokes, and sexual remarks continue to be normalised and even justified in everyday practices. Valdez et al. (2022) argue that Rodrigo Duterte’s administration (tenure 2016–22) personified and enabled everyday sexism through its misogynistic actions and rhetoric. Victim-blaming is also prevalent in Malaysia, hindering SGBV survivors from accessing the help they need (SUARAM, 2023, p. 114), exacerbated by traditional gender stereotypes that legitimise violence.

Militarisation is also a key consideration. For example, Thailand grapples with military violence, with gay men being particularly vulnerable to sexual assault (Amnesty International, 2020). Such violence is also overt in Myanmar, where decades of military rule worsened conditions for women, leading to a surge in SGBV and discrimination (Wai, 2023, p. 26). This troubling pattern persisted even after a nominally civilian government took office in 2010, and with the junta back in power today, prospects for improvement are low. Disturbingly, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) report (WLB, 2023, pp. 5-6) recorded 555 femicide victims from January to June 2023 alone, citing artillery, gunshots, and airstrikes as well as detainment, immolation, and rape as causes of death. Rural areas, particularly those inhabited by ethnic minorities, witnessed systematic sexual violence by the Burmese military (Wai 2023; Alam & Wood 2022; Ryan 2020; WLB 2014; SWAN & SHRF 2002). This calculated use of sexual violence fits into a systematic and widespread pattern, functioning as a weapon of war and a tool of oppression. 

Since LGTBQIA+ individuals are also often subjected to SGBV, a central focus of regional LGBTQIA+ activism is advocating against punitive and discriminatory laws targeting communities with diverse sexual orientations and gender identities. Besides directly criminalising same-sex sexual conduct, some countries like Malaysia, Singapore, Myanmar, and Brunei also have regulations that impact LGBTQIA+ people in various ways, encompassing aspects like cross-dressing, legal recognition of name or gender changes, and the exclusion of transgender/transsexual survivors in rape laws (Das & Sharma, 2016, p. 2).

Even in countries where laws against same-sex sexual conduct are absent, discrimination against LGBTQIA+ individuals may still be prevalent. Hence, the absence of discriminatory laws alone is not emancipatory. This appears to be the case in Indonesia, where discrimination manifests in forms beyond direct exploitation, bullying, and violence against LGBTQIA+ individuals. N13 remarked that, “[i]f one claims that we have democracy in Indonesia, how do you explain a situation where just walking down the street wearing shorts with coloured hair would get me pelted with stones and called derogatory names like ‘bencong kafir’?” The situation is getting increasingly hostile, with their plight becoming increasingly politicised. This worsening can be attributed to the persistence of negative LGBTQIA+ mass media representations, which tend to focus on LGBTQIA+ individuals in criminal contexts – the majority of news articles frame queer people as perpetrators (Primastika, 2023). Often, these reports rely heavily on police statements, which link the alleged perpetrators’ behaviours to their sexual orientation. Media outlets typically reproduce these statements without offering critique or verifying the information with LGBTQIA+ advocacy groups or organisations dedicated to queer rights. 

Similarly, in Laos, LGBTQIA+ people also lack legal protection, primarily because the government does not officially recognise their identities. A 36-participant study by APCOM in 2020 reveals that LGBTQIA+ Laotians “live in a relatively tolerant society in which, however, they cannot express explicitly who they are.” Common forms of discrimination include the denial of individual recognition, stigma, discrimination, and a lack of mechanisms for reporting violence and discrimination.

Overall, all our research participants concur that in comparison to other concerns in their respective countries, gender justice-related issues continue to be sidelined. While they recognise some domestic advancements, they also acknowledge persistent challenges. A key point to remember is that because patriarchal values manifest in many aspects of our lives, women, just like men, can also exhibit sexism (hooks, 2000b: viii). Thus, it would be wrong for us to be trapped into essentialist patterns of thinking, such as by perceiving the feminist and gender justice movement as simply pitting women against men or insisting that men are the sole cause of all our problems. However, this does not excuse or justify male domination, which hinders progress towards a just society.

Male Domination in Political and Activist Spaces

“For me, it’s quite hopeless [to work] because these people who are known for their violence still get a round of applause, they still have a space in activism. Nobody bans them, they still can talk in public and media. And when feminists try to raise that issue, it’s like we are cast out and they are saying, ‘If you speak out, you are ruining the movement’.”

N2’s reflection suggests that some male perpetrators of SGBV are still being accepted by activists, especially if they are major figures. These challenges are largely attributed to male domination within government and human rights activism spaces, which reinforce misogynistic logic and its values that tend to exclude gender rights from human rights. 

Formal political spaces

We first turn to formal political representation. While there has been a rise in women’s participation in electoral politics in Southeast Asia over the past decades, the field is still primarily perceived as being male-dominated (Blackburn, 2013, p. 10). The visible presence of women in top political offices, such as those of prime minister, president, or opposition leader, does not necessarily indicate the success of a feminist movement. As N10 put it, Indonesian feminist organisations still struggle with representation in electoral politics:

“There are many feminist organisations that are trying their best to make sure that gender issues are discussed in a bigger context, but it’s not an easy job. They will be dealing with mostly men, or even women too, who don’t have a gendered perspective, so it’s really challenging and tiring.” (emphasis ours)

N10 went on to highlight that Indonesia has implemented a 30% quota for women candidates in Parliament (see also Perdana & Hillman, 2020)—however, note that these women are not necessarily elected, and formal political participation in government is lower than this figure. Regardless, such representation is often seen as a key step towards bridging gender inequalities, and various actors expend significant efforts working within these formal systems. However, quotas alone do not ensure that all female representatives necessarily hold feminist or gender justice perspectives that could drive feminist agendas. After all, elected candidates may instead perpetuate male dominance in politics.

This sentiment was echoed during CPR1, where one participant noted that women’s participation in formal politics may be interpreted as being tokenistic, where they are reduced to being merely “puppets” who perpetuate male-centric values. They pointed out how Pheu Thai, one of Thailand’s largest conservative parties, has placed women politicians in leadership roles multiple times. Currently, the party is led by a female leader, Paetongtarn Shinawatra, who is the daughter of the party’s founder and ex-prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra. By forming a coalition government (“Bhumjaithai”) with junta-appointed senate and army-backed parties, the predominantly male interests of conservative forces remain represented despite the significant role played by women.

Besides that, the Thai government cleverly uses gender representation as a tool for continued oppression while ostensibly appearing progressive. This is reflected by the presence of the กองร้อยน้ำหวาน, or special female officer units in the Royal Thai Police. They are often deployed for crowd-control missions as a “shield” for the authorities. Any use of physical violence against these officers can thus be framed as violence against women, thus overshadowing the act of resisting state authorities. “This shows how feminist movements must critically examine issues of representation and recognise how women can also play a role in perpetuating patriarchal regimes,” said our CPR1 participant.

N14 also raised concerns about women’s inclusion in the formal decision-making process. According to her, women are still conditioned to perceive domestic and reproductive work as fundamental responsibilities. Even when they take part in class-based political action, they are usually relegated to the “private” sphere, and thus remain invisible to the “malestream eye” even when in “public” (Stivens, 1991, pp. 20-21). Our CPR1 participants noted how domestic limitations are among the reasons why many women cannot participate in political movements, which aligns with the “hot stove argument” that the anthropologist Edwin Ardener (2006, p. 48) discussed. As noted in “Beyond the Red Circle”, an article in the Asian Labour Review, women’s engagement in practical household tasks then leaves them with limited time and motivation to participate in shaping societal models (in this case within Indonesian plantation unions). Further, within the public sphere, women are often relegated to roles of assistance instead of strategic involvement. N14 observed such a trend in her work with women at the grassroots level. “During gatherings, they are responsible for preparing drinks and snacks. However, when crucial decisions about the village’s affairs are made, they are excluded, and only their husbands are summoned.”

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.

Civil society spaces

Within civil society, men remain in a dominant position, thus reflecting a similar broad pattern of male dominance. A CPR1 participant noted that grassroots activism is often predominantly led by female activists, while men tend to take the lead in policymaking and broader-scale activism. This dynamic suggests how different forms of activism are gendered: one is female-centric and grounded, while the other is male-centric and elitist. A contributing factor may be how social work, especially at the grassroots level, is often lower-paid. Some women activists may tolerate this lower pay in the belief that they can “marry up”, in line with societal norms. Such tolerance may perpetuate gendered differences in activism.

Some participants were also directly excluded from activist circles due to the issues that they advocated for, or more blatantly, because of their gender identity. N3, who works closely with sex workers, claimed that human rights activists, despite advocating for equality on the surface, may not embody those values in daily life. In describing this exclusionary environment, N3 explained how “[t]hey might only demonstrate such values in their professional roles.”

Indonesian activists have a specific term for such (male) activists: “abang-abangan kiri”. So-called progressive Indonesian male activists appear vocal in their activism but exhibit problematic behaviour through their patronising and sexist attitudes. N13 frankly mentioned how:

“[m]any human rights activists are actually homophobic but don’t show it, while not all feminists accept transgender as women. Among ‘abang-abangan kiri’, there’s often misogyny and homophobia. In liberal feminist circles, class awareness is lacking. Where to go, then?”

Similarly, N6 explained that:

Those elite men who also work as human rights lawyers or activists always want to be the ones speaking, taking up space, gatekeeping, being territorial. While it’s us intersectional feminists who are actually building coalitions, bringing voices of local women to the forefront of the human rights response, and creating space for other people to be seen and heard.”

 A FGD1 participant explained how this exclusionary environment operates.

“I remember at one point in 2017, people called me out because of my queer side after I low-key came out on social media and I got backlash from other activists, which was quite ironic. The activism in Indonesia has been still very masculine until today and I don’t feel comfortable with that.”

Having faced a similar situation when working in the media industry, they attempted to seek out other like-minded queer individuals, but to no avail.

“I realised that the suffering that I experienced was not an individual thing, but rather a collective one; it’s like a collective trauma. I tried to move from one space to the other to check whether I would fit in one, but I gave up.”

Meanwhile N6, as a member of an intersectional feminist organisation working in a regional context, observed that many feminists feel apprehensive about their work. They find it necessary to maintain a low profile or to limit their actions to be able to engage in activism. Such actions stem from a fear of reprisal and being judged by their male counterparts in the field. 

“There are more and more young women wanting to work on women’s rights and work as feminists but do not necessarily feel welcome to join the human rights field, because there was this understanding that human rights defenders and movements are mainly led by men.”

These experiences and observations highlight the persistence of male domination in our formal politics and activism, reflecting in turn broader societal trends. Formal representation alone is insufficient to ensure the fulfilment of feminist and gender justice agendas, while activists striving for a better society often tend to exclude women and LGBTQIA+ individuals, which can marginalise gender issues by extension. The need to be critical cannot be emphasised enough.

Marginalisation of Gender Issues Within Human Rights Movements

SGBV and entrenched patriarchal values as well as male domination in various spaces have led to the marginalisation of gender rights as unworthy of prioritisation. As discussed above, our participants still perceive human rights movements in their respective countries as male-dominated and masculine-coded fields. In this context, gender rights are often neglected despite being part of the broad spectrum of human rights. Our FGD1 participants describe how frequently public and government actors, as well as human rights advocates themselves, dismiss the relevance of gender rights. Instead, they stress the need to prioritise other pressing issues, such as economic recessions, the environmental crisis, the absence of disaster mitigation policies, and the emergence of military coups. In short, the rights of individuals of marginalised genders and sexualities are not only considered in isolation, but also as less significant in comparison to overall national development.

Questioning the tendency to categorise women’s issues as separate from human rights issues, N5 asked: “What do you think we are? Are we not humans?”

This pattern of exclusion can be traced back to the early days of women’s movements in Asia, as described by the historian Mina Roces (2010). Historically, women’s rights activists have faced a dual challenge: opposing colonial and authoritarian regimes, while contending with gender discrimination prevalent within the nationalist movements with which they were aligned. Besides Roces, Jayawardena (1986) and Blackburn (2013) have highlighted the inherent colonial-era tension between feminism and nationalism. As political participants in independence movements, women activists were often pressured to prioritise “national interests” over “women’s issues” in liberation struggles. 

This tension resurfaced in the post-independence period, where feminists and gender justice activists found themselves having to prioritise national interests over those related to women and gender. The ascendant authoritarian regimes, which were typically male-dominated and embraced male-centric ideologies, defined national interests in ways that often excluded women and gender-related concerns, instead propagating their own definitions of femininity and women’s roles in society to suit their political agendas (Roces, 2010, p. 11).

Focusing only on the ongoing neglect of women’s rights within progressive movements, however, overlooks how LGBTQIA+ activists and workers often feel further excluded in such spaces. Our participants expressed how their specific concerns were viewed as insignificant, both by governments and broader human rights movements. A CPR1 participant highlighted how although the trans-exclusionary radical feminist (TERF) movement is not very prominent in Thailand at present, conservative civil society organisations have collaborated with the junta-backed government to push for marriage equality rights while overlooking the rights of nonbinary individuals, who are perceived as potential obstacles to the bill’s passing.

Arguably, such exclusions are linked to internalised queerphobia, as discussed during CPR1. Cisgendered heterosexual (cishet) male and female activists often perceive queer activists as being only capable of addressing gender issues. One participant mimicked the words of their activist colleague, “Environmental activism is already a significant topic, why add more issues to it?” Any efforts to improve sensitivity and inclusivity in relation to LGBTQIA+ activists and their concerns are sometimes viewed by cishet activists as potentially causing a backlash to their own activism. The despair of knowing that gender issues have never been a priority has led N13 to wonder: 

How far will people go when the push comes to shove? If I were in a position where my safety as a queer person is tested, how far will my allies go to stand by me? […]Most of the time, people tend to believe that LGBTIQ issues won’t lead to global catastrophe or hunger. Well, we can affirm that the discrimination we face can easily obstruct our access to employment, healthcare, and many other things. How does that sound now?”

A participant in CPR1 suggested that countering the deprioritisaton of gender issues must also consider how structural injustice operates. For example, the persistence of structural poverty must compel feminist and gender justice activists to consider socioeconomic class. In Malaysia, for example, the lowest-earning individuals, who broadly fall into what is commonly known as the Bottom 40% (B40) category, still struggle to lift themselves above the poverty line. Therefore, “[i]t would be difficult for these individuals to engage in discussions about gender rights while they are struggling to feed themselves”. But deprioritising gender issues, such as those affecting women and individuals of marginalised genders (e.g., around employment, access to a healthy environment, healthcare, and education) can lead to a decline in their overall quality of life, with detrimental individual, communal, and societal impacts. This serves as a reminder that gender issues are intricately connected to others.

Reflecting on Feminist Movements

“I don’t believe we have a feminist movement in Myanmar. Within the women’s movement, we tend to use the term ‘gender’ and avoid ‘feminism’ as the word ‘feminist’ has been introduced with the connotation of being ‘radical’. When we translate ‘feminist’ into our language, it becomes ‘an activist working for women’s rights.’ This translation sometimes leads to more resistance from men, creating tension. They understood ‘feminist’ as an extremist who primarily advocates for women without considering men.”

Read in light of the challenges above—SGBV and entrenched patriarchy, male domination in political and activist spaces, as well as the resulting marginalisation of gender issues—this statement from N1 is not surprising. Most of our research participants concur that misinterpretations of feminism have led to the following stereotypical view of the movement and its advocates. As extensively elucidated by bell hooks (2000a), the feminist movement’s initial branding as a “women’s liberation movement” suggested a historically narrow focus on women. The effects have lasted until now: feminists are usually popularly defined, from N6’s experience, as a bunch of “angry women who want to take power over men.” 

Feminism has been criticised by traditionalists, political conservatives, and religious fundamentalists, who argue that because it originates from a foreign culture, it has no relevance to individuals in the Global South. They claim that feminism alienates women and diverts them from their cultural, religious, and familial responsibilities (Jayawardena, 2016). This has led to the rise of anti-“social justice warrior” (SJW) movements in countries like Thailand, as noted in CPR1. This is also why, as N4 stated, a lot of activists in Malaysia are very reluctant to call themselves feminists, because feminism is generally seen as going “against their religion”. This sentiment was echoed by a participant of FGD1, who argued that feminism is seen as an aspect of Western culture and as another agenda opposed to Islam. 

Nevertheless, as Jayawardena (2016) eloquently discussed, feminism was not a Western imposition; rather, it resulted from historical conditions that brought about significant material and ideological shifts for women. While the influence of imperialism and Western ideas was undoubtedly a crucial aspect of these historical conditions, it is important to acknowledge that early movements advocating for feminism have indeed existed and thrived in various non-European colonies, despite being often obscured in historical narratives (ibid.).

For Mohanty (2003), feminism is depicted as challenging the notion of sisterhood, that is, as an assumption based solely on gender. Mohanty instead argues that genuine sisterhood must be built through historical, practical, and political engagement, and that the understanding of male violence should be contextualised within individual societies to engender more effective change. The core challenge is how various forms of feminism have reduced women to a uniform and monolithic group, thus oversimplifying the intricate interplay between class, culture, religion, and various ideological frameworks that shape individual identities (Mohanty, 2003, p. 39).

But this concept of sisterhood remains confined to women, which our queer activists noted in CPR1. Feminism, despite addressing male dominance, is interpreted as still operating within a binary female-male framework with its attendant inequalities. This limitation prompted many queer individuals to establish their own spaces, where they prioritised a “queer” label in their work.

These varying perceptions pose risks to our participants, leading to most of them being reluctant to self-identify as “feminists.” Only a small number proudly introduced themselves as feminists, while the rest consciously chose not to adopt the same label. Our FGD1 participants concurred that labels do affect their work and how they conduct it. “It kind of affects how the public sees you and they don’t want to be put like a certain label by the society or the public because then that would limit their audience,” one participant said. 

Labels, as seen above, are important to acknowledge as signifying particular traditions that inspire activists, but they can also create exclusionary bubbles. Our FGD1 participant stated:

“For someone trans like me, feminism is a very risky and contested thing. I don’t carry the card that reads ‘I’m a feminist’, which is kind of sad really because I do admire the whole history of the movement and its goals. But it’s just been a little bit too poisonous in recent years because of the whole TERF movement.”

Another mentioned that it is not safe to openly say that they are a queer feminist. “I only show it in my work as I always use a gender perspective. That’s the safest thing I can do for now.”

Despite their hesitation to adopt the term “feminist” as their own, this does not negate their actual engagement in feminist practices. One framed their work as “liberation”, going beyond just rights to discuss oppression and how it can be dismantled. Some proudly embraced their queerness, as suggested by the labels like “queer archivist” or “queer feminist”. As N12 explained:

“When we are guided by queer feminist ideas, we know that all of our rights are interconnected, there’s no way that we queer people can have our rights, if masculinity is not deconstructed, or patriarchy is not deconstructed, because these things go hand in hand. So I think at the end of the day, what is happening, everywhere is connected. And it’s not just about us advancing our rights, as individuals and as groups, but it’s really looking at how we are in this ecosystem together, and all of our oppression really is interconnected and affecting everybody.” 

With the evolution of feminist theories and movements, this struggle expanded to embrace inclusivity, thus transcending the confines of women’s liberation. Hooks (2000a) has provided a more inclusive definition of feminism: a struggle to eradicate the deeply rooted cultural foundations and root causes of sexism and various forms of oppression. 

N9 concurred with this definition, adding that feminism is not limited to any particular group. As she explained, “[f]eminism is a concept where the principles of gender inclusivity, power-sharing, equity, and care all come together. So, as long as you embody qualities like transparency, care, and transformation, you are a feminist.” This aligns with N14’s inclusive understanding of feminism, which advocates fighting against control over bodies, sexualities, and thoughts, including by state-led capitalism.

“A feminist is a feminist, and there are various analytical tools that we should not limit ourselves to use. However, defining feminism as an ideological basis that we use against all forms of oppression, that must be clear and used—that’s what truly matters.”

This realisation inspired N6 to envision her organisation as an intersectional feminist one. Her goal is to provide a haven for individuals entering the field of activism, enabling them to fully express themselves without concealment, restriction, or fear. Equally significant is its creation of a safe space where activists can voice their thoughts without repercussion or judgement, regardless of their gender. “When it comes to feminism [it] is not just open to women or LGBTQIA+ people, but it’s also open to men or whoever who also embrace feminist values.”

These self-definitions by our research participants show that we can define feminism in our own ways to ensure its intersectionality. This means that it is possible to ground the concept of feminism in our regional context. A CPR1 participant described feminism as “a set of values to dismantle inequality regarding gender and the structures that uphold it within Southeast Asia”, which also acknowledges how Southeast Asian countries have been historically structured by colonialism. 

During our discussion, we synthesised the above reflections as follows:

“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.”

We hope that this working definition can be useful in further shaping our collective efforts for gender justice in Southeast Asia. 

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

Conclusion

The intersectionality of the various issues above highlights how feminism is not simply about women achieving equality with men. Feminism is a struggle against all manifestations of oppression, encompassing not only women but also other marginalised groups. As hooks (2000a, p. 42) aptly states, the “[f]eminist movement is vital both in its power to liberate us from the terrible bonds of sexist oppression and in its potential to radicalize and renew liberation struggle.” The foundation of future feminist struggles must be solidly based on a recognition of the need to eradicate the underlying cultural basis and causes of sexism and other forms of group oppression (p. 33). Without challenging and changing these structures, no feminist reforms will have a long-range impact.

In conceptual terms, there is a difference between liberation and freedom. As Hannah Arendt (1963) writes in On Revolution (1990, p. 29): “liberation may be the condition of freedom but by no means leads automatically to it.” Thus, the creation of not only tolerant but also supportive environments where individuals of marginalised genders and sexualities can live and work in peace is needed. Doing so would require a shift from what Johan Galtung (1969) describes as negative peace, i.e., the absence of harm alone, and towards positive peace, i.e., the production of conditions, institutions, and values that can support the work of all individuals. Only in this way can the freedom of democratic participation be ensured. As frankly stated by N11:

“If we want to strengthen democracy in the country, it’s important to make sure that sexual orientation and gender identity are not seen as hindering development. If we still have that kind of mindset, that means that we couldn’t go anywhere [with our democracy] because it’s very basic.” 

Feminism, through its intersectional approach, has emphasised the need to pass the proverbial mic. It is essential in creating opportunities and safe environments for women and LGBTQIA+ individuals to assert themselves as advocates for change, thus enabling them to amplify their voices. N14 connected this concept with the practice of democracy, highlighting how the current political system, as embedded within patriarchy, often falls short in providing marginalised people with the necessary platforms to express their aspirations. “Once they speak out, they are actually very strong,” she emphasised.

This explainer has shed light on the lived experiences of feminists—whether or not activists actively identified as such—and gender justice activists in their respective countries and serves as a crucial starting point to contemplate the emergence of regional transnational feminist movements. Are such movements possible, and if so, what steps must be taken to bring them into existence and to sustain them afterwards?

Find out the answers in Explainer 3.

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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. 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

Medusa is a mythical Greek figure known for her hair of venomous snakes and infamous ability to turn into those who gazed into her eyes into stones. What is less spoken about, however, is the reason Medusa had them in the first place: she was punished by the Goddess Minerva/Athena for having intercourse with Neptune/Poseidon in Athena’s temple. Elizabeth Johnston’s November 2016 Atlantic essay argued that Medusa’s story was a rape narrative, and a story of victim-blaming—calling Medusa the original ‘Nasty Woman’, haunting the collective imagination as a symbol of female agency that often rises and threatens male authority. With her terrifying visage and lethal power, Medusa embodies the core of the feminine rage—her body exploited, her honor besieged, and betrayed by a fellow woman, she was nonetheless condemned as the Villain and the Monster, and Perseus had to slay her in the end.

In the main image, Medusa was seen with her hair done up in a sanggul/konde and clad in a traditional batik fabric top, looking over with barely hidden fury at a hand and a sword pointing at her neck. 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 a Greek figure and traditional Indonesian elements, 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 voices of the female rage?

Credits

Swimming Against the Tide: Everyday Struggles of Gender Justice Activists
Democratic Participation Research Series 1 Publication 3

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. “Swimming Against the Tide: Everyday Struggles of Gender Justice Activists.” New Naratif. Democratic Participation Research Series 1 Publication No. 3. New Naratif. https://new-naratif-final-staging.ew1.rapyd.cloud/swimming-against-the-tide-everyday-struggles-of-gender-justice-activists/

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