The inauguration of President Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s first ever female president, speaks to the great leaps that Taiwan has made over the last few decades towards gender equality.
Indeed, there are now more Taiwanese women in the job force than ever before, increasing from 38 percent in 1978 to around 51 percent in 2014 according to a Gender Inequality Index published by Taiwan’s Statistical Bureau in January. Women’s educational attainment has skyrocketed from the previous generation and the wage gap has lowered considerably over the last couple of decades. The end of martial law in 1987 heralded a new era for women in Taiwan, as more women began participating in politics and social movements. Now, with nearly 40 percent of the Legislative Yuan being female lawmakers, the Taiwanese government appears poised to do even more for women at the national level. Reinforcing this idea, at a forum during Woman’s Day, Tsai told the audience of young women that her administration was going “to overturn” gender stereotypes and build a “gender-friendly” Taiwan.
However, there is a darker side to whatever optimism the new administration may have about gender equity in Taiwan in the next eight years. In Taiwan, the real problems of ingrained chauvinism and the gender stereotypes that continue to exist will not easily be eradicated by government policies alone. These gender biases run deep, contained within the Confucian doctrines that permeates throughout East Asia and has festered like a tropical ulcer immune to the reality that women are also equal human beings.
The recent case of the curfew at the girls’ dorms of Taiwan’s Fu Jen Catholic University proves just that. There are laws that prevent schools from discriminating on the basis of gender or gender identity. Yet, up until early June, female students were subject to a midnight curfew at the university’s dormitories — while male students were not. For years the school administration, spouting paternalistic self-righteousness, has remained unwilling to admit the policy as discriminatory, insisting that the policy was simply protecting female students from harm.
Cases like these show that the optimistic statistics mentioned earlier hide the fact that Taiwan’s patriarchal society still maintains ownership of women and their bodies. Sure, the society no longer subjects women to a bound-footed life of endless childbearing, but some men in Taiwan still believe they can dictate how women should look, when they may or may not have children, and even with whom women should be sleeping with.
There’s a clear set of expectations set and overseen by men for how women should look in Taiwan. Just tune in to local television or open a newspaper, or pick up a magazine. The largely male-owned-and-led mainstream media in Taiwan remain extremely superficial in their coverage of women‘s “issues” by focusing on pushing products or giving styling advice. Fat shaming of women is still oftentimes considered comedic material on talk shows. News features on kawaii female employees at McDonalds are a thing. When President Tsai Ing-wen was a presidential candidate, there was a point last year when the local media and Taiwanese netizens took the time to compare her appearance in a Time magazine photo to that of wrinkled green Star Wars character Yoda, dismantling her looks rather than her policy ideas.
Furthermore, certain state policies reinforce some of the gender biases rather than work to eliminate it.
While abortion exists in Taiwan, it exists with many caveats. As an associate professor at Taiwan’s Asia University pointed out in a study published nearly a decade ago, Taiwan’s Genetic Health Law, passed in 1984, provided for legal, conditional abortions with the intention of curbing Taiwan’s population growth. It was never about women’s reproductive rights.
Under the Genetic Health Law, husbands, parents, as well as doctors, have the authority to determine whether a woman is entitled to a legal abortion, giving control over women’s bodies to someone other than the women themselves. This added qualification of needing to notify a husband or a guardian in order to obtain an abortion was a rule that the US once held as well, until the US Supreme Court overturned this policy in 1992 to protect the rights of women in abusive relationships. Taiwan, in retaining such a policy, basically gives men veto power over a woman’s decision about what to do with her body when she’s the one directly impacted by the baby. A recently released survey reveals that mothers in Taiwan continue to bear the brunt of the child-rearing responsibilities even as many choose to stay in the workforce, making it all the more unjustifiable why women are not given complete authority over when to have kids.
Men don’t stop there when offering their unsolicited two cents on how Taiwanese women should look and act. Taiwanese women are sometimes derided for dating or marrying western foreigners; comments on these mixed-race relationships don’t just end at putting down the foreign man but also include suggestions that the woman is herself easy or grossly flawed in some way. For instance, during a Taiwanese man’s verbal onslaught of one such couple on the Taiwan metro last November, he was videotaped not only calling the foreign man “trash” and “ugly,” but also calling the woman “Taiwanese trash” and a “whore.” Terms like “西餐妹” (Western-food-eating woman) are abound on Taiwanese social media and traditional media alike, adding to the litany of online buzzwords like 風騷 and 騷妹 (both terms are the equivalent of “slut”) that do nothing good for Taiwanese women. Many of the posts or articles using this term paint an ugly portrayal of the women, whether it’s about the women’s alleged feelings of superiority towards other Taiwanese, or disapproving the women as promiscuous.
The West’s imperialist history of atrocities and unwelcomed cultural and political imposition naturally makes people elsewhere in the world resentful. Here in Taiwan, the undeniable privilege that Caucasian foreigners receive, and the preferential treatment they’re given, has allowed resentment to ferment. For instance, foreigners earn around double the average salary in Taiwan by teaching English (it’s not uncommon for cram schools to offer English teachers about NT $70,000 a month, while the average monthly salary in Taiwan is NT $39,000 according to the Ministry of Labor), even when they have little to no experience.
In a twisted effort to feel better about their disadvantageous social standing, some Taiwanese men perpetuate the illusion of their superiority over women. By demeaning women in intercultural couples, they are trying to feel better about not “acquiring” those women in classic sour grape jealousy — which further demotes women to mere objects that could be simply won over, akin to a trophy that somehow allows local men to gain access to some of the resources and privilege owned by western foreigners. Depicting women as “sluts” who allow easy access to foreign men robs Taiwanese women the respect and autonomy they deserve when it comes to choices they make in their personal love lives.
In Taiwan, we can laugh off a remarks made by Chinese commentators about how President Tsai Ing-wen is an inadequate leader because she’s unmarried and childless. But not only should it be a somber reminder that a male Taiwanese politician said nearly the same thing during President Tsai’s presidential campaign, but also that there are deep and entrenched expectations about women’s “place” here in Taiwan’s society that we choose to ignore, or even help perpetuate. When a woman is expected to look a certain way, to give birth at a certain time or date a specific type of person, she does not enjoy gender equality.
(Feature photo by AdinaVoicu, from Pixabay)