Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 35, July 2014

Loving Warm Families:
Exploring Gender Equality within a Bangkok Slum

Pilapa Esara[1]

  1. Since 1992, the Thai State’s varying regimes have actively sought to promote and regulate the family as a key social institution in its goals to modernise. In its quinquennial National Economic and Social Development (NESDB) Plans, the State promotes a modern vision of itself maintaining neo-liberal economic growth and core, nation-based standards of democracy, equality and human rights. Beginning with its Fifth plan[2] and taking on greater emphasis in the Seventh plan,[3] the family institution is portrayed as requiring restoration and external organisation to facilitate its ability to cultivate 'good, capable members of society who can contribute to national development.'[4] In the collective endeavour to promote the 'spiritual, cultural and moral development' of its citizens, the Plans encourage the development of women to their full potential.[5] The Seventh plan recommends that laws be revised and enforced to prevent sex-discrimination in 'recognition of the full value of women in society and equality of participation between men and women.'[6]
  2. In this research I examine public and local discourses on marriage from the viewpoint of residents in an officially-designated Bangkok 'slum community.' Slum settlements can be characterised as areas where residents lack housing rights, with temporary housing structures and an absence of infrastructure like piped water systems. I consider the degree to which slum residents' perspectives on marriage corresponded with the State's construct of heterosexual marriage as the only legitimate venue for family formation. Interviews and participant-observations with local residents revealed on-the-ground perspectives of how economic development and rapid social change have affected Thai gender relationships. Interviewees emphasised to me a common view of contemporary marriages as egalitarian partnerships, where today's wives have more rights and freedom than those of the past. These attitudes associated today's marriages with estimations of how far Thai society had progressed. For these interviewees, marriage was a vehicle of modernity, through which they could enact modern ways of being by adopting values and attitudes, which diverged from old-fashioned patriarchal traditions.[7]
  3. While such local meanings of matrimony may reflect a desire for more companionate marriages based on romance and trust rather than obligation, it can also reflect the ideological shifts needed for gender revolution. Studies of North American and European cultural contexts indicate that 'uneven gender revolution' or a stalled movement has occurred, where women's equity gains in various labour markets and legal spheres have lost momentum and traction in promoting similar changes within intimate and familial relationships.[8] Despite its unmet promise, the push for gender equality has inspired activists internationally and contributed to international discourse on human rights, both of which have impacted upon Thai society.
  4. The case-study-based marital views presented here,[9] from fieldwork conducted in 2000, 2003–2004 and 2006 provide a window through which to analyse emerging marriage meanings as they relate to constructs of the family, gender difference and national belonging. Most of the slum residents I interviewed had primary school educations or less, and were of provincial origins.[10] Many of the women among this group had migrated to Bangkok in their teens and had worked in urban factories, private homes, and construction sites before marrying and finding livelihoods in the informal sector. These rural-urban migrants[11] easily fall into the State's categorical target populations of 'backward rural' areas and of 'slum dwellers'[12] and as such, their views on contemporary marriage as well as the constraints they face as 'cheap' labour provide an important, though absent perspective in State-led discussions on how families can promote national development or contribute to gender equality.
  5. My interviewees were less concerned with modernisation itself and more preoccupied with family/work balance and daily survival. Few studies examine marriage and family/work balance in Asian contexts (with the exception of Japan) and these notable few focus primarily on how Asian migrant caregivers facilitate gender revolutions in core-economy contexts.[13] I seek to remedy this gap in the literature by focusing on gender equality desires in a Bangkok case-study and, through using that case, providing an understanding of how aspirations of equality can be co-opted and obstructed by ideology and institutional inequalities. Theoretically, I conceptualise marriage as a hierarchal relationship of redistribution and oppression, drawing on feminist scholars such as Ann Whitehead, Henrietta Moore, bell hooks and Patricia Collins.[14] A focus on people's perceptions and experiences of marriage allows for an analytical framework that takes into account the affective dimensions of gendered relationships. As Jennifer Hirsch and Holly Wardlow note in their cross-cultural volume on contemporary marriages, 'it is necessary to attend both to the socially, politically, and economically structured inequalities which couples negotiate and to the possibilities for tenderness, pleasure and cooperation that exists in spite of these inequalities.'[15] Michel Foucault wrote that 'discourse can be both an instrument and an effect of power, but also a hindrance.'[16] I see localised discourses and cultural practices as having the potential to undermine hegemonic gender ideologies[17] and correspondingly assess my interviewees and the authors and officials, which represent the Thai State, as agents in discursive negotiation over the meanings and functions of marriage, equality and development.

    Constructing marriage
  6. At the time of my fieldwork in the slum, Thailand was slowly recovering from the 1997 economic crisis. The decades prior to the crisis had witnessed rapid change resulting in industrialisation, urbanisation, increased labour migration and the feminisation of the wage-earning labour force. Concerns over Thai traditional identity increased with changes in women's traditional gender roles. The increased mobility of women to pursue educational and employment opportunities gave new generations of women a sense of autonomy and space within and outside of marriage to engage in sexual experimentation, sometimes manifesting as tom-dee relationships or teenage pregnancy,[18].Premarital sex for females, who are idealised as sexually passive, is generally disapproved of among Thais.[19] Megan Sinnot instructively points out that extramarital heterosexuality, rather than homosexuality, is perceived as damaging to women's reputations.[20]
  7. Thai government and media discourse portrays female youth sexuality as one of several consequences of westernisation, which is viewed as both a source of panic by past government officials and a threat to traditional Thai identity.[21] The antidote promoted in public discourse is that of 'warm families,' based on loving heterosexual monogamous relationships.[22] Along these lines, the behaviours of women in particular became focal points for critique, ranging from the rural mothers who migrated to the capital for employment leaving behind children and the elderly to career-minded professional couples whose supposed lack of parental supervision was perceived by the State as imperiling the next generation's moral development.[23] The Seventh NESDB Plan (1992–1996) described changing family structure as undermining 'the sense of security, reassurance, caring and warmth generally associated with the family institution,' declaring that the resultant imbalances could cause problems like 'family disintegration, maltreated and abandoned children, drug addiction, and threats and risks to society and property.'[24] This Plan also outlined the goal of strengthening the 'stability of the family institution' using campaigns to encourage responsible parenting as well as government support of marriage counselling services.[25] In associating the decline of the family with worsening societal ills, an implicit blame is placed on mothers who fail in their familial and moral obligations. Into the 2000s, the triad of family, marriage and moral mothers remained central to notions of national development and to rhetoric concerning the country's resilience to the risks inherent in globalisation.[26]
  8. The Government asserts its right to define and regulate marriages as the purported cornerstone of State-sanctioned 'warm families.' Adopted in 1935, Book V (Marriage and Family Law) of Thailand's Civil and Commercial Code constructs marriage as a monogamous relationship between a man and a woman, thereby negating the possibility of same-sex marriage.[27] This law is based on a sacred legal text from the fourteenth century, called the Three Seals Law, which acknowledged only heterosexual intercourse as an act constituting marriage.[28] The earlier text also endorsed polygyny, providing guidelines by which the rank of wives in polygynous households could be determined.[29] Virada Somswasdi notes how the Three Seals Law formalised a husband's authority to choose where the family settled, whether the wife could earn an income, how to raise the children as well as the right to whip his wife.[30] Over time, the legal construct of marriage codified a hierarchy based on gender difference, where men's authority over women was institutionalised. The current law (amended in 1976) recognises gender equality as a right, but Virada points out remaining deficiencies such as the lack of acknowledgement of marital rape, or divorce guidelines which penalise a wife's promiscuity but not a husband's.[31]
  9. The narrow legal construction of marriage as a heterosexual relationship reinforces not only sex and gender differences by valuing males and masculinity, but it also reinforces sexuality differences by failing to acknowledge family formation between same-sex couples as legitimate. As Wardlow and Hirsch point out, 'the social expectation that young people will ultimately enter a heterosexual and reproductive marriage reinforces gender as both identity category and practice,' where young men and women are socialised to behave and to expect to be future wives/mothers and husbands/fathers.[32] The Thai State's contemporary efforts to moralise families, by endowing them with the responsibility of creating ethical citizens, operates to institutionalise discrimination against women, the unmarried, and those who identify as non-heterosexual. From the State's perspective, homosexuality cannot be normal and the only appropriate forum for women's heterosexuality is within marriage.[33] As Lisa Hunter notes in her scholarship on the 'gay marriage' debate in the U.S., the politics which stigmatises sexuality outside of marriage parallels the stigmatisation of acting against traditional gender roles.[34] Nan Duggan, also referring to the U.S. context but applicable to Thailand, argues that fear of same-sex marriages taps into larger concerns over the possibility of government tolerance of single parent or unmarried households, and of women's independent choices irrespective of husbands or fathers, which threaten the stability of heterosexual unions and the pre-existing social order.[35] In other words, contemporary Thai constructs of marriage reinforce the presumed superiority and domination of heterosexuals and men, in clear contradiction to the State's own stated goals of democracy and equality.[36]

    Governing sexuality
  10. It is important to consider the ideological roots of government intervention into family formation, in general. Given a mandate to maintain order, governments legitimate their surveillance and regulation of the population under their authority. A government's purview can be defined broadly to include the population's biological and cultural reproduction. In hierarchal patriarchal states, where political power is masculinsed, the government's role as population regulator and protector can be used to justify the control of women's sexual activities and bodies. Government control of women's sexuality has been used to maintain the boundaries between social groups and to perpetuate pre-existing social inequalities. For instance, this was the case with the controversial population control policies imposed by the regime of former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore during the 1980s. As Geraldine Heng and Janadas Devan point out in their analysis of these policies, which pressured mostly college-educated Chinese women into becoming mothers while penalising mainly Malay and Indian women for the same, the 'fantasies obsessing state patriarchy' center upon the ability to reproduce power by subordinating the power to reproduce.[37]
  11. Returning to the case of Thailand, for example, in the early colonial period (mid-1700s) when the current nation-state was then the Kingdom of Siam, elite women's sexual behaviours within the monarch's Inner City, the king's court of concubines and attendants, were intensely regulated. According to Tamara Loos, marriage rules and prohibitions on elite women's sexual behaviour during the reign of King Chulalongkorn maintained the social hierarchy, since a person's social status was passed down from the mother.[38] Control over women also highlighted the King's masculinity. For instance, the practice of accumulating wives and having numerous offspring reflected masculine virility and control.[39] The regulation of women's sexual behaviours did not extend to commoner women, who faced few constraints on their ability to marry or divorce. However, debt-bondage was a common practice, and both wives and children could be sold by husbands.[40]
  12. During the nineteenth century, Siam's sovereignty was threatened by western powers, which critiqued the 'barbarism' of its rulers, targeting polygyny and the Inner City.[42] Leslie Jeffrey notes how western colonial discourses used constructs of sex and gender difference as frameworks through which 'manly' western states were contrasted to the feminine or improperly masculine Siamese State.[42] Both King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) and his son, King Vajiravudh sought to modernise the habits of the elite classes by emulating the 'civilised' standards of western society.[43] For example, King Vajiravudh enforced changes in women's dress and hairstyles to reflect western notions of appropriate femininity. Loos points out how 'patriarchal monogamy and capitalism facilitated and ideologically justified imperial intervention,' and in this way, Christian monogamy became the pinnacle of marital forms in European colonies and areas threatened by imperialism.[44] Despite the risks of promoting 'uncivilized' sexual practices, Siam's officials endorsed polygyny amidst increased debate until 1935, when the monarchy was overthrown and the State was renamed Thailand.[45]
  13. Where past state regimes have sought to control elite women in order to maintain elite male dominance, another more recent example from the last half century highlights how this governmental practice, extended to non-elite women was legitimated by the conflation of certain women with Thai identity. In the 1980s, public outcry over Thailand's international reputation as a hub for prostitution and sexual licence created the situation where the State feared international censure and its effect on the country's then booming economy. Jeffrey's research on Thai prostitution policy highlights how prostitutes, whose sexuality expressed itself outside the socially-sanctioned space of marriage, were threatening the sensibilities of the newly emerged middle-class and the State.[46] She writes that the new elites were concerned with westernisation, and the moral decline of rural women for whom the burden of upholding Thai traditional identity had been placed.
  14. Rural working-class women whose constrained economic options led to sex work became easy targets, scrutinised for challenging gender norms, class lines and their prescribed roles as 'mothers to our nation.'[47] Jeffrey discusses how new prostitution laws disadvantaged rural and poor women, by focussing attention on their morality rather than placing attention on their economic conditions. Sex workers were seen as morally corrupt victims in need of rehabilitation. The treatment of sex workers at that time proves instructive for the topic at hand, as the public moral scrutiny placed upon female sex workers provided an effective tool for disciplining women in general,[48] and reifying the value of female sexuality, when constrained to marriage. Here as in the past, the gendered double standard that naturalised the regulation of female sexuality and not male sexuality remained unacknowledged in public discourse. Moreover, in both historical examples, public fears over an external foreign threat legitimated male domination over women—be it through the regulation of female sexuality via marriage rules or the criminalisation of those acting outside of marriage.

    Modern couples are equal
  15. It is not a stretch to see similarities between the past and the contemporary period, when the State is bolstering marriage in the face of anxieties related to cultural loss due to globalisation. To what degree do the perspectives of local Bangkok slum residents correspond with that of the State? In what ways, might the emerging values of democracy and equality affect institutionalised practices of male domination? The slum residents' perceptions of marriage, as a heterosexual relationship, aligned with the definition promoted by the State. Interviewees used the phrase, 'warm families' unprompted in interviews, which also reflected adoption of State rhetoric. Many discussed their marriages as a vehicle of modernity, where new ways of being could be experienced enabling couples to progress from the patriarchal and undemocratic traditions of their past. For instance, Mr Thaj, a Bangkok native, explained that in earlier times 'men were the front of the elephant and women were the hind legs.'[49] He believed this was wrong, stating that a couple 'must walk together' and if a problem arose, they should consult with each other. This modern perspective embodies local emerging constructs of Thai marriage as shifting from a dictatorship to a partnership.
  16. For the women I interviewed, this modern construct of marriage as partnership represented their experience of progress and a validation of women's rights. Take for example, Mrs Thaj, who held similar views to her husband noting how women in the past were viewed as subordinates to their husbands. The expectation for wives to be submissive was reflected in her statement, if '[h]usbands said anything [wives] needed to "chyafaŋ" (trust and obey).'[50] Although neither spouse in their respective interviews used the theoretical concept of gender, the changes being discussed indicated changing attitudes towards women's capabilities and new expectations concerning marital power dynamics. Mr Thaj, whose family included a lawyer, was one of a few interviewees to frame changing gender roles within a discourse of equality, stating that women now possessed 'equal rights,' which he explained as meaning they had 'freedom and dared to make decisions' along with their husbands. This 'modern' notion of marriage as a partnership reflects a new set of values based on industrial capitalism and western core-nation living standards, generally termed, 'middle-class' standards.
  17. My interviewees' perspectives of changing marriage meanings highlight a perceived change in gender role norms and hence, gender ideology, which warrants contextualisation. It may be surprising given the aforementioned examples of gender inequality to note that Thai women have historically been labelled as having 'high status.'[51] When compared to East Asian women, commoner Thai women have historically had more rights and greater access to sources of prestige. For instance, commoner women accessed economic resources through bilateral inheritance and their traditional roles as labourers and entrepreneurs.[52] Additionally, commoner women could gain social prestige and influence through their fertility, home management and in certain regions, their roles in ancestral spirit ceremonies.[53] Gender relations in traditional peasant agricultural households were cooperative as reflected in distinct but equally valued and complementary constructs of men's work (i.e. preparing the rice paddy) and women's work (i.e. sowing the seeds and weeding). This gender complementary ideology, where the genders are viewed as distinct and mutually constitutive categories, fostered a sense of egalitarianism, which Penny Van Esterik likens to two wheels of a cart working side-by-side.[54] In the northeastern Isan region, this model of gender complementarity was reflected in the local cosmology where women were associated with nature and home, and men were associated with matters of religion and public affairs.[55]
  18. The egalitarianism of daily practices for traditional Thai peasants has at times been contradicted by misinterpretations and folk-practices of Therevada Buddhist theology. Notable scholars have argued how Buddhist theology supports the spiritual superiority of persons perceived as adequately masculine by denying women, and at times, hermaphrodites, homosexuals, transvestites and transexuals access into the monk brotherhood and thus the only pathway towards attaining enlightenment.[56] The adage that women are the hind legs of the elephant, referenced earlier in Mr Thaj's quote, initially referred to the subordination of elite females, but has since been generalised to reflect societal norms of women's deferral to male household heads. While power in the past was conceptualised as an inner capacity for knowledge and the ability to influence others,[57] in the present day, power is increasingly conceptualised as the 'power to buy,' to borrow a phrase used by a retired informant. Marjorie Muecke and others[58] point out that with industrialisation starting in the 1950s and the movement of production outside of the home, agrarian women's domestic base of power has eroded. Women's ability to compete for new forms of influence, specifically cash, in a capitalist system remains marginalised within an international division of labour where rural Thai female labour is viewed as 'cheap' and 'expendable.'[59]
  19. The return of the gender complementary model of matrimony, among interviewees, was embodied in the discursive theme of marital partnerships, often phrased in terms of 'helping each other.' This topic was often brought up when interviewees sought to legitimate a wife's outside employment or to explain how Thai women's status had improved. For example, a father in his fifties referred to women's new roles as wage-earners as follows: 'Before, women were housewives. It means [they would] stay at the house. In Thai society now, [we] help each other.'[60] The local construction of marriage as a partnership delegitimated the hierarchal power relations of the remembered past and re-characterised the conjugal relationship as one of mutuality, cooperation and shared goals.
  20. The perspectives I heard in the Bangkok slum agree with other Thai studies on marital attitudes. For instance, studies on working mothers have similarly noted a trend towards shared economic responsibility within marital relations and increased acknowledgement of women's value.[61] Porntipa Atipas reports in her study of Thai women's magazine stories that by the early 1990s, a desire to achieve progress and the belief in gender equality promoted by the women's movement worldwide were present in narrative portrayals of marriage.[62] She posits that the cumulative effects of women's increased educational opportunities and their increased workplace rights bolstered women's status within marriages and motivated writers to depict wives as equal partners to husbands, in terms of financial contributions and emotional maturity. What these modern meanings of marriage suggest is the potential for equalising formerly patriarchal practices of matrimony and rejecting the value of gender hierarchy from its roots in the family—the promise of gender revolution.

    Partnership means she works more
  21. Although interviewees in the slum aspired to be egalitarian and to 'help each other,' reported and observed gendered divisions of labour within their households showed a one-way shift in gender roles with women adding income-generation to their pre-existing obligations as caregivers while men's roles as income-earners remained stagnant. Although few slum residents would breach Thai social etiquette by discussing private family problems with an outsider like myself, the candor of several female informants along with participant observations in several homes suggested how unequal household and societal divisions of labour could create personal and marital tensions. Take for example the perspective of Mrs Dii, who explained to me in a 2000 interview why she became a housewife: '[My husband] doesn't like me to work outside of the home,' she said. 'Nowadays, I stay home.'[63] This was not the complete story. Mrs Dii, a migrant married to a Bangkok native, had worked as a manager at a Bangkok sales company after the birth of her first child and despite her husband's disapproval. She enjoyed her job and appreciated her economic independence. However, her workdays were tiring and her long commute meant that she often returned home to find her child already asleep. When her child became a teenager, he began to arouse attention as a juvenile delinquent, and it gave Mrs Dii pause.
  22. Looking back, she described her double workday as a mismanagement of time. Her confession to making mothering mistakes revealed that she viewed her child's problems as a result of her own failures, and the 'broken home' which she had created. The idea that her child's mistakes may have been partially her husband's fault or that the father could have been a more proactive parent did not sit well with Mrs Dii. In one of our conversations later in 2004, she commented how my criticism of her husband was unwarranted. You may think he's 'old-fashioned' she said, using a descriptive word that I felt was too soft, but she respected his attitude. When they both worked, she admitted, the house was messy. In an admiring tone, she stated that he only had his family's best interests at heart, something her facial expressions implied she might have forgotten without his help.
  23. While none of the slum residents spoke of a 'woman's double-burden', some of the working mothers I knew were aware of the contradiction that their workloads had become heavier while men's workloads remained the same. One unmarried migrant female emphasised the overwhelming nature of her additional role as income-earner, when she stated that 'Now the role [of a wife] is to work and to find money for the family and to be a housewife' [emphasis added].[64] For migrant women in particular, their continued separation from rural home communities and kin exacerbated the competing demands of their sojourns in Bangkok as income-earners and their immediate and translocal family obligations as caregivers.

    He does her laundry
  24. Not all couples in the slum accepted the popular belief that women's lives are naturally difficult and thus a wife's double-workday should be tolerated. I knew five couples, who shared the usually polarised tasks of income-generation and caregiving and I interviewed at least one spouse in each pair. These spouses often discussed the men's involvement in terms of fairness, consideration for the wife and the relationship benefits of cooperation. Here again, the theme of 'helping each other' and marital partnership appeared. Mr Dam, a father who did his family's laundry and some cooking, stated that 'In Thai society now, we help each other out and now the husband needs to help. Can't just have the wife do it all.' He went on to add that marital problems only surfaced if the situation got too comfortable for the husband: 'If the wife does [all] the work…then she will get annoyed.'[65] Mrs Sukh, a wife of migrant origins, also emphasised a need for fairness and mutual consideration. 'Basically,' she said, 'I'm the wife and do the outside work and he does the inside work,' alluding to her husband's chores of laundry and cooking. She felt the need to justify her husband's domestic role: 'He doesn't go into work until 8 A.M., so he can sleep in and rest. He's always cooking and drinking in the evening anyways and I go to work early.'[66]
  25. While it was tempting to interpret these husbands' caregiving participation as evidence of major ideological change, where spousal expectations and obligations were based on ability and preference rather than gender difference, these husbands' motivations and perspectives were but superficially modified. These couples still adhered to a notion of gender difference. For instance, Mrs Dam believed that a wife's primary role was to be a housewife, but she added that her husband helped out, if he had time.[67] In other words, husbands were more involved in the home not because they saw the importance of care-work, and not because their view of men's work had expanded, but because they saw the need to help their wives with her work. This would not have been problematic, if they viewed income-earning (e.g. men's work) and caregiving (e.g. women's work) as commensurate, in terms of a gender complementarity model. However, in line with mainstream gender ideology, these husbands valued men's work as superior. This was made clear in the fact that husbands often helped with the laundry and the cooking, but rarely did I hear of a husband providing consistent childcare, an activity that was arguably perceived as more 'feminine.'
  26. These local examples of working mothers' double-workdays as well as the perspectives of couples, whose husbands did some care work, illustrate how women are still being disadvantaged within contemporary marriages. It was problematic that couples which aspired to achieve marital partnerships often discounted women's double-workdays by perceiving wives' income-generation as just an extension of women's care-giving. Here the reality of these wives' earning power came to play. The manufacturing industry is the main local employer for unskilled workers seeking legal employment. As part of its neo-liberal approach involving flexible hiring, this industry prefers to employ unmarried women in their teens and twenties, whose labour is viewed as temporary and cheap.[68] Couples clearly viewed wives' income contributions as supplemental and some did not view caregiving as 'work,' a term they used for wage-based employment.
  27. While factory jobs offer maternity leave, it was implied in several conversations with female residents that employers did not look favourably upon returning mothers, who needed time-off to tend to a sick child or who were unavailable to work overtime. In time, aging women or mothers found restrictive policies at work and their own desires to provide direct childcare to be reasons for quitting formal wage work and becoming housewives. Moreover, low-skilled husbands competed with low-skilled wives for wage-work, and often turned to occupations with greater risk and less income predictability such as freelancing at construction sites, or working as a taxi or motorcycle driver. As low-skilled men found it more difficult to fulfill their breadwinning expectations, a pattern seen in other industrialising third-world contexts,[69] low-skilled women faced pressure to exit the formal labour force at a point in their family life-courses when an additional steady income was most needed. This economic context placed additional pressures on couples in the slum, embodying structural inequalities of gender and class that undoubtedly obstructed their aspirations for marital gender equality.

    Talking women's development
  28. At the turn of this century, the Thai State, pressured by international agencies and liberal feminist groups, officially endorsed women's rights and equality, though neither concepts were clearly defined. Since 1995, it has endeavoured to implement the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, which has gender equality as one of twelve areas of concern.[70] The ninth National Economic and Social Development Plan (2002–2006) sought to improve school enrolment rates for women, their participation in civil service and politics, their access to health care, their image as portrayed by the media as well as the formation of regulatory agencies.[71]
  29. Although government rhetoric favoured 'women's development,' as it is referred to locally, its aims tended to be selective at times referring to economic and legal equality and not necessarily, social equality. For example, the Working Committee for Long-Range Planning for Women's Development stated, 'All of us, whether female or male, should have equal honor and rights.' However they make clear 'that [e]quality does not mean making everyone the same or putting them all on the same level.'[72] Moreover, the website of the Office of Women's Affairs and Family Development defines equality as follows: 'No indeividual [sic] and no nation must be denied the opportunity to benefit from development. The equal rights and opportunities of women and men must be assured.'[73] Both groups discursively use the term equality in ambiguous ways. The first could refer to gender equality legally but not socially. The second couches equality in the economic terms of development, referring perhaps to a narrow economic definition. Also unclear is why the language around equality is gendered, referring to women and men rather than Thai citizens.
  30. Definitions of gender equality are but one point of ambiguity in government rhetoric. Campaigns in support of women's development draw inspiration from western liberal feminism whose ethos of individualism is used to portray Thai women's continued societal marginalisation as a product of individual attitudes rather than structural inequalities.[74] For instance, academic and government literature depicts continued gender discrimination as a product of persistent cultural beliefs in women's inferiority and portrays gender role change as a component of societal decline.[75] Deflecting attention away from itself and upon the family institution, the State promoted gender equality as 'a desired family and moral value' and advised marital partners to share the responsibility and decision-making in their sexual practices and caregiving work.[76] Additionally, efforts were made to reform education curricula with a new set of values which respected women's rights and nurtured boys' investment in women's development.[77] In this way, total responsibility for gender equality was placed upon individual couples and upon the caretakers of the country's youngest generation, namely women as mothers and teachers.
  31. Although the Thai State promotes women's development, its rhetoric is contradicted by the absence of political will and the broader constraints of neo-liberal policies concerning domestic and global markets. The hegemony of State rhetoric, which benignly places full responsibility for enforcing equality upon individuals is not absolute, and critics have spoken out. For instance, journalist and activist Sanitsuda Ekachai has commented that despite the growing civil participation of Thai citizens, particularly women, in the duelling red-shirt and yellow-shirt movements each espousing democracy and criticising societal inequities, political players have yet to address gender inequality.[78] Despite the 1997 promise to promote gender equality in the Constitution, exceptions to the law abound in practice. Sanitsuda and other advocates have criticised past and present government leaders for drafting but not enforcing a gender equality bill, which tolerates workplace gender inequalities as well as discrimination sanctioned by academics, religious officials or when deemed necessary for the public good.[79] Thai proponents of women's development can take credit for having pushed the State to formally acknowledge the rights of women and for instituting the 1997 Human Trafficking Act and 2007 Domestic Violence Act. However, women's rights advocates past and present also face criticism, for being middle-class oriented and oppressors of a different kind.[80]
  32. I see the individualist approach promoted in State rhetoric on women's development reflected in the attitudes of the slum residents I knew. For example, returning to Mrs Dii, the mother introduced earlier, she made clear that the initial remorse which first led her to share her personal woes with me had since been replaced with a sense of pride and righteousness. Her decision to quit her job and become a housewife had not been in submission to her husband's desires but her own choice to prioritise her role as mother and caregiver over breadwinner. While Mrs Dii is unique in the slum for her materially-comfortable lifestyle (due to her husband's salary as a civil servant), her perceptions of her marriage as modern and egalitarian matched that of her neighbours, who respected her as a local leader. Mrs Dii believed that she and her husband were tawtiam (equal). She showed little self-awareness of the apparent contradictions between her modern egalitarian ideals and her adherence to a traditionally gendered division of labour, when she identified her husband as their household's head and insisted that women were inappropriate as family leaders.
  33. Mrs Dii's perspective reveals the influence and interpretation of State rhetoric in two ways. First, I do not see it as a coincidence that Mrs Dii's interpretation of her own mothering mistakes aligned with State rhetoric, which attributed juvenile delinquency to family disintegration. An implication of this line of thinking is the State's effective moralisation of social ills and its successful recruitment of Thai mothers as the country's tradition bearers. In this way, the State reneges its responsibility in shaping and regulating social problems and transfers it to parents, which in reality means mothers. Second, despite her own beliefs in gender equality and her past experimentation with gender roles, Mrs Dii viewed her transition to unpaid housewife, her marital problems and her mothering failure as the result of her personal decisions and circumstances, rather than the product of institutionalised patriarchy.
  34. Perhaps Mrs Dii is not so different from Bulbeck's interview sample of middle-class Thai students, who thought about gender equality in terms of a translated western model of liberal individualism, where everyone has the equal opportunity to pursue his or her own goals and biases.[81] However, equal opportunity does not automatically produce equality. The individualist ethos as co-opted by the Thai State in its writings reinforces the tendency prevalent in the slum of perceiving women's double-workdays as women's problems. Mrs Dii's perspective of her marital issues as personal problems resembles too closely the State's promotion of an individualist approach to gender equality to be coincidence. Continuing to view women's marginalisation as isolated cases based on poor decision-making or the actions of biased persons rather than in relation to structural inequalities arising from patriarchy impedes any national discussion of how to reconceptualise the low value placed on femininity and women's work. This lack of critical awareness on Mrs Dii's part, as well as that of others in the slum was problematic, given their own aspirations towards marital equality.

  35. The potential for gender revolution sparked by the local adoption of gender equality as a new aspect of contemporary marriages as well as popular enthusiasm over State support of women's rights has been eclipsed by a complex reality. Loos' research highlights the historical expansion of Thai government influence into the intimate lives of Thai citizens and this case-study reveals its contemporary implications.[82] In this paper I have argued how the definition and understanding of marriage as a basis for appropriate and moral family formation is integral to contemporary constructs of gender difference, at the levels of formal state discourses and local discourses, as reflected by the perspectives of slum residents. I have revealed the intricate interplay between personal desires for modern egalitarian marriages, nationalist aspirations for a democratic society and personal lived realities, where structural inequalities are ideologically obscured by the very rhetoric of progress and human rights.
  36. Despite their own desires for marital equality, the slum residents I interviewed perpetuated traditional gendered divisions of labour, resulting in wives' double-workdays and sometimes, marital tensions. State discourses which framed equality in terms of men's and women's rights, tinged in the familiar echo of past gender complementarity models, may have falsely motivated my interviewees to perceive the categorical separation of men from women as a reflection of nature rather than a prologue to discrimination. Moreover, the State's moralisation of the family and the slum residents' own desires to appear modern, meaning not patriarchal, provided incentives to view women's double-workdays not as exploitation, but a reflection of women's importance as supplemental income-earners and caregivers safeguarding the nation's next generation. These residents' economic and social realities as marginalised low-wage workers, often of rural origins, complicate efforts to acknowledge women's lesser wages and the expected primacy of their roles as caregivers as anything but pragmatic and in the families' interests.'
  37. The use of liberal feminism on the part of State representatives to promote an individualist ethos towards equality has proven particularly relevant to the perpetuation of patriarchy within the slum. Problematically enough, the attitude that sexism is a result of individual lack of education rather than an institutionalised desire to maintain relations of domination is voiced among some women's rights advocates such as Judge Suntariya, who told The Nation newspaper that, 'In many cases judges are biased not because of corruption but because they lack a gender equality lens.'[83] This research makes clear how the language of equality has been used to veil and distort critical awareness of how hierarchies of gender, class and sexuality are naturalised and perpetuated. The discursive power of the State's varying regimes is not absolute, but my research reveals that it is locally influential and integral in structuring on-the-ground understandings of equality. This insight places responsibility upon local grassroots organisations, be it in the promotion of women's rights or urban community development, to expose the institutional and ideological dimensions of gender inequality, and its connections to other forms of oppression.


    [1] This research was funded by a Fulbright-Hays award, and grants from Brown University and the College at Brockport (SUNY). I am indebted to the featured case-study residents and to my Mahidol University sponsors. Appreciation extends to Ploychompoo, Janapanit, Wanlapa and Zehner for translation assistance. Additionally, I thank the anonymous reviewers, editors, and colleagues who provided valuable feedback on earlier drafts of this piece.

    [2] National Economic Social Development Board (NESDB), The Fifth National Economic and Social Development Plan (1982–1986), Bangkok: Office of the Prime Minister, 1981.

    [3] NESDB, The Seventh National Economic and Social Development Plan (1992–1996), Bangkok: Office of the Prime Minister, 1991.

    [4] NESDB, The Fifth National Economic and Social Development Plan (1982–1986). p. 8.

    [5] NESDB, The Seventh National Economic and Social Development Plan (1992–1996), pp. 16–17.

    [6] NESDB, The Seventh National Economic and Social Development Plan (1992–1996), p. 16.

    [7] See Pilapa Esara, 'Moral scrutiny, marriage inequality: cohabitation in Bangkok, Thailand,' The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology, vol. 13, no. 3 (June, 2012): 211–27.

    [8] Arlie Hochschild with Anne Machung, The Second Shift, New York: Avon Books, 1990; Paula England, 'The gender revolution: uneven and stalled,' Gender & Society, vol. 24 (2010): 149–66.

    [9] The name of the slum community has been withheld to retain the confidentiality of my informants. Pseudonyms are used for the informants profiled.

    [10] Using a random sample drawn from 50 residential units (10% of my census total), I interviewed 106 ever-married persons, who self-reported as having had children. Then I pursued follow-up interviews with a select group of interviewees, their spouses and/or other family members. I also conducted participant-observations with community leaders and their families.

    [11] The interviewees profiled in this article were not representative of all Bangkok slum residents. However the purpose of broadly understanding collective notions of marriage within this population did not require such data. The individual histories and contextualised perspectives obtained successfully conveyed the key attitudes, meanings and vocabularies that existed at the fieldsite during that time.

    [12] NESDB, The Fourth National Economic and Social Development Plan (1977–1981), Bangkok: Office of the Prime Minister, 1976, p. 42; NESDB, The Fifth National Economic and Social Development Plan (1982–1986), pp. 2–3.

    [13] Ana Romina Guevarra, Marketing Dreams, Manufacturing Heroes: The Transnational Labor Brokering of Filipino Workers, Picataway, N.J.: Rutgers University, 2010; B. Ehrenreich and A.R. Hochschild, Global Women: Nannies, Maids and Sex Workers in the New Economy, New York: Metropolitan/Holt, 2003.

    [14] Ann Whitehead, '"I'm hungry, mum." The politics of domestic budgeting,' in Of Marriage and the Market: Women's Subordination in International Perspective, ed. Kate Young, Carol Wolkowitz and Roslyn McCullagh, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981, pp. 88–111; Henrietta Moore, 'Households and gender relations: modeling the household economy,' in Understanding Economic Process, ed. Sutti Ortiz and Susan Lees, Lanham, MD: University Press of America, Inc., 1992, pp. 131–48; bell hooks, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, Cambridge: South End Press, 1984, pp. 35–36; Patricia Hill Collins, 'Race, class and gender as categories of analysis and connection,' in The Kaleidoscope of Gender: Prisms, Patterns and Possibilities, ed. Joan Z. Spade and Catherine G. Valentine, Los Angeles: Sage Publications, 2011, pp. 68–75.

    [15] Holly Wardlow and Jennifer Hirsch, 'Introduction,' in Modern Loves: The Anthropology of Romantic Courtship and Companionate Marriage, ed. Hirsch and Wardlow, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006, pp. 1–31, p. 3.

    [16] Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, Vol. I, New York: Vintage Books, 1990, p. 101.

    [17] See Pierre Bordieu, 'Structures, habitus, power: basis for a theory of symbolic power,' in Culture/Power/History: A Reader in Contemporary Social Theory, ed. Nicholas B. Dirks, Geoff Eley and Sherry B. Ortner, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994, pp. 155–200.

    [18] Mary Beth Mills, Thai Women in the Global Labor Force: Consuming Desire, Contested Selves, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1999; Megan J. Sinnot, Toms and Dees: Transgender Identity and Female Same-Sex Relationships in Thailand, Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2004.

    [19] Mills, Thai Women in the Global Labor Force, pp. 94–103.

    [20] Sinnot, Toms and Dees, p. 14.

    [21] Seth Mydans, 'At 10 P.M., Thais better know where their children are,' New York Times, 27 February 2004, p. A4.

    [22] Leslie Ann Jeffrey, Sex and Borders: Gender, National Identity and Prostitution Policy in Thailand, Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2002, pp. 107–08.

    [23] Anthony Pramualratana, 'Impact of societal change and role of the old in a rural community in Thailand,' in Changing Roles and Statuses of Women in Thailand, ed. Bencha Yoddumnern-Attig, Kerry Richter, Amara Soonthorndhada, Chanya Sethaput, Anthony Pramualratana, Nakhon Pathom: Institute for Population and Social Research, Mahidol University, 1992, pp. 44–54; The Family Institute, Report of Society's Situation, Ministry of Social Development and Human Security, Bangkok, 2004, p. 11; M. Vatikiotis, 'Social climbers: Thai youth look for kicks – and status – in bottles and pills,' Far Eastern Economic Review, 11 May 1995, p. 53.

    [24] NESDB, The Seventh National Economic and Social Development Plan (1992–1996), p. 8.

    [25] NESDB, The Seventh National Economic and Social Development Plan (1992–1996), p. 17.

    [26] NESDB, The Ninth National Economic and Social Development Plan (2002–2006), Bangkok: Office of the Prime Minister, 2001.

    [27] Virada Somswasdi, A Feminist Perspective, Chiang Mai: Women's Studies Center, 2006, p. 105.

    [28] Tamara Loos, Subject Siam: Family, Law and Colonial Modernity in Thailand, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006, p. 132.

    [29] Loos, Subject Siam, pp. 136–37.

    [30] Virada, A Feminist Perspective, p. 104.

    [31] Virada, A Feminist Perspective, pp. 112–13.

    [32] Wardlow, and Hirsch, 'Introduction,' p. 19.

    [33] Sinnot, Toms and Dees, pp. 60–62.

    [34] Nan D. Hunter, 'Marriage, law and gender: a feminist inquiry,' in Sex Wars: Sexual Dissent and Political Culture, ed. Lisa Duggan, and Nan D. Hunter, New York: Routledge, 2006, pp. 105–18, p. 118.

    [35] Lisa Duggan, 'Holy matrimony,' in Sex Wars: Sexual Dissent and Political Culture, ed. Duggan and Hunter, New York: Routledge, 2006, pp. 221–30, p. 223.

    [36] NESDB, The Fifth National Economic and Social Development Plan (1982–1986), pp. 2–3; and The Eighth National Economic and Social Development Plan (1997–2001) , Bangkok: Office of the Prime Minister, 1996, p. ii.

    [37] Geraldine Heng and Janadas Devan, 'State fatherhood: the politics of nationalism, sexuality, and race in Singapore,' in Bewitching Women, Pious Men: Gender and Body Politics in Southeast Asia, ed. Aihwa Ong and Michael G. Peletz, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995, pp. 195–215.

    [38] Tamara Loos, 'Sex in the inner city: the fidelity between sex and politics in Siam,' The Journal of Asian Studies, vol. 64, no. 4 (November 2005): 881–909.

    [39] Loos, 'Sex in the inner city,' p. 900.

    [40] Jeffrey, Sex and Borders, p. 4.

    [41] Tamara Loos, 'A history of sex and the state in Southeast Asia: class, intimacy and invisibility,' Citizenship Studies, vol. 12, no. 1 (February 2008): 27–43, p. 30.

    [42] Jeffrey, Sex and Borders, pp. 5–7.

    [43] Thamora V. Fishel, 'Romances of the sixth reign: gender, sexuality and Siamese nationalism,' in Genders and Sexualities in Modern Thailand, ed. Peter A. Jackson and Nerida M. Cook, Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 1999, pp. 154–67.

    [44] Loos, 'A history of sex and the state in Southeast Asia,' p. 30.

    [45] Loos, 'A history of sex and the state in Southeast Asia,' p. 38.

    [46] Jeffrey, Sex and Borders, pp. 148–49.

    [47] Jeffrey, Sex and Borders, p. xxi.

    [48] Jeffrey, Sex and Borders, p. 143.

    [49] Thai phrases from the author's research are transliterated using the phonetic system outlined in Hass without tone and stress markers. See M. Haas, Thai-English Student's Dictionary, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1964. Pseudonyms are a combination of English titles and transliterated Thai words. Interview with 'Mr. Thaj,' Bangkok, 11 July 2004.

    [50] Interview with 'Mrs. Thaj,' Bangkok, 26 July 2004

    [51] Penny Van Esterick, 'Introduction,' in Women of Southeast Asia, ed. Penny Van Esterik, De Kalb: Northern Illinois University, 1996, pp. 1–12, p. 1; see also Van Esterick, 'Lay women in Thervada Buddhism,' in Women of Southeast Asia, pp. 42–61.

    [52] Thomas Kirsch, 'Buddhism, sex roles and the Thai economy,' Women of Southeast Asia, in Penny van Esterik, De Kalb: Northern Illinois University, 1996, 2nd ed. [1982], pp. 13–32, p. 22; Wazir-Jahan Karim, 'Bilateralism and gender in Southeast Asia,' in 'Male' and 'Female' in Developing Southeast Asia ed. Wazir-Jahan Karim, Oxford: Berg Publishers, 1995, pp. 35–74, p. 39.

    [53] M.A. Muecke, 'Make money not babies: changing status markers of northern Thai women,' Asian Survey, vol. 24, no. 4 (1984): 459–70.

    [54] Van Esterik, Materializing Thailand, Oxford: Berg, 2000, p. 55.

    [55] Andrea Whittaker, Intimate Knowledge: Women and their health in North-east Thailand, St. Leonards: Allen & Unwin, 2000, pp. 28–31.

    [56] See Charles Keyes, 'Mother or mistress but never monk: Buddhist notions of female gender in rural Thailand,' American Ethnologist, vol. 11, no. 2 (1984): 233–41; Peter A. Jackson, 'Male homosexuality and transgenderisim in the Thai Buddhist tradition,' in Queer Dharma: Voices of Gay Buddhists, volume 1, ed. Winston Leyland, San Francisco: Gay Sunshine Press, 1998, pp. 55–89; Van Esterik, Materializing Thailand, 68–74.

    [57] Shelly Errington, 'Recasting sex, gender and power: a theoretical and regional overview,' in Power and Difference: Gender in Island Southeast Asia, ed. Jane Monnig Atkinson and Shelly Errington, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990, pp. 1–58; Niels Mulder, Inside Thai Society: Religion, Everyday Life and Change, Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 2000.

    [58] Muecke, 'Make money not babies,' pp. 465–68; Economic and Social Commission on the Asia Pacific (ESCAP), Population Change, Development and Women's Roles and Status in Thailand, Asian Pacific Population and Social Studies Series, No. 135, New York: United Nations, 1995, p. 17.

    [59] Rachel Kurian, 'Women's work in changing labour markets: the case of Thailand in the 1980s,' in Women, Globalization and Fragmentation in the Developing World, ed. Haleh Afshar and Stephanie Barrientos, New York: St. Martin Press, 1999, pp. 174–90, pp. 178–80; Mills, Thai Women in the Global Labor Force, pp. 7–9.

    [60] Interview with a father in his fifties, Bangkok, 13 June 2004.

    [61] Thasanii Puwaratana, 'The study of the attitude and role of men in the family and their impact on women's development,'Ph.D. thesis, Thammasat University, 1986.

    [62] Porntip Atipas, 'Changing cultural codes of courtship and marriage in urban Thailand,' Ph.D. thesis, University of Hawai'i, Manoa, 1997.

    [63] Interview with 'Mrs. Dii,' Bangkok, 19 July 2000.

    [64] Interview with unmarried migrant female, Bangkok, 11 July 2004.

    [65] Interview with 'Mr. Dam,' Bangkok, 13 June 2004.

    [66] Interview with 'Mrs. Sukh,' Bangkok, 28 March 2004.

    [67] Interview with 'Mrs. Dam,' Bangkok, 22 May 2004.

    [68] Kurian, 'Women's work in changing labour markets', pp. 188–89; Mills, Thai Women in the Global Labor Force, p. 149.

    [69] See María Patricia Fernández-Kelly, 'Mexican border industrialization, female labor force participation and migration,' in Women, Men and the International Division of Labor, ed. June C. Nash and María Patricia Fernández-Kelly, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1983, pp. 205–23.

    [70] Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), 'Thailand Country Report presented to the ESCAP Expert Group Meeting on the Regional Implementation of the BPFA,' AWORC, Bangkok, 1–2 April 1999, online:, accessed 28 September 2009.

    [71] Office of Women's Affairs and Family Development (OWAFD), 'Women's Development Plan in the Tenth National Economic and Social Development Plan,' Thailand's Gender Information Center, 2011, online:, accessed 1 February 2011.

    [72] Working Committee for Long-Range Planning for Women's Development, Long-Range Plan for Women's Development (1982–2001), Bangkok: Khuruspha Lardphrao Printers, 1982, as cited in Thasanii, 'The study of the attitude and role of men in the family and their impact on women's development, p. 12.

    [73] Office of Women's Affairs and Family Development (OWAFD), Thailand Gender Information Center, 2011, online:, accessed 12 February 2011.

    [74] Chilla Bulbeck, Sex, Love and Feminism in the Asia Pacific: A Cross-cultural Study of Young People's Attitudes, New York: Routledge, 2009.

    [75] OWAFD, 'Women's Development Plan in the Tenth National Economic and Social Development Plan'; Thasanii, The Study of the Attitude and Role of Men in the Family and their Impact on Women's Development, pp. 28 and 39–41.

    [76] OWAFD, 'Women's Development Plan in the Tenth National Economic and Social Development Plan,' p. 6.

    [77] OWAFD, 'Women's Development Plan in the Tenth National Economic and Social Development Plan,' p. 4; See also 'Thailand attaches great importance to gender equality,' press release, The Government Public Relations Department, 2010, online:, accessed 1 March 2014.

    [78] Sanitsuda Ekachai, 'Gender equality cannot wait,' Bangkok Post, 7 January 2010, online:, accessed 3 December 2010; See also Sanitsuda, 'Yingluck critics must condemn ugly sexism too,' Bangkok Post, 22 January 2014, online:, accessed 1 March 2014.

    [79] Napamon Roongwitoo, 'Women's groups are up in arms about the draft Gender Equality Bill, which they say will legitimise current sex discrimination,' Bangkok Post 8 March 2011; Pim Kemasingki, 'Where Thai women stand: the status of Thai Women today,' Chiang Mai CityLife, vol. 20, no. 1 (2011), online:, accessed 30 October, 2011.

    [80] Jeffrey, Sex and Borders.

    [81] Bulbeck, Sex, Love and Feminism in the Asia Pacific.

    [82] Loos, 'A history of sex and the state in Southeast Asia.'

    [83] Subhatra Bhumiprabhas and Aree Chaisatien, 'The case of equality,' Nation, 9 March, 2009, online:, accessed 1 November 2011.


Published with the support of Gender and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
© Copyright
Page constructed by Carolyn Brewer.
Last modified: 15 July 2014 1402