From the Island of Women to #MeToo

Not long ago, when news of rich and powerful men finally being called to account – dethroned as a comeuppance for sexually predatory behavior – was still rolling in, my friend Darice Dan Chang wrote about how the movement had barely touched Taiwan. Although I’m usually upbeat about life in Taiwan as a woman compared to the rest of Asia, she had a point.

Meditating on why this robust movement never quite reached Taiwan’s shores, my mind wandered down the road of Taiwan’s deep history.

Until just few centuries ago, the vast majority of Taiwanese did not have ancestral ties to China: the permanent population was entirely Austronesian. However, it was known to Chinese explorers. They would often refer to it not as the Beautiful Isle as the Portuguese did, but instead as the “Island of Women”, a name which served two purposes. First, it provided a shorthand description of their impression of Austronesian indigenous societies, where women typically enjoyed higher status – including leadership positions in both the religious and political spheres, matrilineal and matripotestal customs – a social structure that was entirely different from the Confucian, patriarchal Chinese cultural values of the explorers. It was also an insult, as it was common in China to associate femininity and matriarchy with backwardness and barbarism, and masculinity and patriarchy with advancement and civilization.

I like to imagine that the cultural underpinnings of the status of women in Taiwan is rooted in this. The first immigrants from China were almost entirely male – there’s even a saying that “there are no Chinese grandmothers in Taiwan, only Chinese grandfathers” – and a large proportion of these men arriving from Fujian married indigenous women who would likely have had more egalitarian cultural expectations. This might well be a flight of fancy: there’s no evidence that such a cultural evolution actually happened. But, a woman can dream, and certainly ideas of female autonomy did not originate from any of the patriarchy-tinged powers that colonized Taiwan.

When it comes to modern Western-tinged feminism, the first non-governmental women’s rights organizations appeared in the Japanese colonial era and disappeared soon after. The Nationalist diaspora brought with it the New Life movement and its Neo-Confucian-inspired ideals: straight from the Song Dynasty to 20th century Taiwan, under the KMT dictatorship Taiwanese women were told sternly to party like it was 1199, with Madame Soong Mei-ling headlining the show. Women’s issues were dominated by elite Mandarin-speaking women of the Nationalist diaspora, and very little was spent on social welfare programs, heightening the class element to issues facing Taiwanese women.

Laws favored men: marital rape was legal, abortion illegal and divorce laws horrifying (frankly, they still are). There were no employment discrimination laws. Women could work, but women’s work was seen as supplementary income for the family and industriousness for the nation: a tireless, morally upstanding mother working herself to the bone so that her sons could go to school and her country could “defeat the Communists and re-take the Mainland”. Even so, her duties as a wife and mother always took precedence – a woman ought not to work simply because she wanted to.

Nevermind that when Neo-Confucianism emerged in China, Taiwan was Austronesian – the Island of Women. And nevermind that – as friend and fellow female expat in Taiwan Shashwati Talukdar pointed out to me over coffee – the “home industries” and small-and-medium sized enterprises that created the Taiwan Miracle were largely built on the backs of women who both kept house and either did piecework or toiled for the family business.

This slowly began to change in the 1980s with the rise of women’s movements unaffiliated with the government, spearheaded by feminists such as Lee Yuan-chen and Annette Hsiu-lien Lu (the latter would go on to serve as Vice President under Chen Shui-bian in the early 2000s). Although there was still a sense of elitism permeating late 20th-century women’s movements, with little discussion of the intersection of gender and class, there were also concrete gains: abortion was legalized in 1985, and a host of other laws changed around the turn of the millenium, including criminalizing marital rape (which, notably, is still not the case in China) and employment non-discrimination. Under the law in Taiwan, at least, women enjoy a high degree of equality.

However, as every woman and most men know, “equal under the law” does not often translate to “equal in reality”.  There is still a gender wage gap. The vast majority of sexual assaults are not reported to police. Birth control is not covered by National Health Insurance for – to be frank – utterly ridiculous reasons. Gynecological exams are free to women over 30 – despite women in their twenties also needing them, especially if they are sexually active. Divorce laws remain archaic. Awareness of the full extent of gender equality laws remains low. Even where there is awareness, as Chang noted, there may still be a culture-specific discomfort or ambivalence preventing women from speaking out.

This is the cultural milieu that history has created in Taiwan, and the context within which the #MeToo spark fizzled here.

In retrospect, it’s not surprising: given Taiwan’s notoriously strict defamation laws, going public with allegations of sexual harassment or assault but declining to press charges can end in a lawsuit against the alleged victim, which the victim might well lose. It is not surprising that Taiwanese women would not want to take that very real risk.

Anecdotally, I can see that the legacy of traditional cultural values remains. I have heard more than one story about parents pressuring their daughters to stay in abusive marriages: in these particular cases, if they choose to leave, their natal family will support them, but it is considered “better” that they stay. I have had more than one female friend confide in me that she was only looking to have children because her in-laws decided it was time. I spend a lot of time keeping abreast of social movements in Taiwan and have noticed a problematic trend: despite the more liberal, progressive political views of activists here, almost all notable influencers in these social movements are male. What is more worrisome still: female friends have said they had left that world because they felt objectified, ignored or dismissed. There don’t seem to be many modern-day Chen Chus or Annette Lus in activist circles, and as a result I am not at all confident that further gains in women’s equality will come from the contemporary Taiwanese left.

Even the major victories for women’s rights touted by Taiwan have their underbellies: much is made of Taiwan’s eight-week paid maternity leave at half or full pay. In theory, it is available to all working women. In practice, women paid hourly wages or doing contract work may have trouble accessing that right, or find that their performance reviews drop for vaguely-worded reasons, giving their employers justification to reduce bonuses. I have heard more than one story to this effect by women wishing to remain anonymous.

In a story that sums up the underlying issue many women – both foreign and local – point to as tarnishing an otherwise good life in Taiwan, a friend – “Mag” – related this to me:

“I had a disagreement with a local male Asian colleague. It was a little heated, he was completely wrong….I calmly, explained in several ways how what he thought he heard was impossible. He kept getting more and more angry at me, until a white male colleague came in, asked what was going on, and immediately stated that I was totally right. I was like, ‘See?’, expecting the fellow to continue arguing with the new guy, but no. He just stopped, thought for a second and said ‘Ok, thanks for letting me know.’ It fills me to rage to this day that the second someone with a penis told him, he was like, ‘ah yes, I understand.’”

It is difficult to say that Taiwan’s relatively safe streets and gender equality laws are enough, when you feel your opinion is being dismissed simply because you’re female.

However, there may be some seeds of hope – I don’t mean to write a scorched-earth tirade. Yes, we have a female president who did not follow in the footsteps of a male family member: one of the first in Asia to do so. That’s a start. Taiwan has a higher rate of female political participation than any other Asian countries as well as the UK, the US and Germany. Female activists such as Miao Poya are starting to gain recognition.

Later in our coffee klatch, Talukdar, who is from India, pointed out that as a non-Taiwanese Asian woman, the streets were safe for her, too: in the US, wearing Indian clothing in public was an invitation to near-certain harassment: something she has never experienced in Taiwan. I, too feel the streets here are safer for women than in my home country.

“In fact,” she continued, “the biggest problems I’ve had here haven’t come from Taiwanese men, they’re from expat men. I’ve heard some of them talk badly about Taiwanese women, but they say the most vile things about white women.”

Talukdar also emphasized that as an Asian non-Taiwanese woman, she often felt life in Taiwan was easier than for white female expats especially: there is still a sense from locals that they are fellow Asians. Of course, not all Asian women from other countries likely feel the same way, given that foreign domestic workers – most of whom are female – are not covered under the Labor Standards Act, and are not sufficiently protected from employers who commit serial sexual assault.
Notably, feminist discourse in Asia has differed from the West and in many cases adapted itself to local conditions. Feminism in Taiwan has tended to be heavily relational – emphasizing the value of women in relation to family and society – rather than individual. Another female expat I spoke with who is married to a Taiwanese man was very open about how she had adapted her feminist views to fit the society she was living in. She spoke of fighting for equal rights and choosing important battles: suffrage, reproductive rights, fighting rape culture – but also finding strength in being feminine and vulnerable, and choosing carefully when to speak.

This strain of feminism may not be appealing to many Western women living in Taiwan – nor necessarily to all Taiwanese women – but it is important to remember that it is a form of feminism.

Given all of this, I remain somewhat optimistic about Taiwan’s future. Today’s activists, who are likely to be tomorrow’s political luminaries, may be mostly male, but women are beginning to notice and speak out about it. With high rates of female political participation, there is hope that Taiwanese women will continue to push for not only better legal frameworks, but enforcement of same. Prominent female legislators such as Yu Mei-nu and Hsiao Bhi-khim advocate robustly for women’s rights in the political arena. Since democratization, Taiwan has done a better job than it gets credit for of selecting Western ideas that will work locally while still keeping the foundation of its own history and culture intact. There are ways in which it must improve in terms of gender issues, but there are also avenues to make that happen. This was once the Island of Women, and it can reclaim that mantle in modern context.

Historical sources:

Doris T. Chang: Women’s Movements in Twentieth-Century Taiwan

Emma Jinhua Teng: Taiwan’s Imagined Geography
Janet B. Montgomery McGovern: Among the Headhunters of Formosa

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