Bangkok, Thailand - Traveling through South East Asia the rapid pace of development confronted us everywhere: once remote Laotian villages now have electricity, clean water, and public schools; small Cambodian towns, where Mercedes sedans share the road with Vespas and water buffalo, support Internet cafes; and tourists and goods cross borders with unparalleled ease. Yet, lurking behind this progress are disturbing problems: many of our trading partners are democracies in name only, horrendous damage is being done to the environment, and women are treated as chattel - denied basic human rights.
There’s a tendency for Westerners to be judgmental of others on the subject of women’s rights. But the truth is that while democracy is an old concept in the West, the notion that women are equal to men and deserve the same rights is new. American women gained the right to vote in 1920; nonetheless they remain second-class citizens in terms of equal pay for equal work and other important social parameters.
Given the reality in the U.S., it’s not surprising that women in Asia are struggling for their rights even while the male leaders of their countries boast of the progress of their emerging democracies. In every country we visited women spoke of their repression. The most horrendous stories came from Burma where ethnic women are thrown off their ancestral lands and subjected to gang rape by the military. But in all the countries, we heard tales of sex trafficking of women and differential access to healthcare, education, and the ballot; forty-five percent of Cambodian women are illiterate compared to twenty percent of the men.
What is surprising is that there is no moral leadership from the Buddhist church in these countries. While the population is overwhelmingly Theravada Buddhist, and there are active temples in each town, one never hears of Buddhist leaders taking a stance in favor of equal rights for women - or democracy, for that matter. Towards the end of our tour, we met with the International Women's Partnership for Peace and Justice, in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Their charismatic leader, Ouyporn Khuankaew, has an analytic framework linking spirituality, feminism, and democratic social development. She pointed out that throughout South East Asia, Buddhism is rigidly segregated and male monks control the positions of power. Wherever women are permitted to become novices and monks, they are relegated to servile positions. Even Buddhist theology is turned against women. Ouyporn noted that when wives complain to monks about spousal abuse, they are counseled to meditate on this, told that it is most likely their fault - part of their “karma.” The Buddhist church supports the patriarchy and, thereby, is complicit in the suppression of women throughout the region.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because there’s a similar pattern in the U.S. One of the prime objectives of the American conservative movement has been to diminish the rights of women. When the Bush Administration reduces Federal entitlements, such as healthcare, this has a differential impact on women, and their children. When Republicans seek to eliminate the right of women to obtain confidential medical advice, the GOP has the strong support of the male leadership of the Conservative Christian church. In traditional values’ Christianity, women are taught to be subordinate to their husbands, trained to see themselves as second-class citizens with restricted rights. Given what’s happened in America, as a result of the conservative onslaught, it’s not surprising to find globalization in South East Asia trampling on the rights of women.
In George W. Bush’s second inaugural address he declared that the U.S. has a responsibility to spread democracy around the world, “The concerted effort of free nations to promote democracy is a prelude to our enemies' defeat… one day this untamed fire of freedom will reach the darkest corners of our world.” Bush assured Americans that one of the key aspects of our democracy initiative would be equal rights for women. Yet, the reality is that during his Administration, women’s rights have been set back across the globe. Iraq and Afghanistan are prime examples: fundamentalists now control vast stretches of both countries, and where they do, Islamic law prevails. Sharia views women as second-class citizens who cannot hold elected office, must observe a strict dress code, and can be beaten by men if they appear immodest. There is a conservative tsunami washing away women’s rights and, at the same time, undermining democracy.
When conservatives, such as President Bush, speak of democracy they don’t mean “social democracy,” where there is respect for the individual, equality, and the notion that the people are the ultimate source of political power, but instead “trade democracy,” the creation of the global marketplace. Worldwide advocacy of trade democracy explains why so many emerging democracies are, in reality, plutocracies – forms of government that contain some elements of democracy but where, ultimately, the wealthy rule. The conservative support for globalization explains why Asian countries have made amazing progress in many areas, but not in terms of support for the rights of women.
The crux of the problem is that conservatives disagree with the concept that women deserve the same rights as men. Progressives must respond that without guarantees for the human rights of women there is not true democracy, that human rights for everyone is what the founders meant by the phrase, “liberty and justice for all.”
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., famously remarked, “No one is free, until everyone is free.” Globalization may eventually prove to be a good thing, but it is not a substitute for real democracy, where men and women have equal rights.