Last week, to celebrate International Women’s Day, I looked at the women defining and changing the conversation across Southeast Asia. This week, I follow up with the remaining half of the region — a collection of countries underlining the disparate status of women from one end of the region to the other.
Hope for the Future in Brunei
News from Brunei is largely dominated, by design, by Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah. While the country is full of intelligent women, that is not a story the sultanate is interested in promoting. Staying updated with the state of gender politics demands trawling press releases from United Nations agencies.
It’s through these statements and calls to action we can see how hard women are working to reverse laws, largely intertwined with the shift to full Shariah law, that undermine the humanity of women and girls in Brunei. Female genital mutilation performed on newborn girls is legal and prevalent, while the minimum age for marriage remains at a frighteningly low 14 years of age, or 15 for non-Muslim girls. Brunei remains in the middle of global rankings for gender equality, according to the World Economic Forum, but sits at the top of the board for education parity.
But for young women in Brunei looking for a role model outside the stuffy realms of academia and policy, there’s Tiffany Teo. Teo is one of Asia’s top mixed martial arts fighters and has had a colorful career, which includes a stint training members of the royal family and headline fights. Teo’s profile shows another side to Bruneian women and encourages becoming active in sport – a feat anywhere in the world but especially so in some more repressive Muslim-majority nations where women’s inclusiveness is a relatively more enduring challenge.
Cambodia’s Staunch Opposition Women
Cambodia’s Mu Sochua won’t be spending much time in her country in coming months. In self-imposed exile since October, when she was tipped off to an impending arrest, the opposition leader has become a force much bigger than herself. As the vice president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, she was very much in the cross-hairs of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s crackdown leading into this year’s elections, but she’s using her time abroad to drum up international support for the opposition movement.
Mu Sochua is certainly not the only woman involved in the pro-democracy movement, but she is the most prominent. And as the campaign period comes closer she may well remain that way, with others forced underground.
Mother Mushroom Grows in Vietnam
Amid a frightening couple of years of increasing restrictions on bloggers and dissidents, Mother Mushroom stands tall. Better known by her blogging pseudonym, Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh was arrested in 2016 under charges of spreading propaganda against the Vietnamese government. She would soon be followed by at least a dozen other dissidents and critics of the government in the following two years.
Mother Mushroom’s story of turning her parenting blog into a space for social issues after being appalled at the conditions of a local hospital resonated widely, ensuring coverage of her case and eventual tough jail sentence would remain a top story in the region. With press freedoms under attack across Southeast Asia, she is a reminder of the power of individual voices.
The Fight Never Ends in Laos
Ng Shui Meng’s name isn’t well known, as her identity is typically reduced to “Sombath Somphone’s wife.” In the five years (and counting) since her activist husband disappeared, she has tirelessly searched for the truth about his fate. “It has been five years now since Sombath disappeared. I need answers, and I will keep asking these same questions until I get them,” she said when marking the five year anniversary in December.* Hopes of finding Sombath, who was abducted from Vientiane, alive have dimmed, but Ng’s persistent demands for answers ensure his story stays alive.
Loud and Proud in Singapore
Jean Chong is a familiar face in LGBT advocacy around Southeast Asia. As the co-founder of Sayoni, a Singapore-based LGBT group, she has become a leading voice in gender and sexuality freedoms both in her country and throughout the region. In a time when LGBT rights are under renewed attack, her example of leadership and community-building stands out in a male-dominated field. In Southeast Asia, LGBT coverage often misses the “L” in the acronym, but women like Chong ensure this won’t be the case forever.
Last year’s Pink Dot Day, an annual event celebrating the island’s LGBT community and calling for stronger rights, faced unprecedented scrutiny by authorities, including the barring of noncitizens and permanent residents from attendance. Chong was an essential voice in pushing back against that and her dedication keeps progressive change at the forefront of the community.
*A previous version of this article mistakenly put the date of the event as July.
This is Part II of a two-part series putting the spotlight on some of Southeast Asia’s prominent women. For Part I that looks at women from the other remaining countries, see Part I here.