Gender equality remains a touchy subject in southern Thailand

By Pravit Rojanaphruk | Source: ANN
While pushing for gender equality in Buddhist-majority areas of Thailand is difficult, selling the idea in the predominantly Muslim southernmost provinces is even tougher, the Law Reform Commission of Thailand (LRCT) discovered last week at a meeting with locals.

On the one level, there are specific teachings in the Koran about women’s roles, which might appear to be very restrictive to non-Muslims, and on the other there is distrust as a result of the ongoing separatist violence in the deep South. Then there’s the question of Malay identity.

The two-day forum ended with the LRCT deciding to set up a working group comprised of Islamic and Malay experts to thoroughly study the issue, come up with recommendations and hold more public hearings.

A dozen people from the deep South were invited to air their views at the forum, which was led by Assoc Prof Virada Somswasdi, an LRCT commissioner overseeing gender-related legal reform last week in the southern province of Krabi.

Some Thai-Malay Muslim women spoke up about the lack of gender equality in the deep South, citing domestic violence, a lack of women in politics and local community leadership. One Thai-Malay-Muslim woman from the South who participated in the event said some young women who had been sexually abused ended up having to marry offenders who targeted them.

Ramita Waree, a Thai-Malay Muslim businesswoman, however, defended the existing status quo in the deep South.

“Muslim women do not see gender equality like others. Allah said women are naturally different from men,” she said, adding that sexual freedom among Thai Buddhists, for example, is disturbing. “It’s offensive enough that [Buddhist] men carried condoms in the past, but now it’s doubly so with women carrying them as well. Muslim women consider this a sleight to their honour.”

Abdulroya Benseng, an Islamic Studies lecturer at Narathiwat University, said Islamic teachings already protected Muslim women from domestic violence and that Muslim men were required by law to treat women with respect and care. If a wife disobeyed her husband, he said the husband could not attack her physically.

“Slapping is forbidden, as is hitting someone with the back of their hand, but [Buddhist Thais] have done much more. They use their wives like punching bags.”

However, one Thai-Malay Muslim said the reality was very different and that legal protection in areas such as domestic violence and women representatives in politics were sorely needed.

LRCT, however, remains cautious over the issue and spent the two-day hearing explaining their intentions to participants.

Virada said the LRCT was seeking to reduce, if not abolish, all forms of legal discrimination, which includes gender prejudice and related practices. She said issues such as rights to inheritance, divorce and domestic violence remain a concern among Thai-Muslims.

Another commissioner, Naiyana Supapheung, said the objective was to bring the law in line with democratic principles.

Ramita acknowledged that many Thai-Malay-Muslim women did not know about their rights under Thai law.

Elected Pattani Senator Worawit Baru, meanwhile, tried to bridge the differences and advised the LRCT to move cautiously in relation to the issue of gender equality in the deep South, especially since it is already preoccupied with separatist-related insurgency and violence.

“I suggest more studies are needed regarding [Islam],” he told the meeting.

A similar view is held by some LRCT members, who told The Nation they wanted to ensure that people in the deep South realise that the move has nothing to do with the ongoing separatist violence, and that conservative Thai-Buddhists also have problems with gender equality.