Being a Woman in Thailand

* BIG HUGE CAVEAT * I’ve been here just a few days shy of a month, so these are first impressions and observations only.

One thing that must first be made clear is that Thailand is not a country built upon values of equality. There are very clear rules guiding behavior according to social status, and while not quite as rigid as the Indian caste system, hierarchy here is accepted and indispensible.

Men and women are not equals, but guidelines dictating their roles and spheres of influence are not straightforward either. For example, women are not allowed to touch monks. If a woman wants to hand something to a monk, it must be done indirectly, either through a man, or by placing the item on a special cloth for that purpose. Women may own property, but after they are married, any future property must be in their husbands’ name. However, in many marriages, the woman is the one to control the finances.

{Also, let’s not even get into gender equality at work. We’ll just say that when I looked at the faculty of the political science department at one of the universities the male-to-female ratio was not exactly 1:1. Or even 5:1. Perhaps not a representative sample of office politics, I will admit.}

Surprisingly, the tension between women who work outside the home and those who are housewives seems similar to that in the U.S. Women are often expected to help bring money home, and people may look a little surprised if you say you don’t work. However, many women are homemakers, especially after having children if they can afford to do so.

And then there’s the cattiness and the judging, of women and by women. One of the bigger issues I’ve bumped up against is dress. Thai people are considered to be very fastidious. They are clean and they care about their appearances to the nth degree. But to my eye, at least, their sense of fashion seems to be stuck in the 80s castaway section of Ross or Mervyns. I really don’t mean to be derogatory here, but the best visual I can come up with is that it is clothing we might associate with recent immigrants in the U.S. Bright colors, stripes, polka dots, ensembles that may or may not match and tops that often are just a tad too big for the person in question. I’m not even convinced many women here even wear makeup most days of the year. In America, I wear a more bohemian, artist style – something along the lines of what you might see in Anthropologie or Urban Outfitters. Not full on catalogue, but we’ll say “inspired by.” Here, many of my shirts are considered too low cut because they dip below the tops of my armpits, and the long draping lines appear slovenly.

You’ll definitely see girls in teeny, tiny short cutoffs and shirts that say ferocious and pornographic things, but these are not respectable ladies and the social price for wearing such things can be severe. Some of the hipster fashion is showing up here too, but it appears that the general line on fashion in Thailand, especially outside of Bangkok is “be fashionable, but not too fashionable”, which is ironic considering how interested Thai people are in fashion and being cool.

So for me, finding clothes that I can feel comfortable in but that still are appropriate for the various social and business occasions I find myself in is quite a challenge. As much as we’ve had a simply awe-filled time here, this seemingly innocuous problem contributes to – and maybe even in representative of – some of the many moments in which I feel completely overwhelmed. Moments where I sense I’ve given offense, but everyone is too polite to explain how or why. It’s simply up to me to intuit what went wrong.

There are times that, as a woman and a foreigner here, I feel that I am without power, without voice. There are moments in which I feel like I have to fight for myself against everyone else, and these are moments in which I feel very alone.

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4 thoughts on “Being a Woman in Thailand

  1. This is such an interesting perspective. I often think of how the majority of my clothes would be recieved in small-town Spanish city. Would I be considered under dressed most of the time? Would I change my wardrobe to better fit in to the surrounding culture? How will my lack of knowledge of language and culture be received? How would I, as a wife and mother be recieved in traveling alone with said kids, be seen?

  2. The question of changing my wardrobe to fit in is actually an interesting one. I'm finding I'm surprising myself in my inflexibility. I figured I would have no real problem changing to fit in and purposefully did not bring too many clothes so that I could adjust my wardrobe accordingly. But I'm finding myself reticent to change my clothing entirely. It is funny how important my sense of style and taste is to my identity. I don't mind trying to fit in, but it still has to be clothes that fit my tastes, and it is surprising how hard achieving a compromise is.

    I would be curious to see to how things are similar/different in a small Spanish town, which I imagine might be conservative in its own way too.

  3. Jade, your sense of style and taste is part of your identity, true enough. And I totally understand how/why you want to fit in to the culture and also not compromise on your tastes and standards. But that also doesn't mean that you're going to the temple in cut-off shorts, either. That's the difference between you and the people who don't get that that's a supremely disrespectful thing to do (or who do it anyway because "this is who I am!").

    Having said all that, my six weeks in Thailand were as a backpacker so I would've killed for the opportunity to wear something other than the three shirts I owned, even if it wasn't particularly *my* style. :-)

  4. LOL. I can well imagine three shirts would get old real fast!

    The funny thing is, if I could wear traditional Thai wear around all the time, I'd be totally fine. That's actually what I did wear to the temple, but if I wore that shopping and/or around town, I'd get some weird looks. I'm used to wearing them though, because I always wore it during special occasions with my family.

    There is a post I've written, however, that I haven't posted yet because it's a little bit of a sensitive issue. But I will post it once it's all resolved. But it is a situation in which I feel I was discriminated against because of how I look. It's a situation where foreigners most likely wouldn't come across and neither would Thai people. It's because I'm in-between that I found difficulty.