Taiwan takes pride in its tradition of promoting women’s rights. According to its Directorate-General of Budget, Accounting and Statistics, Taiwan is top in Asia and ninth worldwide in addressing challenges facing women, using the metrics of the United Nations Gender Inequality Index (which is used to measure UN member states).

Taiwan’s progress was celebrated recently in a July 18 event at the Chihhang Air Base in Taitung County. Taiwan’s first female fighter pilots – Chiang Ching-hua (蔣青樺), Chiang Hui-yu (蔣惠宇), and Fan Yi-lin (范宜鈴) – flew their aircraft to Chihhang from their assigned posts for the event. Between the three of them, they can now pilot all three types of the nation’s frontline fighter jets, the AIDC F-CK-1, the Dassault Mirage 2000 and the Lockheed Martin F-16, according to Air Force Command.


Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG

Lockheed Martin F-16s, like this one of the Turkish Air Force, are among the three frontline fighter jets that Taiwan's female pilots fly.

The three will help to break the stereotype that women are unsuited for service as fighter pilots, as well as other divisions of the armed forces, it said, adding that reports from their training suggest that gender has no bearing on fighter pilot skills. Taiwan’s volunteer armed forces, of which women now make up 13.6 percent, is opening more occupational specialties for women: they can now serve as infantry, artillery gunners, military police, aviators and missile operators, in addition to most positions in the navy.

But how deep is this apparent symbol of progress towards gender equality? Taiwan – and its fellow Asian progressive democracies – is hardly immune to larger societal problems ensuring the empowerment of women.


Photo Credit: Paul Arps / Flickr

A mother and daughter in Taiwan.

In Taiwan, when talk of gender inequality rifles across the internet, it produces an inevitable response, usually from young men: Women, unlike men, do not have to perform mandatory military service. Compulsory conscription is being scaled back to four months of civil service for eligible men born on or after Jan. 1, 1994, but the program still does not require women to serve. If it did, however, would that really be a step towards gender equality in Taiwan?

Perhaps we should examine the structure of Taiwan’s patriarchal society. "Patriarchy" has become an explosive term in the annals of the internet, as men believe it is wielded to hold men in disdain. But it hardly benefits men, as renowned couple’s therapist Terry Real told Forbes. “We all live under patriarchy, which is a rigid dichotomy of gender roles” which “don’t make anybody happy and… don’t make for intimacy,” he said.

In her book “The Will to Change,” the feminist author bell hooks famously wrote:

The first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is not violence toward women. Instead patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves. If an individual is not successful in emotionally crippling himself, he can count on patriarchal men to enact rituals of power that will assault his self-esteem. – bell hooks

Nevertheless, patriarchy makes for society’s predominant structure, under which all genders live together.


Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The renowned feminist author Gloria Jean Watkins, better known as 'bell hooks', pictured in 1988.

When Martin Luther King implored his followers to “stand up against a system that still oppresses us and develop an unassailable and majestic sense of values,” he was referring not only to racism, but to capitalism and militarism. These all exist under the watchful eye of their guiding hand, the patriarchy. Regardless of its origins – whether biological, agricultural, or neither – the patriarchal game is alive today, and it is difficult to escape.

This reminds me of the plot in a comic book, which describes a societal system in a village. When a child reaches the age of three, they are taken to the village matriarch so she can predict the child’s death. It is said that her predictions are always accurate. When the male protagonist is predicted to only live until 22, his father refuses to accept the news and sends his son to live in Tokyo.

Twenty years later, blissfully unaware of the predictions, the protagonist returns to the village and, after investigating a series of strange incident in his hometown, he discovers that it was not that the village matriarch’s predictions were accurate – rather, she would collude with the villagers to kill the people who she had predicted would die.

The villagers, believing their plot was vital to their heritage, carefully planned his murder by leading him back home on his birthday. But he solved the mystery, fought for his life against the villagers, and escaped, breaking his connection with the village’s traditional system. Naturally, the protagonist thought this societal structure was quite ridiculous. For the villagers, however, dying at the predicted age was just a matter of course.Now, imagine this village as analogous to the modern patriarchal system. It exists in all parts of an individual’s life. Most people never think about breaking out of the system, instead following its norms and refusing to admit that they are a part of it. But why do people do this if the patriarchal structure, much like the murderous village, benefits nobody in the end?

The late American sociologist Allan G. Johnson, author of “The Gender Knot: Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy,” equated social systems to Monopoly, saying that both society and the board game offer “paths of least resistance” towards which people will gravitate. These paths, of course, consist of the status quo.

The existing patriarchal system encourages people to follow the path of least resistance.

This makes sense. If we do not examine the social structure in which we live in – and many of us lack the means or the interest to do so – we will think that things are as they are meant to be. Men should be responsible for making money; a man should be able to treat a woman as a sexual object. Women should be subservient to the men in their lives – professionally, socially, and intimately. The existing patriarchal system encourages people to follow the path of least resistance. Without critical analysis, this path will always feel like the natural order of things – and its followers will feel no need to escape.


Photo Credit: Reuters / Taiwan Military News Agency

Female soldiers help survivors to evacuate the village of Fuxing in Tainan county after Typhoon Morakot battered the area in August 2009.

So, all things considered: Is equality in conscription practices really a way for women to drive a hammer to the glass ceiling? Israel now requires mandatory conscription for men and women over 18 – with some religion-based exceptions. On the surface, this may appear to be a step towards gender equality. However, sexual harassment remains endemic in Israel’s armed forces, and other trappings of toxic masculinity, such as sexist jokes and the “male gaze,” have not exactly disappeared overnight. Then again, we should not expect them to.

Miltaries around the world are built on foundations of masculinity. Soldiers are expected to train themselves to be strong, brave, and of course, masculine – attributes that patriarchal structures have a hard time accepting in women. Taiwanese internet commentators volley such sentiments on a regular basis. It is hard for modern men to accept the idea of sharing the front lines with women soldiers, and that does not even speak for the conservative military establishment.

If such sexist thinking remains so prominent in public discourse, can we ever hope to make real strides towards gender equality? Understanding patriarchy and feminism takes a tremendous effort for researchers and students of gender studies to understand, so it’s a big ask for members of the public, who don’t always have the time or curiosity to consider such complex topics. Therefore, it is critical to start with education, teaching a solid understanding of gender equality. Introducing compulsory military service for women would only mark a superficial victory for women’s rights and may only strengthen the patriarchal stranglehold over Taiwanese society.

Control is also a core concept of patriarchy, and its root cause is fear. When new systems, opinions, and relationships seem like they may interfere with the patriarchy’s use of its male pawns, the system will use its fear of losing its position as society’s core and cause panic, attempting to control situations through fierce words and ghastly behavior.

Before we talk about compulsory military service for men and women, let’s focus on women already enlisted in the military. Current women soldiers often get called names like “witch” and “dyke,” but beyond this, women in the armed forces are far too often sexually assaulted by their male peers and superiors in the military. Sexual abuse thus becomes an imperious form of control.

A patriarchal society allows men the right to possession, hegemony, and command over everything, including women. With such ideals, it is no wonder that Taiwan has an epidemic of horrific crimes committed by abusive male partners, men who domineer and belittle their wives, and men who sexually assault and even murder women, yet feel no guilt. This also sadly extends to the regular sexual abuse of female migrant workers by their Taiwanese male bosses.


Photo Credit: Nick Aspinwall

Women from Indonesia and the Philippines gather in Taipei Main Station to protest mistreatment, including sexual abuse, by their Taiwanese bosses.

In short, before we discuss whether Taiwan’s women should be enlisted into its armed forces, we must first examine whether the transgressions of the patriarchy have been identified and resolved. Otherwise, progress will remain superficial, and women may be put in harm’s way without ever stepping onto the battlefield.

It is also critical to begin a robust dialogue about feminism, which – this is important – does not seek to degrade men whatsoever. Instead, it aspires to collectively dismantle the patriarchy – a system which we can recall causes harm to men and women alike. Feminism, at its core, serves as a bridge towards mutual respect and hopes to lead people out of their patriarchal village into a new world where gender equality and mutual appreciation prevails.

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This article originally appeared on the Chinese-language Taiwan edition of The News Lens. The original can be found here.

Translator: Zeke Li

Editor: Nick Aspinwall