Women in Power: Reflections on Gender Politics From Taipei to Lhasa

Credit: Darice Dan Chang
Why you need to know

Three prominent women speak on the problems faced by women in Tibet's government-in-exile and address the history and progress of gender equality in Taiwan.

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Is Gender an Issue?

This question brought a trio of women in power together in Taipei, and while it can't be said that the event brought attendees any closer to an answer, a discussion that ranged across the status of women’s leadership in the Tibetan Central Government, history and contemporary issues around women in politics, and a unique perspective from non-traditional females, certainly made for compelling listening.

Tibetan Central Administration Information Secretary Dhardon Sharling, Taiwan Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) legislator Yu Meinu (尤美女) and civil activist Miao Poya (苗博雅) took center stage at the Nov. 6 panel event, hosted by the Human Rights Network for Tibet and Taiwan. “No one has to introduce themselves,” said organizer Lin Hsinyi (林欣怡) of the Human Rights Network for Tibet and Taiwan (HRNTT) . “We may have some friends from China for whom it may be inconvenient.” Despite the somewhat ominous start, the mood was light. Most in attendance were of related backgrounds — employed at NGO’s, Tibetans living in Taiwan, scholars and their kin.

Dhardon Sharling: 'Taiwan tops the charts, and is a great example to the rest of the region.'

The event began in earnest with a speech by the youngest Tibetan ever nominated for parliament, and the only female secretary currently serving in the Tibetan Central Administration, the Tibetan government-in-exile in India. She currently serves as Information Secretary, a role that encompasses social media, the internet, and dissemination of information regarding Tibet.

Her optimistic views of Taiwan and great optimism for the future of gender equality were evident in her opening remarks: “I’ve always viewed Taiwan as a free country, as a country that stood by its values,” she said, before referencing the constitutional decision to allow same-sex marriage earlier this year. “Gender discourse is part of the mainstream discourse. You are all very lucky as citizens of this great country.”

Of Taiwan’s current president she noted it sent a positive message to the whole world.

“She does not belong to a political dynasty, but more importantly, the support of people of Taiwan made her president. In terms of women’s’ leadership, Taiwan tops the charts, and is a great example to the rest of the region, especially in Asia where women are struggling.”

Dhardon noted the influence of the Dalai Lama in her life experience.

“When the Dalai Lama received the Nobel Peace Prize, he said ‘It is the oppressor who needs compassion far more than the oppressed.’ I realized that the struggle was again Beijing, against political leadership and against oppressive policies.”

“His Holiness calls the people in China our Chinese brothers and sisters. I look at them as people who want freedom as much as I want it. The people bear the brunt of being under an oppressive regime. Issues are challenges. These are the guiding principles that shape my view as a woman and as a female leader.”

Regarding the situation of women’s rights in Tibet, Dhardon noted with great optimism that gender discourse is coming to the fore: “Obviously there are many disagreements and misconceptions, but the important thing is that it is a positive outlook.”

Recently in parliament women’s issues were given focus for three days and a greater understanding of gender justice was being established, she added.

Yu Mei-nu: 'This path was not easy.'

Legislator Yu Mei-nu of the Democratic People’s Party gave a brief overview of the history of the suffrage movement in Taiwan, highlighting the 1979 Formosa Magazine incident as a catalyst that propelled women into politics.

According to Yu, the Formosa Magazine incident (commonly known as the Kaohsiung Incident), in which a number of opponents to Taiwan's one-party Kuomintang (KMT) rulers were arrested during a demonstration commemorating Human Rights Day, occurred because Taiwan backed out of the United Nations. Formosa Magazine held a large summit but they did not have freedom of assembly under Nationalist rule. Due to the limited media networks of the time – the three newspapers and one television channel were all controlled by the government – the incident was unfairly reported. In response, wives of the political prisoners came out to be chosen as legislators.

Yu further highlighted the accomplishments of Taiwan in terms of equal gender representation in government, including minimum one-tenth representation in the constitution, one-half female representation in the legislature, the Local Government Act of 1989, where one quarter of local seats are reserved for women, and similar legislation in the Executive Yuan requiring at least one-third of its membership to be of either gender.

“Now we have a female president,” Yu notes, “but this path was not easy.”

She also traced many issues that faced Taiwanese women, such as the hardship of raising the requisite money to run for office when traditionally they were relegated to positions absent wages or with low income, such as homemakers and secretaries.

She said that NT$15 million (US$500,000) is required to run for vice president, spurring then candidate Lu Xiu-lian (Annette Lu, 呂秀蓮) to don the image of local goddess Matsu to raise funds. She later became the first female vice president of Taiwan.

Societal attitudes whereby views of women skew towards appearance whereas men are judged on ability and power, and people also accuse women of using their appearances for gain, remain underlying societal problems, Yu said, adding that a main reason a glass ceiling exists for women could be the “Men’s Club”, whereby men in politics socialize through golf, soccer, etc. and reach many agreements through banter in the locker room, where women cannot enter.

Finally, she noted that women are especially critical of each other, which creates an environment that is not conducive to mutual growth. Yu closed with recommendations for policy changes to make politics more accessible to women, including a revision of current laws regarding pregnancy and parental leave, and the creation of environments that are more equal.

Miao Poya: 'Femme women have a harder time'

The final speaker, Miao Poya, is a well-known figure in the gender and social equality circles. A host at Yahoo TV with a show on Tuesday evenings, she ran in the 2015 elections with the Social Democratic Party. Although she didn’t win, she has continued to be active in civil society and has quite a large fan base on Facebook.

"Is Gender an issue?" Miao asked. "Yes. Because gender is an issue now we must do a lot of work so that in the future it is no longer an issue.”

Her masculine looks and mannerisms make an instant impression, and she was not hesitant to address the issue. “I’m a bit different than the previous two speakers because I’ve sort of got one foot in the female boat and one foot — don’t know where,” she chuckled.

“During the campaign people would sometimes come up to me with this curious expression on their faces. In the beginning I wasn’t sure what it was about, so they would ask ‘Are you a male or a female?’”

“Now I beat them to it. ‘I’m a graduate of Taipei First Girls’ High School. I’m female.’” Having a sense of humor about it is important, she said, so it’s not off-putting to many people who may feel it is a sensitive issue.

Others have taken a more antagonistic approach, using her gender ambiguity as a point of attack. She is nonplussed – this just illustrates how much an issue gender is. “Because of my method of dress and tone of voice is very masculine, which is heavily featured in the political arena ... If you dress like me, you don’t have to face these issues femme women face. Because our appearance fulfills the societal expectation of a successful politician.”

“If you are a femme female in this very masculine environment you have to first prove you are pretty, then prove that you are capable.” The double standard makes it more difficult for a woman to be successful in the political arena.

Touching on the societal expectations of women, Miao notes. “The expectations of a successful politician - working from six in the morning to midnight every day, is expected of a man. But if a woman does the same she will be questioned for putting aside her husband and family.”

But such talent and drive are not hard to find. “The DPP non-regional legislators have many examples of successful and capable female politicians.”

So, is gender an issue?

The short answer is of course, yes. During the final Q&A session the panelists first answered the question of whether minimum gender requirements are even needed in the current government. Yu answered: “Look at ability and not at appearance. We need minimums because we need the quantity to change and then the quality.”

Miao noted: “Females in politics must prove that they are more capable than their male counterparts to be viewed as equal.”

But no one can do it alone. “Without the support of her family, Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) wouldn’t have been able to undertake the pressure of running for president,” Miao said, adding that focusing overtly on gender during a campaign may be too much. “Tsai did use this tactic [being the first female president] in her campaign to pull in more liberal voters.”

Finally, regarding each panelist’s role as a woman in politics, Dhardon enthused, “Being a woman was an advantage. I think we should focus on gender because politics is male-dominated. We should celebrate [Tsai's] accomplishment and bring it to other parts of the world. Celebrate your female president, so that Taiwan can be a model for others."

TNL Editor: Morley J Weston

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