Behind Taipei’s Safe Spaces for Women

Credit: Maja Ho
Why you need to know

Sandee Woodside delves into sources of support for women in Taiwan.

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Living in Taipei, I’ve been very fortunate. Having the mix of opportunities and experiences I’ve had – oscillating between instances of assault, being drugged, violent attempted robberies, sexual abuse and being a privileged, white, middle-class New Yorker – my takeaway has been one of perseverance, life-long learning, and little regret. I am to be actively outspoken, (mostly) unapologetic, and clearly feminist, while in a constant state of anxiety tinged with empowerment.

Having had a good chunk of the aforementioned negative experiences in Vietnam, I found the online community there to be an invaluable resource. Coming to Taiwan, the lack of that communication and community was soul-drilling. Thankfully, I was eventually invited to the Taipei Ladies Facebook group, and doubly gratefully, I have not had much cause to report robberies, assaults, abuse, or being roofied here in Taipei. This is not to say other women in Taipei ­– especially local women ­– are as safe; in 2016 there was a case of domestic abuse reported once every five minutes in Taiwan.

Foreigners also require education and support. From a recent Guardian article reporting a mounting female mental health epidemic to findings that expat men in Taiwan are more than twice as likely as women to feel completely at home in the local culture (33 percent versus 15 percent), expat women are just as in need of safe spaces. This is true regardless of progress glimpsed in our cultural and social expressions, such as the Time Magazine decision to pick “The Silence Breakers” as its "Person of the Year."

Now, as someone who is safer, I want to take that privilege and expand upon it. To spread word of what we as women in Taipei do have, so we can push one another and ourselves further toward equality and freedom – no matter where we are from. For these reasons, I use a voice so many women still struggle to find. And thanks to the female founders interviewed for this piece, reform can continue to mount – in safety.

Seeking safe spaces

The future is female. Here in Taipei women are creating safe spaces – both physically and virtually – to nurture that future.

For those who identify as female, whether from overseas or local, Taipei Ladies provides a heavily protected closed group on Facebook. Equally heavily guarded is the physical space - MOWES ­- purposed to offer workshops, movement classes, and a community meeting space. Taipei Ladies is by invitation only, while MOWES hosts events with RSVP required.

There is much the founders of both these community spaces agree on: From the uncomfortably importunate remarks made by hecklers and trolls on social media groups to the societal taboos still gripping girls and women by their voicebox; from the outright sexism and degradation present on the streets of this city or in the privacy of bedrooms, to the virtual abuse more accessible and acceptable than advice given to galvanize against it; from women’s inherited naiveties, to males’ manipulated facades of feminism.

Clearly, there is much work to be done, and the nourishing, affirming, communal safety these spaces afford will only help accelerate change. For the record, the women I interviewed prefer to be known by their given names only; a decision which aligns well with their commitment to privacy, safety and protection.

Meeting Maja & MOWES

A strong, tattooed thigh swings off a bicycle, another roots her to earth as Maja Ho calls in response to my inquisitive greeting. It’s the Scandinavian pronunciation, /mah-yah/. Her curious accent, a mix of Taiwanese roots, New York vernacular and an upbringing in Denmark, is warm, clear and striking. Other phonetic aspects of her endeavor include the name of her community space. “MOWES”, pronounced /moovs/, could surely confound English natives and non-speakers alike. Her community is equally geared towards both.

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Credit: Maja Ho
Maja and MOWES aim to provide a safe space and community accessible to all.
Class actions

Movement classes are held downstairs, where Maja instructs bilingually. All workshops and classes implement suggested donation and the payment process is blind. She admits taking her cue from New York based Yoga to the People, who pride themselves on making wellness (via yoga) and a sense of community accessible to all, regardless of finances, appearance or experience. This level of accessibility is important, but so is the intimacy. “I don’t want it to be a huge convention; just you know sit there, like ‘Yay, feminism’ and not be able to comfortably talk to everyone.”

Movement classes are capped at 10, workshops at 15. When other women lead or teach—from dance, meditations, and Reiki to yoga or aeroboxing – Maja pledges to bring the group “closer together” by having someone else to translate if she is unavailable.

Upstairs, as of the beginning of November, ideas include a no pressure environment for drink and draw, along with inspirational or educational workshops. On the docket were female entrepreneur workshops meant to empower local women, and sex education sessions for those who have and have yet to spend time between the sheets. These cover everything from masturbation to gender identity; topics we agreed have been a long time coming for many local women while being engaging and informative for expats – from students to freelancers and professionals.

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Credit: Maja Ho
MOWES workshops and classes implement suggested donation.
Maja’s story

It’s culturally accepted to starve yourself in Taiwan, Maja laments. You’re boxed with derogatory words like “fat” at a young age, yet growing up in Denmark this sort of treatment was unheard of. She was being told she was beautiful in one home, and scolded as the opposite in the other. For her, these differences help to burgeon, rather than break.

Her main impetuses include being treated as a woman versus a man; the near invisibility of so much of social media’s feminist bent (i.e. campaigns like Free the Nipple) and the influence these paradigmatic changes have had. In sum, she focuses on inequality and the safety it demands.

Cultural divergence between women is important to Maja: “The thing that is so interesting is when locals and foreigners interact, because that’s when you see the differences,” she says.

Each class or workshop is conducted in Chinese and English. Whether through language – a loaded weapon ­– or more symbolically, through spatial or social interaction, drawing attention to extreme difference heightens internalization. This in turn has the power to strengthen reform. For instance, by perceiving distinct qualities in appearance, tone, or manner while hearing variant narratives, women experience a heightened sense of difference. It is through acknowledging this strangeness or newness that understanding is most easily reached. While in a safe environment providing a community base, what may seem strange can make way for understanding one’s own notions of self, in turn leading to confidence and empowerment.

From seeking to address concerns she’s realized through meeting local women, who after half an hour would hit upon “the same questions, and it would always be sex because they can’t talk to their friends about it,” to hosting a workshop with her sister-in-law, a Taiwanese skincare entrepreneur and creator of Vecs Gardenia, whose focus is on “beauty from the inside,” Maja finds inspiration everywhere.

The convergences of language are also interesting. Maja recounts a conversation she had on MOWES’ opening night regarding her logo. The letter ‘W’ from the word MOWES is overlaid with the female or Venus symbol. Maya explained: “That’s the sign for you. That is your woman sign.” The woman registered a progression from confusion to excitement, emboldening Maja. “We need to make it more visual,” she explains to me.

The unfamiliarity or perhaps unavailability of certain empowering concepts serve to strengthen her resolve. But importing foreign ideas wholesale is not the solution.

Free the nipple, Taiwan?

Let’s rewind a second to Free the Nipple, the international movement generated by a 2012 documentary, which in the filmmakers’ own words, “sparked what has become an international movement that seeks the equality, empowerment, and freedom of all human beings [and] is now raising awareness and impacting change in countries across the world.”

Those involved do this by demonstrating topless or with pasties, depending on their comfort level and the local legality. Did this movement resonate in Taiwan? The website womany.net, a key resource for women in Taiwan, provides some indication, mentioning the campaign in 2015. However, there was no call to take to the streets topless, and the couple of dozen #taiwanfreethenipple tags that surfaced in response are hardly proportionate to the 23,000 viewers of the post. In fact, there was media backlash against the few brave women who did participate in the fight for equality. Maja uses this as an example of why people like us need to be more vociferous and present in other women’s lives.

As such, MOWES aims to adopt an approach catered to Taiwanese women rather than offering more Westernized importation and replication. “They want to do something, but they’re not allowed by the culture they’re living in. But people like us; we are,” Maja says. “I see that difference, too, but because I am kind of Taiwanese but also kind of foreigner, I’m allowed to do more, and I’m allowed to say more… so all the money I’m inheriting is in this business.”

Founding Fexpats & Taipei Ladies: A virtual safe haven

The issues of privilege, foreignness, and reform are less central to Taipei’s safe cyberspace for women, Taipei Ladies. Still, topics here cover similar terrain, such as abuse, violence, self-care and workshops. The mission statement salutes in recruitment-esque fashion: “We are here to support each other, educate, and share information. Get involved. We want to hear from you. This is your community!”

Without the constraints physical space and intimacy demand, Taipei Ladies – an offshoot of Taichung Ladies, which was founded just over three years ago – is universal. The fact questions may be answered by someone on the other side of the island is one reason for its success. With over 1,000 members, there sure is a lot of outreach, and for good reason. The inability to just google your way to the information as a female expat, or fexpat – the name coined by HCMC, Vietnam’s chapter years before – leaves women especially vulnerable. Aside from the obvious cosmetic, hygienic, or reproductive requirements most women pay heed to, issues such as harassment or more insidious crimes layer on a sense of immediacy and importance.

This is not to say expat men don’t face malignant issues. Kendall, an admin of the Taipei Ladies group, recalls that a man’s post inquiring where to go for STI screenings spurred the creation of the group. “After seeing the post derailed and the poster ridiculed, [Rachel] wanted to create a safe place for the women of the community to share information.” According to Taipei Ladies founder Allyria, the group was initially conceived as a place for " information sharing, support, & new friends."

The Taipei Ladies' experience differs markedly from Maja’s in that Taiwanese women provide much of the support. “We have found local women in our groups to be invaluable to our collective experiences,” reflects Rachel, another of the group's admins.

For Kendall, the fact that “answers are being filtered through and translated from Mandarin by bilingual members … is one of the most uplifting parts.”

When asked which they saw as more potentially damaging to a community of women: the inability to communicate freely, honestly, and openly in virtual spaces or the lack of a physical space to convene for similar purposes, Rachel asserts: “For women in general, especially as expats, [it’s] cyberspace.

“As an expat, when I am asking a question I might be getting an answer from someone an hour and a half away. Also, the internet allows us to find the safe physical places abroad. It has changed living abroad, it has changed the way communities are formed.”

Kendall adds, “The virtual community is difficult to claim as a woman. Anonymity on the internet allows much less civilized dialogue than in person. Claiming female-only virtual spaces lets us share ideas globally and create local women-centric events.”

Allyria suggests the two spaces will likely converge, as the purpose of the localized virtual groups is to spur both gathering online or in person. “Where there is unity and helpful responses, regardless of gender or race, ripple effects occur,” she adds.

Maja’s answer to the same question is more on par with her empowerment intentions: “Oh, it’s hard...most women know this is going on, they see it in the virtual space. Actions! They speak louder.

“Make it fucking more visual, on every corner!” If Maja has her way, we will be out with pasties en masse before spring arrives.

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TNL Editor: David Green

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