Tired of seeing so much sexism in the expat community in Ho Chi Minh City, Jennifer Graham speaks out.
The word ‘feminist’ conjures up an array of meanings and emotions. There are women who are strong advocates for gender equality who would balk at the idea of being labelled ‘feminist’. There are radicals who create their whole identity around their female strength and warrior stance and embrace the title of feminist in everything they do. There are women who cook and clean and knit and use these traditional female roles as a soapbox to promote their personal views of feminism; yet, at the same time, there are feminists who would rather choke on a bar of soap than ever be seen condoning this kind of behaviour. There are even men who call themselves feminists.
Generally, feminists have a bad rap. And let’s be honest, if you don’t like feminists it’s probably because you think they are a joke — just angry women walking around hating men while giving everyone a glimpse of their hairy armpits.
But in reality, feminists come in all shapes, sizes and sentiments and each one has walked her own path towards a form of feminism. My own path was forged while living in Vietnam.
There are many reasons I became a feminist in Vietnam, a major one being the way I see some western men speak about and treat Vietnamese women. On a recent Friday evening, for instance, I was sitting on a rooftop bar sipping a cosmopolitan while discussing the woes of life as an English teacher with some old and new friends — who all happened to be expat men — when a middle-aged guy opposite me, without any discretion, began regaling the group with the intricate details of Vietnamese women’s genitalia.
Now don’t get me wrong, I talk about vaginas as much as the next feminist. A part of feminism is to create a space where we all can openly and respectfully discuss the nature and symbol of womanhood. But when a woman is objectified — when she is seen as only a commodity to be used — it cannot be tolerated.
All too often I’m put in a position where I have to listen to this derogatory discourse from a large proportion of male expats, and I don’t want to hear it anymore. Put it this way: what man wants their genitals described while sat at a table with 10 women? Not many, I would imagine. It’s disrespectful, humiliating, boring, and yes, it’s sexist.
“It’s just a joke” is a common response after I’ve taken offence to some good old-fashioned sexist remark. “What’s your problem? It’s tastefully done” was the reaction to my complaints of a photo of a naked girl posted on a Facebook group of mostly male expat members. Oh, and let’s not forget the “expat women are just jealous because expat men find Vietnamese women more attractive” position. Western women in Vietnam are being made to feel that they are uptight prudes if they “don’t get it”. It seems expat men are speaking to us like they have forgotten what gender we are.
And there is another level to this sexism within the expat community that has seeped into our workplaces, which expat Belynda Bruhahn has experienced first hand. She told me that after months of sexual harassment from a colleague, she had decided enough was enough and made a formal complaint. In a meeting with management, her harasser said: “I’m not even sexually attracted to her. When I look at her, I don’t even get an erection.” This degrading statement was simply shrugged off by those in attendance.
This kind of upfront, accepted and openly hostile sexism very rarely happens where I am from, at least not publicly, and I’m certain that most other western countries are the same. So, why do so many western men come to Vietnam and forget how to treat women with respect?
“I have to look at the historical perspective,” a Danish male expat and self-proclaimed feminist, who requested anonymity, told me. “I think some [foreigners] here still see this place as some sort of colony. Vietnam feels so disorganised at first sight, which may make some foreigners behave like they want to because they think there are no rules.”
Some may say that Vietnam has been a man’s paradise for years and it will be a shock to no one that many Vietnamese women are eagerly choosing to take western men as partners.
“If you can get women that easily, you start taking them for granted,” says a British expat who came to Vietnam with his girlfriend and also asked not to be named. “It’s like water. If you’ve got a constant supply of water then you’ll misuse it, but when it runs short you start to respect it more.”
Of course, women looking for a way out of their difficult circumstances are definitely not to blame for the way certain men treat all women. What has become increasingly clear to me is boys in our western cultures are being socialised and taught to value women and girls in such a way that they can quickly lose all respect for females once they no longer have restrictive norms governing their behaviour.
I can live with sexism — I have lived with it, to an extent, my whole life — but I’ve gotten to a point now where I am just sick of seeing the same things over and over again. I can no longer accept it when a western man gropes a Vietnamese woman because, you know, “she wants it”. I can no longer sit with men who describe women as “it”. I will no longer ignore a derogatory picture, joke or statement posted on my social networks. I am fighting back and I join many other expat and Vietnamese women and men who want to see an end to this chauvinism. At this point in time we may not be able to dig up the roots of sexism, but we can certainly trim a few branches.
Yes, I am now a feminist and I will do whatever I can to confront all forms of sexism. For me, being a feminist is about working towards equality for all, across the whole gender spectrum. And, you know, occasionally having hairy armpits.
Jennifer Graham is a British freelance writer living in Ho Chi Minh City. Follow her blog at Jencanjump.wordpress.com.