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March 01, 2006

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Btw, Denmark is number one, with 74.2% of the women in the workforce.

I'd like to know the percentage of men in the workforce in Thailand, and in various other countries in the survey. Anyone have the answer?

I think you have to buy a CD to get the data from the ILO, which is where the BoGlo got its data.

I know our own labor participation rate is dropping in celebration of the Bush economy.

Traditionally, Siamese women (like Burmese and Sinhalese women) were freer than their counterparts in India or China or the Middle East in their ability to divorce freely, their rights to inherit property, and in the lack of segregation by sex. Love marriages were common far earlier than in other parts of Asia. Women frequently began their own businesses. I believe the proportion of woman-owned businesses is still high in Thailand today.

Caoimhin, thank you very much.

Very interesting, EW

I do not have any answers, but I think your questions are interesting

I suppose that the reflexive attitude is to suppose that extreme modesty and restrictions on women are traditional ideas, and less restrictions is the more modern idea. But even before I saw Caoimhin's post, I wondered about that.

It strikes me that one aspect of rapid social change is that it makes people feel insecure. In response, people tend to cling to notions of glory (social fantasies) that serve as a substitute sense of dignity -- a way of being worthwhile by associating yourself with some superworthy standard. Nationalism, fascnism, communism, religious zealotry, etc. In that way, a fervent "traditional" (restrictive) attitude toward women is the more "modern."

But that pap doesn't do justice to your question. A detailed history of Thailand (and a few other places) would be fascinating, I'm sure.

There are a number of other factors regarding the proportion of Thai women in the work force (although the definition of "work force" in this survey is not explained).

It is true that Thai society has long been more open and tolerant of women's active roles than some other countries. But it is also true that daughters are expected to provide for their parents, particularly among the rural poor.

That is why so many young women migrate to the cities, and work to send money home, very often to support their own children whom they have left with the family.

The phenomenon also speaks to the very high proportion of single women in Thai society, who have either rejected or been rejected by men, often after having children. I can't offer any figures on that, but the anecdotal evidence is overwhelming.

The vast majority of women working in the "sex trade" are doing so to help support their parents and usually their own children as well.

As to the definition of "work force," my guess is that it does not include many of those working in the informal sector, be it selling food on the street or selling sex. Thus the real proportion of Thai women working has got to be at least a few dozen percentage points higher.

One other factor is the relatively high number of Thai men who work abroad, usually in construction in the Gulf states. (Sorry, I don't have the figures on that either, but I recall reading some in the past, and there is also ample anecdotal evidence.) Most of the Filipino workers employed abroad are women, usually as domestics, whereas most Thai guest workers abroad are men.

Finally, a couple of your observations about the culture seem misplaced. All over Thailand, in cities and villages, women may and do regularly drink beer with men who are family, friends or neighbours. There is no social stigma to that whatsoever. And whoever told you that women were not supposed to drive motorcycles must be living in some private fantasy world. In the rural areas, which are the most conservative socially, every woman who can afford one or borrow one drives a motorbike, the most practical form of transportation. Nobody believes there is anything untoward about a woman straddling a motorcycle seat.

As for motorcycle taxis in Bangkok, those are used by everyone regardless of gender, merely as a quick way of negotiating the city's unweildy traffic jams, and as typical transport where there are no bus lines.

Thanks for indulging me. Keep up the good work on your site, especially on the White House scandals, et.al.

Dear EW:

You of all people must know the dangers of making broad cultural generalizations after having spent only two weeks, in a limited environment, in a foreign country.

Especially an Asian country.

Please excuse my bluntness, but your own social-interaction experiment with your students is not a valid jumping-off point for anything, other than perhaps to begin to understand the strict unpsoken social hierarchy.

In Thai society, this is summed up by the concept of "graeng jai," which dictates deference to those who possess a higher social status, be it in terms of age, profession, wealth or otherwise.

You were a professor, which is a very high rank, as well as being a foreigner; a guest in a certain regard; and someone perceived to have more money (in addition to possibly being older, although I don't know that for a fact). In any event, it is impossible to break into free social interaction with a group of Thais under those circumstances - unless perhaps you have some previous close history, and that requires speaking Thai, among other things. (That is also partly because no matter how well someone may be able to speak English - and most Thais cannot - they tend to be very insecure about their ability to do so.)

As it is, students will not drink beer with their professor, but they most certainly do with other people who are peers, neighbours or kin.

The education system places teachers on a pedestal, and the main ongoing criticism of that system of rote-learning is that it discourages any questioning during lessons; there is no interactive learning process.

As friendly and open as you may want to be outside the classroom, your students will always remain deferential to you, as per "graeng jai."

One even sees this dynamic during press conferences, where the Thai reporters often remain completely silent during the time for questions and answers, following the presentation. This usually creates a very uncomfortable situation for foreign diplomats or businessmen, who are left to wonder what it was they said that produced the silence.

Sorry to belabour my points - I mean no arrogance - but your mention of "Victorian England" is what provokes the pertinent. I am a journalist working in Thailand for only two years now, but I do speak and read the Thai language, and live in a part of Bangkok devoid of westerners.

And I simply have no idea what you were referring to by that observation.

Women may be - nay, often are - mistreated or disrespected inside the home, by their husbands or in-laws, but not on the street. In the public sphere, there seems to exist total equality in regard to vocation.

This is clear in my own neighbourhood, in the oldest part of Bangkok - the riverfront area of the original Chinese settlements, which today is very ethnically mixed. The immediate vicinity is basically a large, labyrinthine salvage yard, where the ground level of nearly every property is a workshop for reclaiming old automotive parts that are ultimately re-sold. The strenuous, hot, greasy and extremely difficult work of banging out twisted transmissions, drive-shafts, clutches and every other part imaginable is shared by women and men alike; many of the shops are owned by women as well, and they get dirty with the employees. At the end of the hard day, they drink plenty of beer together.

Nobody around here is lumped into your "virgin or prostitute" dichotomy (unless of course they happen to be virgins, but I don't think most people care much about their neighbour's private sexual history).

One other example of labour roles that may seem strange to outsiders: if one goes to any building site in this city, one sees that as many as one-third of the heavy-construction labourers are women, who raise the skyscrapers emerging all about. I also understand that this is true in other Asian countries, as well. In Thailand, they are the rural poor (and illegal-immigrant Burmese poor). Gender seems to be totally irrelevant to getting that kind of low-paid work.

Finally, I don't think any of the above has anything at all to do with "globalization." Women around here have been working in all manner of vocations and professions long before anyone ever thought of inventing that word.

Well, for whatever that's worth. Please take it in good faith: I do realize that I still have very much to learn about this culture, and expect it will require many more years of close interaction and study.

best, tl

There's a class-bound, generally conventional article in the NTT today on US women's work force participation. They buried their subject's summation at the very end of the article:

"We got equality at work," Ms. Watson-Short said. "We really didn't get equality at home." Hmm. Awful bind to live in.

Not to generalize too grossly, but Southeast Asia has traditionally had a relatively egalitarian gender structure and women have always been economically active. For the most part, men have been considered financially irresponsible--likely to spend it impressing their friends--so historically women have done much of the trading and merchant work. It surprised the hell out of early European traders, who were also surpised to find themselves dealing with powerful queens and rulers protected by female royal guards (because they were less likely to go amok and deliberately kill innocent people than male guards) throughout S.E. Asia. and Europeans were also shocked that Thai women in particular would have sex before and without marriage. Which I suspect might be the sad misunderstanding the whole sex trade is based on.

Just suppose for one moment, that someone from Asia or Africa was invited to give a seminar in Los Angeles, and was put up in a hotel along Sunset Strip, for two weeks.

And then that individual wrote: "And, of course, the USA's famous sex trade...it's absolutely impossible to avoid the sex trade, which falls out of barroom doors."

And then, our guest lecturer witnessed all the shameless fawning over starlets and other no-talent idiots on television; and saw all the spoiled, fashionable teenaged girls sporting costly automobiles, trendy new techno-gadgetry, and all of their very expensive clothing, even though they have never worked a single day during their pampered lives?

If that writer then wrote: "But the United States treats the rest of its women like sainted virgins..."

What do you suppose some reader in Kansas would say about that?

Indeed, how would you react to that?

Be honest, really.

Thomas and others

I was afraid this would come off as generalization, and I apologize. Some comments though:

The motorcycle thing. Was an explanation two people, one of them Thai, gave me for the rise of motorcycle taxis, not their current state. It may be BS, but it's not my BS.

Second, I was not in a tourist area. I was in a residential/business area. Given the number of businessmen, that still means a relatively high level of sex trade. But it's not the Sunset strip. Nor were the often foreign educated women I was with the equivalent of Kansas.

One of the points of this, btw, is that Thailand has significantly higher woman labor participation rates than those other Asian countries where woman share the heavy labor (and the car sales) and so on. I think a big part of that (and I said this) is the informal economy, which doesn't exist so predominantly in every other country.

Anyway, I appreciate your comments. I was, as I said, really looking for observations and insight. I apologize again for any generalizations I made.

Emptywheel--

I don't see any need for you to apologize, at least to me :) I took your description of your experience and your questions as honest, and that's the best place to start in trying to understand anything. I am interested in how globalization and modernization create new forms of gender stratification, and how sometimes more oppressive ones appear more modern/more desireable to people w/in changing societies than traditional "less gendered" forms. Anyway, my interest might have come accross as critical when I didn't intend it to be.

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It's good that the women are at least active in the economy for the most part. I'd be interested to see the total population so I can put the %'s in perspective.

Many women work in Thailand in all sectors, the main reason the men are
quite lame......thats why its a poor
country.

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