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With the ASEAN Economic Community to be implemented soon in 2015, many parties including media are preparing themselves in many aspects. We have seen media’s moves in presenting programmes educating Thais about business opportunities, travelling to member countries and learning different languages. One important but missing issue is perception about women and gender expectations which reflect in the media in ASEAN cultures.   

Media Inside Out and Heinrich BÖll Stiftung Southeast Asia held a discussion entitled “Gender Reflections in ASEAN Media”, on September 2, 2014 at the MIO office. Panelists included Morragotwong Phumplub, lecturer at International Studies (ASEAN-China), Faculty of Liberal Arts, Thammasat University and Chontida Auikool of Film Kawan and Chalida Uabumrungjit, deputy director of Thai Film Archive (Public Organization). The discussion was moderated by Nithinand Yorsaengrat, senior journalist and advisor at Matichon TV. 

Pursuing the wish of Thai Interim government (at time of the discussion) to reform education system and to instil moral curriculum, Morragotwong Phumplub feels curious about curriculums of other ASEAN countries. She has found that recently National Library Board of Singapore has banned three children books, namely “And Tango Makes Three”, a story about a couple of male penguins raising on orphaned chick; “The White Swan Express: A Story About Adoption”, depicting children raised in families of diverse backgrounds, including lesbians, cross-cultural couples, and singer mothers; and “Who's In My Family: All About Our Families”, about Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender families

It is interesting to examine why highly-developed Singapore, which have been opened to many Western thoughts, is still conservative when it comes to gender/LBGT issues, she noted.

“In the past, banned books were destroyed but this time there was a protest led by Pink Dot, a LGBT movement group. Many parents joined the protest by reading the banned books to children in the public. This is a good sign.  This has finally pushed the government’s decision to put them back on adult,” said Morragotwong.  This reflects Singaporean government’s conservative ideology on family value that supports heterosexual parents who raise children to have good value.  Male same-sex sexual activity is illegal with two-year imprisonment, she added.

Singapore and Vietnam: Confucianism and Rise of New Values

Interestingly, there is no ban on female same-sex sexual activity, Morragotwong observed. “This may be because Confucianism has influenced on Asian values which put priority on family and men are more expected. However, members of gay groups have been constantly increasing since 2009.”

Similar to Singapore, gender roles in Vietnam have long been influenced by Confucianism, the lecturer pointed out. “However, after the victory of communist party, men and women have equal rights to access to education, and participation in political resistance to Colonial rule, which marks a very important step.” explained Morragotwong.

A more recent and significant step towards gender equality is Vietnamese LBGT visibility in media, said Morragowong. “Adrift”, a film supported by Vietnamese Ministry of Culture, revolves around a couple of educated lesbians who are in love.  One had to get married with a man but their marriage remained unconsummated.  

However, there have also been negative images of women as sinister and being associated with failure, the lecturer pointed out.  “In Vietnamese history, many have learned about Madame Nhu, wife of Ngo Dinh Nhu, a younger brother of Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem, who later became President of South Vietnam.  She was accused of having immense power over her husband and her brother-in-law, which led to the fall of South Vietnam Government. 

As for gay rights, what’s happening in Vietnam is opposite to Singapore as Vietnamese government has recently legalized gay wedding, she said. “However whether gays are truly accepted by people in the society still remains a question.  Many parents whose children are gays are not very happy. And this is why gays need to get together in groups.” 

Indonesia and Brunei: Islam and Freedom of Expression

These days there have been more freedom of expression on gender diversity in Indonesian films, compared to the Suharto Era, commented Chontida Auikool of Film Kawan.

“Due to a large number of Muslim populations, there are sensitive issues on races, religions and gender.  Indonesian anti-pornography law includes limitations on public acts such as spouse kissing and same sex kissing.  Nude images are not allowed in the media. We have never seen a picture of Muslim women wearing Hijab and smoking.  These banned actions are among issues Indonesian filmmakers trying to advocate for more freedom.”

During the Suharto era (1967-1998), banned issues included class disparities, racial and religious conflicts, says Chontida. “Suharto acted as father of the state. Roles of women were limited in families, supporting husbands and taking care of children. However, after the rise of democracy in 1998, more filmmakers have come out to criticize social problems, including women’s rights issue. At the same time, we have seen more activists who make films. This is why more and more Indonesian films reflect social reality.”

A leading Indonesian female director who makes social change films, including those advocating democracy, human rights and diversity of gender identities is Nia Dinata, said Chontida. “Among her popular films is Berbagi suami (Love For Share), which reflects polygamy in Indonesia and its patriarchal family structure where wives have to stay at home. The film questions whether the tradition of polygamy is derived from Islamic, Java, or Chinese cultures or from male sexual instinct.  It depicts a man, who is marrying a third wife, whose parents offer her to him due to financial reasons. In a scene of their wedding night, the bride is forced to have sex. Finally, she makes revenge by developing relationship with one of her husband’s wives.         

Another Indonesian film reflecting women’s perspectives is “At Stake”, a documentary tackling taboo issues that many women are facing in the world's most populous Islamic country. Topics range from women’s complicated roles in raising family incomes while having to work aboard to the conflict that arises when unmarried women want to go to the gynaecologist. “It is sad to learn that to be entitled to access to check-up or treatment for cervical cancer in Indonesia, a woman has to show her marriage registration or certification from her future husband. This means that unmarried women, who have no plan to get married, and lesbians have very little chances to be treated,” Chontida noted.   

Mainstream Media and Gender Perspectives

Chontida observed that now “Pop Islam” films are new trend in Indonesia, which are mainstream films, incorporating pop culture into their practiced religion, and reflecting gender roles with new perspectives.

She cited for an example, “Ayat Ayat Cinta”, a beautifully portrayed Islamic love story, a tale of a virtuous Muslim man who is very gentle, and knows all religious principles.  A Christian lady falls in love with him and when she knows he has already got married, she is in deep anguish.  Later, the man’s wife allows him to get married with the Christian lady, who was later converted into Islam.  “What the film mirrors is that polygamous husbands need to take care of wives equally but the male protagonist has learned that it is impossible.  At the end, he is lying alone,” said Chontida.

As for Brunei, “Yasmine” was the first international feature film from Brunei, directed by female director Siti Kamalundin. “The film is a small significant step of a woman in Brunei’ film industry. The plot is about a young woman becoming a champion at Pencak Silat, a Southeast Asian martial art version. It shows that Pencak Silat is not exclusively for muscular men. The film inspires Muslim women to participate more in playing sports.”       

Nithinand: “And how have Indonesian women been portrayed by other media?”

“In most of TV soap operas which attract a large number of viewers, women are still seen in conventional roles, as trouble-makers, and being sexually suggestive, and dependent on men,” said Chontida.

New Media Technology, Non-Mainstream Media, and Diverse Gender Identities

Chalida Uabumrungjit, deputy director of Thai Film Archive viewed that many ASEAN countries have a thing in common, that on one hand there have been the conservative authorities and on the other hand there have been the marginalized, who challenge the authorities. Women and LBGT groups are considered marginalized groups.”

In Thailand during 1980s-1990s, there was little space for women film directors. “We female film students were told that men dominated the film industry and it would be tough for women who wanted to work in this field. However, with the arrival of advanced technology, more affordable equipment and computers, indie and non-mainstream films have emerged and we have seen directors who are women, gays, and lesbians.  Their identities play significant roles in filmmaking and this is a common characteristics shared among countries in the region.”     

Speakers from left to right: Chalida Uabumrungjit, Nithinand Yorsaengrat, Chontida Auikool, Morragotwong Phumplub                                                                 

Gender Films: for Better Social Understanding or Just Commercial Exploitation?

A critical question put forwards by Chalida: “Are gender issues being exploited in films?”  Gender films sell well everywhere, she added. “In Southeast Asia, most lesbian films are directed by men.  There is a question as to whether they should be directed by female directors. And it is interesting to explore the reasons why they make gender films. Are they made for better social understanding or just to meet audiences’ demand?”

Nithinand: Has there been any improvement in gender issues in films over time?

“I am not sure,” said Chalida. “Perhaps, in the past gender issues are more dynamic. Lor Tok, a late renowned male comedian dressed as a woman in an old version of “Chua Pha Din Salai” (Eternity) and it is interesting to examine what was in the mind of the director.  Or, do we become more alert on gender issues because of western thoughts? Anyway, it is good to be aware that there are more than two sexes in societies. No matter how many boxes the conservative authorities try to put people in, there are always those who cannot fit in. Everyone has his or her rights to choose to live in his or her own ways.”

On the Philippines front, Chalida observed, sex and gender/LGBT issues are visible in mainstream films while in Myanmar mainstream films are similar to those of Thailand 20 years ago and some contents contain transgender issues and transgender queen contests.  “As for Laos PDR and Cambodia, so far we have hardly seen LGBT issues in films. But new generations of filmmakers are booming and hopefully they will contribute to social changes in the future.”

Gender Reflections in ASEAN Media