What is feminism? For many, the idea of what feminism looks like is strongly associated with more common feminist movements in the West, yet feminism is a global phenomenon. It encompasses a diverse range of ideas of how to move towards women’s empowerment and gender equality.

Last Monday night saw the ANU College of Asia Pacific Student Society hosting a panel discussing how feminism has manifested itself within the Asia and Pacific region.

Professor Jane Golley, Deputy Director of the Australian Centre in the World at ANU, was the first speaker on the panel and began by examining gender inequality in China from an economic perspective.

She said one of the greatest issues faced by China is its massively skewed population ratio – 117 men to 100 women. This imbalance has come about from historical preferences for male heirs, technological advancements in ultrasound, allowing doctors to differentiate gender before birth and the ‘squeeze’ or reducing effect the one child policy has had on China’s youth population.

Professor Golley’s research primarily focuses on the unequal opportunities faced by rural communities compared to urban communities, but her data supports that there is inequality of opportunity between men and women. In terms of income, being male is associated with 0.51% more income compared to women in the same age bracket. Professor Golley concluded by asking what we would do if we were in the position of Xi Jinping, and offered the suggestion that the path to more equal income and freedom might come from a greater push for women’s education.

Following on from this, Professor Margaret Jolly, a historical anthropologist with a focus on gender and sexuality, discussed how feminism in the Pacific is quite distinct from the brand of feminism found elsewhere.  Many Pacific islander women don’t call themselves feminists due to its negative Western connotations. Feminist movements are instead interconnected with anti-colonial and anti-military movements, interceding strongly with other factors like religion.

Professor Jolly emphasised that in many Pacific islands such as Vanuatu, the Church has influenced the framing of feminist movements. When Christian conversion first came to the islands, there was a strong rhetoric of ‘salvation’ – saving women from lives of hard manual labour and male dominance. This process of ‘salvation’ has was not wholly successful as many women found hard labour to be a source of pride. In recent decades women’s Christian groups have served as focal point for empowerment movements.

Last year the inaugural Pacific Feminist Forum was held in Suva, indicating that feminist ideas are becoming popular in the Pacific islands.

Professor Jolly concluded by asking some thought provoking questions about what Australia’s role is in promoting these feminist movements. Do we still have the maternalistic attitude of ‘saving our sisters’ in the Pacific? How does Australia’s foreign policy and development aid programs empower women? She argued that our approach has laid excessive importance to women’s representation in parliament and not in occupying non-commodity economic roles and religious organisations.

The third speaker on the panel, Myjolynne Kim, spoke of her feminist perspective as a woman from Chuuk in the Federated States of Micronesia. Chuuk is a matriarchal society. Women are the custodians of indigenous knowledge, they are the principal land owners and groups of high ranking women are responsible for electing the chief.

She spoke of how the 21st Century has begun to weaken the matriarchal system amongst issues of environmental change and greater militarization of the Pacific. Colonialization has given political power to the men, and so for Ms Kim, feminism means “regaining women’s leadership that is mandated to them from their ancestry” as well as the “maternal responsibility to take care of the land the surroundings.” She echoed the suggestion that greater education is the way forward, and argued that education about domestic violence and women’s rights starts at home.

Dr Ruth Barraclough discussed her own research interests into feminist movements in North and South Korea. Her current research project looks into the historical North Korean feminist elite. Women played a critical role in the North Korean revolution and when the DPRK initially formed, it introduced some of the most progressive laws at the time, such as free divorce and representation of women in the first Cabinet.  Newer debate seeks to understand what has happened to these feminist institutions under the contemporary regime. Dr Barraclough finished by stating that “Feminism has a long genealogy- it doesn’t have hierarchies,” and most importantly, that “feminism is something where generations can inspire each other”.

Dr Barraclough then concluded the panel discussion by highlighting the research of ANU’s top feminist academics. She made the point that, “we don’t have a school of feminism, but feminism is threaded throughout the university.”

Dominic Harvey-Taylor is a first year undergraduate student studying a Bachelor of Asian Studies and a Bachelor of Law at the Australia National University. 


Featured Image – From left: Prof. Margaret Jolly, Prof. Jane Golley, Myjolynne Kim, Claire McBride-Kelly and Dr Ruth Barraclough.

All images by Kai Clark.

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