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Cover story : 10 Sep 2002
Vol.19 No.11
Women's Status in Thai Society
by Sarutta

One of Some Best Buys



Cover:One of the earliest Miss Thailands
in the 1950s

hai women have good manners, love to take care of their families and are followers of their husbands. This has always been the stereotype of Thai women. In Thailand today, women go to work like men and many are promoted to leaders in organizations. Many of them are more self-confident in the working world but at the same time do not neglect their expected duties of taking care of their families and doing household chores.


The photo of two young
Thai girls taken around
fifty years ago

It has been a long journey in Thai history before Thai women's status came to the present condition. To consider the social structure, religious influence and traditions and customs in Thai society will make you understand the status of Thai women in the past more clearly.

SOCIAL STRUCTURE
In the past, a Thai woman had to take care of her husband and be totally obedient to him. Most men in high society had several wives, the number of whom was considered an indicator of the husbands' socioeconomic status. An edict promulgated in 1861 stipulated that men had right to have several wives. No matter whether women were born in high or low society, they all had a lower status than men. Women in high society were protected by law better than those in the lower ranks. For example, though they were regarded as a possession of their husbands, their husbands had no right to punish them severely. However, compared with men, the ladies were still in a far inferior status.

On the other hand, ordinary women had to do house chores and work in the field since men at that time were required to leave home either to do labour or guard the capital for about 4-6 months a year. Thus when the husbands were out, their wives had to bear the burden of earning a living. They had to do farming, weave cloth for their family members and looked for some odd jobs to gain some income.

RELIGIOUS INFLUENCE
Thai society is a Buddhist one. The Thais especially those in the old days believe in karma , i.e. good and bad deeds in one's former lives that are thought to bear on the condition of one's present life.


A wall painting
at Wat Phuttha
Prathip in London
depicting heaven
and hell in
Buddhist belief

To clarify this, one's present happy life is assumed to be the result of conducting good deeds in one's past existences, whereas a person's suffering is the result of his past bad deeds. Furthermore, to show that men were viewed as the better gender than women, there is an old belief that a man who committed adultery would, after his death, be sent to hell to be severely punished and after the suffering in hell he would have to be born a woman for 500 lives and a transvestite for another 500 lives before being born a man again.

THAI TRADITIONS AND CUSTOMS

One obvious example that suggests the different attitudes people of former times held towards a man and a woman is that when a baby was born, if it was a male, a slate and a pencil would be placed beside the baby, but if a female, a needle and thread would be put there instead. This reflects the different expected roles of a man and a woman. The former was expected to become a man of knowledge and the latter a good housewife.

In former Thai tradition,
cooking is a significant duty for a wife

When grown up, a boy was sent to study at a temple but a girl stayed at home and learned to do house chores. A Thai saying indicates the importance of the ability to cook for a woman that "the charm at the tip of a ladle makes a husband love his wife all of his life." This saying shows that cooking is a significant duty for a wife.

In the old days, a woman could not select her own spouse but her parents would make an agreement with the parents of a man they thought good for their daughter in the aspects of the social and financial status. It is not wrong to say that a Thai woman's life after marriage was fully devoted to her husband.

A literary work called "Exhortations to Women" (Suphasit Son Ying) by Sunthon Phu, a famous Thai poet who was designated by the UNESCO a Classic Poet of the World in 1986, describes the duties of a good wife which reads in the part :
A wife should show her respect to her husband every day. When the sun sets, she will not go anywhere but prepare the bed for her husband. When the husband goes to bed, she krap him at his feet (by raising the hands pressed together at her chest and prostrating herself at the husband's feet as a Thai way to show her high respect). In the morning, she wakes up before him to cook food and prepare all things for him. When he has breakfast, she sits beside him to see whether he wants anything that she can bring to him. A good wife will not eat before her husband.

CHANGES TO WOMEN'S STATUS
In the eyes of the outsiders, Thai women may have been treated unfairly in several ways. But at least readers should understand first that Thai women had been taught since they were young about their expected role and duties, and had grown up in the cultural environment that made them familiar with such practices. It was even the pride of some women to make their husbands comfortable and satisfied.

Western influences were the most important factor that brought about changes in the role and status of Thai women.



Thai women in the reign of King Rama V
(1868-1910)

In the reign of King Rama IV (1851-1868) who was the first to attempt to modernize his country, women were gradually encouraged to take part in social activities. This started in high society first. Educational opportunities were offered to women of high ranks.

In the reign of King Rama V (1868-1910), Queen Saovabhaphongsri was the first woman in Thai history who was designated as regent and was assigned full authority to administrate public affairs during the king's visit to Europe in 1896. The queen proved herself to be able to work effectively like men especially in the aspects of women's status, women's education, and medicine. This was a good sign of the development of women's status.


King Rama V
and Queen
Saovabhaphongsri


King Rama VI


The first Thai monarch studying abroad was King Rama VI (1910-1925) who went to study in England in 1893 and returned home in 1903. The king had a chance to observe the advancement of women in the Western world. So he launched a campaign to win rights for Thai women, though it was limited to high society circles.

Several articles written by the king clearly indicated that the king was not satisfied with the then status of Thai women and felt that in a thriving society men and women should enjoy equal rights. Also, the king strongly expressed his view to correct some old beliefs, values, and traditions that made women inferior to men. The king once wrote:
"Women are still much oppressed. For example, they are prohibited from having long hair (after marriage) for reasons of not looking neat... Some men consider wearing short hair and keeping teeth black suggest the politeness of women. Women are also deprived of the right to associate with men...for the reason that if women obtain too much freedom, they will be spoilt."

Laksami Lawan,
the queen consort
of King Rama VI,
in phasin dress initiated
by the King to improve
Thai women's appearance

The king also propagated his idea about the proper qualities of Thai women in several literary works of his that women should have good manners, be able to take charge of household chores, and be good at cooking.

At the same time, they should be well educated, sharp-witted, and responsible, and help their country. To improve women's status, the king set an example to other men by treating women politely like in Western culture and taking his fiancee to social functions.

Other activities that the king did for this purpose included:
• Promoting education without sexual discrimination by issuing the Primary Education Decree 1921 requiring all children from 7-14 years old to study in the schooling system without paying any fee
• Setting up Benjama Raja Lai School in 1913 for training woman teachers
• Improving women's looks and attire by having a campaign for women to wear long hair and phasin* instead of chongkraben** and to stop chewing areca nuts so that their teeth would not be black.

The revolution in 1932 resulted in the change of political system from an absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy. The event had much impact on the social role of Thai women. The new constitution enabled women to enjoy the political right equal to men. Moreover, the government corrected the civil law to allow a man to have only one lawful wife.

Left : Field Marshal P. Pibulsonggram, the third
Prime Minister of Thailand who had the policy
to raise Thai women's status
Right : Thai women wearing hats according
to the policy of P. Pibulsonggram to lift Thai
women's status to be equal to that in the
developed countries

P. Pibulsonggram (1938-1944), who was the third Prime Minister in Thai constitutional monarchy and a field-marshal, showed his determination to raise women's status. It was stipulated in his policy to lift Thai women's status to be equal to that in the developed countries. He viewed that women had the capability to be quality citizens, they played an important role in the family and society, and they could help the country in wartime.

The systematic implementation of this policy by making campaigns and using media made his idea acceptable to the people of the country. The prime minister's policy then had a direct effect on high and medium-class women. Women associations were set up to study and solve problems of women both in the short and long run.

The idea about lifting women's status was given up as Pibulsonggram's government lost its power. When P. Pibulsonggram was back to power in 1948, his policy about women was revived. More and more associations and activities for the betterment of woman status were launched, and there has been continuous improvement since then.


Nowadays, women find themselves in a favourable position in their society. Nevertheless, many Thai women still maintain their sweet manners, love to please their families, and try to live up to their expected role as a good mother.


* Phasin is a kind of loincloth for women taking the form of a piece of cloth about three metres long and more than a metre wide, wrapped once around the body and tied in a knot in the vicinity of the navel.
**Chongkraben is a Thai style of wearing a loincloth in which the cloth is wrapped around the body and tied in a knot in the vicinity of the navel with the ends of cloth brought together, rolled from the top edge to the bottom edge, and the resulting roll brought out between the leg to the small of the back where it is stuck behind the belt.



For the correct pronunciation of romanized Thai words, see
Romanization System of the Thai Language .

 



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