Cover:One of the earliest Miss Thailands
in the 1950s
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.
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
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
and hell in
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
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
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
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
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."
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
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
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
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.
: 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
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
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.