I recently had the honour of joining UN Women on the HeForShe University Tour, visiting several universities around Bangkok to campaign against gender inequality and gender-based violence.
This tour was the first of its kind in Asia. Each university visit would consist of educational sessions on gender equality, talks by activists and survivors of gender-based violence, and workshops with students. These workshops, called ‘ideathons’ would allow students to brainstorm ways to achieve gender equality on their campus. At the end of each one, we would submit their suggestions to the university authorities.
I was invited as one of the activists to tell my story of sexism and sexual assault in Muay Thai. I was joined by:
- ‘Best’ Busayapa Srisompong – Pro-bono human rights lawyer, founder of SHero Thailand and survivor of domestic violence.
- ‘Sia’ Watcharaporn Kukaewkasem – Founder of Freedom Restoration Project and survivor of domestic violence.
- ‘Jom’ Jomtian Jansomrag – Writer, content creator, activist and survivor of childhood sexual violence.
- Shane Bhatla – Transgender activist and Operations Manager at OUT BKK.
- Matcha Porn-In – LGBTQ activist.
The tour began at Chulalongkorn University, the oldest university in Thailand.
As well as being the first day of the tour, it was also the biggest. There were several photographers, as well as a videographer from the UN and media teams from Thai PBS and Coconuts Bangkok who were conducting news coverage.
This was my first time telling my story at length on stage (this was more than twice as long as the other speeches I’d done), and my first time being faced with so many flashing cameras. I was nervous, but it went well. I was bolstered by the solidarity I had with the other speakers, and the reassuring nods from audience members while I was onstage. You can see a video of my speech below (unfortunately, I was so nervous about speaking that I forgot to move the microphone, so it blocks my face for much of the shot)
After our talks, there was a panel discussion between Cindy Bishop, some of Chulalongkorn’s female professors and researchers, and the Vice President of the student council. The stand-out guest was undoubtedly Dr. Wasana Wongsurawat, who openly criticized the university’s administration and policies and clearly brought a breath of fresh air to the conservative, patriarchal institution. “I don’t think we can expect much from the administration”, she said. “I mean, the person in charge didn’t isn’t even here!”
When asked to provide a concrete way for Chula students to fight back against gender equality on their campus, Dr. Wasana encouraged them to protest against the enforced gender binary uniforms. “Refuse to wear the uniform, and if the university doesn’t allow you to study, then sue the university. I will support you in that!” She spoke about how she fought with university administrators for her right to wear trousers at work for many years, and said that students shouldn’t be subjected to the same archaic restrictions.
Coconuts Bangkok published a summary of the panel discussion, along with photos of the Don’t Tell Me How to Dress exhibition.
Unfortunately, Chulalongkorn refused to host an ideathon, which meant that we couldn’t continue the conversation with students and get their perspective. However, since this was the first time that the university had made space for this kind of topic, it was still a sign of progress.
Here’s Thai PBS’s coverage of the day:
I didn’t speak at Thammasat event, as it was entirely in Thai language. Since the university is known for progressive ideologies and student uprising, I was intrigued by what kind of conversations the event would spark there. According to the activists who spoke on that day, the students were much more involved and open to asking questions than Chula students.
Unfortunately, this was their only opportunity to take part. Like Chula, Thammasat declined to host an Ideathon, which meant that students had no way to get their voices heard.
Webster is an international university in an office building in the business district of Bangkok, so the atmosphere was completely different from the much more traditional universities that hosted the tour on the first two days.
Here, the students seemed much more enthusiastic about the event. At Chulalongkorn, many students were looking at their phones or walking in and out of the room during our talks. That wasn’t the case with Webster students. A group of them even arranged their own performance for it, singing a rendition of Alessia Cara’s Scars to Your Beautiful. They listened attentively during our talks, and several of them approached us to tell us how inspiring or touching they found them.
In the panel discussion, university professors and alumni talked about what policies they have in place to protect students who experience gender-based violence and discrimination, and how men and boys can fight gender-inequality on campus.
After that, it was time for the students to talk. I took them into an enclosed classroom to run the ideathon. This included discussions of gender-based violence, what causes it, how it exists on the university campus, and what can be done to stop it. The students were clearly excited to have the opportunity to discuss these issues, and even stayed an extra hour at the end to keep the conversation going.
However, it did become clear that Webster wasn’t as progressive as it seemed. Some students mentioned that professors, both male and female, had commented on the way they dressed, urging them not to show too much skin. They also mentioned that the university’s efforts to provide counselors were ineffective because they didn’t feel comfortable approaching them. The counselors available to them were current professors, but they spoke of the need for licensed professionals and people they could relate to. That’s why the students were so receptive to us. After hearing our personal stories, they knew that we could relate to them on some level, and felt much more comfortable opening up to us. Some commented that we let them know that they weren’t alone, and that made the entire week worth it for me.
Mahidol was the final stop of the university tour, and this was the most successful day of them all.
Around 200 students joined, as well as the university Dean and several professors. By this time, I was no longer nervous about standing up on stage and telling my story, so my speech went particularly well on that day. I also had the opportunity to host the panel discussion.
However, the success of the day wasn’t just on a personal level.
Mahidol’s ideathon had a huge turnout, with the most enthusiastic and outspoken student we’d met all week. They spoke passionately about their desire for gender-neutral bathrooms, better sex education, more opportunities to dicuss gender inequality, and support systems for students. They also discussed ways in which they could become activists themselves. They were joined by the professor of the university’s Gender Studies course, who helped to facilitate the conversation and take in the students’ ideas.
This week was challenging for me, and demanded more of my emotional energy than I expected it to. At the end of it, I was completely exhausted. Moreso, I was also content and proud, because I knew that we’d done something worthwhile.
At each university we visited, we sparked conversations that may never have been had otherwise, at least not in such an open and public way. Students responded with a huge amount of positivity, thanking us for coming and urging us to make the HeForShe tour a regular occurrence. They also mentioned that it allowed them to open up to each other about subjects they would never have broached otherwise. Knowing that we’d had an impact was hugely fulfilling.