Navigating Western Feminism, Traditional Thailand and Muay Thai
There is a natural division in western feminist thinking, and in some way this post is about that divide. But much more it is about the situational ethics, the principles we may want to protect and forward, when visiting or even living in a traditional culture like Thailand; when coming to a different culture as a western privileged woman. This post is a single-person deliberation about how to best do so in the context of Muay Thai and its unique traditions in Thailand, how I am attempting to do so. Hopefully this resonates with others. Not all women from the west who come to train and/or fight in Thailand are feminists, but many do seem to be independent in spirit and all of us come from cultures shaped by ideas of female rights in some way. What does it mean to bring your western, perhaps feminist-informed values to a traditionally male-dominant culture, and how much should we consider that we in the west are exercising our economic and even colonialist-minded privilege when we do so? And how and when should we best work to uphold the (possibly sexist) traditions that attracted us, as traditions, to Thailand in the first place, paying personal respect to things much older and bigger than ourselves, and to things widely respected in the culture.
Dress Codes and Context
I was very divided about this very short video I shot on recent a short visit up to Chiang Mai – a heavily touristed city but also a conservative part of Thailand. When I hit “record” on the phone, it seemed a good thing to capture the kind of flaunting of custom that westerners very commonly do in Thailand, seemingly without regard to local culture. I see this of course all the time in Pattaya where I live and where westerners act with extraordinary freedom, but despite the frequency of witnessing such things, they still feel like a violation of norms. I see bikini-clad women and shirtless men wandering the aisles of 7-11, nowhere near the beach, all the time. Even in Pattaya where such instances abound, it is still transgressive. But when I saw this in Chiang Mai, a very socially conservative city in the north, nowhere near a beach, it felt so outrageous that I felt compelled to capture it. But then, when deciding to put the video up online – something I’m still not entirely comfortable with – the act clashed with my own feminist values against “slut-shaming.” I firmly believe in the sexual liberty of women, and I would like to live in a world where women can dress any way they like and feel no judgement. But wanting such a world is not the same as acting as if this already is such a world, and in cases like this – ultimately it is not about this woman and her friends, they are only examples – you cannot simply dismiss the often unconscious flaunting of economic and social privilege that is involved in these kinds of activities. Activities which either unknowingly or knowingly violate the social norms of the culture you are visiting. The reason why westerners can be so carefree with their behaviors in Thailand, to not even care what people think, is that there are seemingly no consequences. Lack of consequences (or lack of confrontational regulation) can be the mark of liberty, or the mark of extreme privilege. I do not have all the answers. This is more about how I have tried to position myself morally in a traditional culture, as a western feminist and as a female Muay Thai fighter.
Some pointed out, when I posted this video, that I was somewhat in contradiction. I am criticizing western women (and men, although none are filmed here) for dressing in a way that is impolite in Thai culture, but I also criticize the custom that women should lower themselves (something that reflects status in Thailand) and pass under the bottom rope of a ring as fighters, unlike men who hop over the top rope. Why are some Thai customs worth respecting and others not? This is a fair criticism of me. An occasion for us to think about the appropriateness of western values, and what is at stake when we argue for them, or act on them (two very different things) in a culture that is not our own.
The above is a photo I reposted to my Instagram and Facebook wall with the comment: “Hot damn, Tiny Tornado looking amazing. I find it hard to dress a petite, athletic body. Solution: dress it minimally. Duh.” How is this celebration of “hot” different than choosing to walk down a Thai city street in a bikini and fishnet dress? Are not both a form of liberty? Are not both women owning their “hotness” and sexual empowerment, which they are trying to exercise as social power?
Answer: yes. But the context is very different. Torres is photographed in a desert for online media consumption; she’s making a bid for potential sponsors to notice the attention she can garner, and is at once branding herself for fan consumption. She’s not walking down the street like this; even if she did, doing so in a western city (assuming it’s not in a Mormon town of Utah or something like that) already carries with it different context than walking down the street of a country whose local customs you’ve not bothered to look at. And maybe I’m wrong. Maybe this woman I filmed knows full well how it reads to be “naked” by local standards as you stroll down the street to hail a share cab and she’s chosen to give a big middle-finger to that custom. It could be; I highly doubt it, but I can conceive of the possibility. What’s more likely, however, is that Thailand is hot and “tropical,” both of which bring word association with bikinis and minimal clothing to those of us not from these climates. And Thailand is “exotic,” so the limitations we feel within our own cultures are loosened by being a stranger in a strange land and for a transitory period of time; it’s the global “Spring Break” phenomenon, where our anonymity and strangeness permits us greater leeway than we might take in our own cultures.
The longer you spend in a place, the more likely you are to be yoked by the cultural restraints expected of your gender, class or whatever else. I dress more conservatively in Thailand than I did at home. Not drastically, but I never thought once about wearing a tanktop when the temperatures climbed in Colorado or New York, where I lived. In Thailand, I rarely opt for a sleeveless shirt unless I’ll be in the gym and even then I’m conscious of it. Nobody told me to be this way, I was never verbally instructed or chided for dressing otherwise. Rather, the tacit social pressure became something I could read and I adjusted accordingly. Not because I’m a terrible person for wearing a tanktop, but because I became aware of the consequences of that choice. As someone living long-term in Thailand, I have a stake in how I’m perceived as well as being both respectful and respected in the culture. As an outsider, in that I’m not-Thai, my stake is still considerably less than a Thai woman raised in this culture, who is this culture. In the same vein, I’m not criticizing a Thai woman for how she dresses in her own country – I’ve seen some jaw-dropping outfits – mostly in the Red Light districts, but once on a Chiang Mai University student whose skirt made her fairly unable to walk down a short set of stairs. Anyway, I’m looking at western freedoms being enacted by westerners in non-western culture.
You don’t have to be making a political statement with your clothing every time you get dressed. But whether you mean to or not a message is being expressed. I’ve been accused of slut-shaming because I posit strong opinions about how western women should dress and conduct themselves in Thai gyms – how sexualizing oneself in a Thai gym affects all women in that gym. And I’m divided within myself because part of me cheers for the western feminist assertion that we can be sexually active and autonomous, or dress how we want without having to accept whatever the men around us think that means to them. But the other part of me acknowledges that one can’t just take western feminism and graft it onto eastern cultures without conflict or difficulty. To do so feels quite imperial and colonial, crashing into a foreign culture and demanding that my cultural freedoms, expectations and appetites be met. As much as I have made intellectual arguments against women being obligated to go under the bottom rope while men skip over the top, I myself dutifully and without protest go under that rope every time I enter a ring that requires it. That is literally hundreds of times (in fights and in training). My beliefs and my actions are contradictory within myself, intellectually, but they are wholly consistent in practice.
And that’s perhaps where I step on my soapbox regarding the disregard for local culture when picking out your street attire. One person commented on the video, quite aptly, that you walk around your own house naked but you wouldn’t do so at someone else’s house. There is an etiquette to being a guest and it’s fairly universal. There is also the consideration of global privilege. As a White person, one has a passport to nearly every inch of the world; you can go anywhere and are welcome and catered to nearly everywhere. To have that privilege and show up with the “I can do whatever I want” attitude feels entitled, not “liberated.”
Keep in mind that I’m writing about a country and a culture that isn’t mine. The information I relay in my blog is informed by my personal experiences, as well as academic research, but it’s always my interpretation – it’s filtered through my own western privilege because that’s the lens through which I see the world. I’m not speaking for Thai women or Thai people in general; I can’t do that. But I’m sharing as much as I can with as much evidence as I can. I’m aware of my privilege and the ways in which that also limits my scope and my voice. I’m asking that visitors be aware of their own privilege as well, when assuming seemingly “consequence-less” freedoms in moderately-understood cultures.
As I mentioned before, the “short term” laissez-faire attitude that many westerners don in foreign cultures can appear without consequence. This is partly that, culturally, in Thailand you’re not often going to be outright corrected for transgressions. You will be shouted off a ring or area of a temple if you’re a woman, standing where you shouldn’t be, but a great number of us also can’t read the social cues when we are crossing every day lines. Imagine obnoxious children running around and acting out in a restaurant in the west; maybe back in the day it was different, but now-days it’s not socially common to discipline or correct other people’s children when they’re being horrid in public. That doesn’t mean it’s socially acceptable or culturally in-line for the children to be running amok. Usually, in the west you will get people staring at the family of the children, whispering or even speaking in audible levels about how out of line this all is. But if you’re not tuned in to reading those people’s stares, expressions, or if you don’t speak the language to hear them say, “oh my God, whose f*cking kids are these?” you might not pick up on the transgression of the situation. In Thailand it is much more subtle. It might appear that there is no consequence to treating a restaurant like an extension of your own livingroom. That, in a nutshell, is happening in Thailand all the time. To make it even harder, Thais may not even look and maybe even smile at the transgression – how’s that for hard to read.
Grafting Western Feminism and Gender
Am I grafting western feminism onto Thai culture when I critique the bottom rope issue? Yes. I read an interview with a Thai woman and fighter who said that this complaint was disrespecting Thai culture, and while it’s not an uncomplicated display of her own privilege and status in Thai culture to proclaim support for this particular issue – she comes from an upper class – she has far more stake in the matter than I do. I then asked a Thai female fighter friend of mine about the bottom rope who seemed to not quite to understand my question. First she explained why we don’t go over the ropes. Then she said it was “good” that men and women do it differently. It wasn’t that one act was disparaging; it was that men and women aren’t the same. I tried to use this thought-stem to find something in my own world, to compare to how this first woman might be feeling when she says I’m disrespecting the culture, and how this friend of mine might be reading the difference as “good.” I don’t see children as being equal status to adults. They’re people, they deserve dignity and have rights and all that, but if someone told me that children should be able to vote or something, I’d say that was potentially damaging to political systems and society. Which is how women were once (and somewhat still are) viewed; as if you’re giving children the right to vote. Well, what’s problematic is that I see the rope issue as being comparable to this, in my western scope, outdated belief about women’s lower status. Another example I thought of, to try to compare to the brow-scratching, “no, different is good” answer my friend gave me is Beauty Pageants in the US. A guilty pleasure of mine was that show “Toddler’s in Tiaras.” The worst. It follows children competing in beauty pageants across the USA. At one point there was a little boy who competed in the shows and, like women in the male world of Muay Thai, he was kind of tolerated more than embraced. I imagine that asking my friend whether she thought women and men should not be so different in entering the ring might be like asking if this young boy should compete in a gown. Keep in mind, he’s not competing with the girls – often he was disqualified all together because he was the only boy at the event, which was frustrating for him – and he self-identifies as male. He wore a tux, that’s what he liked, so arguments about how the boys should be free to wear a gown if he wants (or girls to wear the tux) are right, but not the case or the point here. It’s just the immediate, “no, it’s good that boys and girls dress differently.”
So, imagine a male from a non-western country coming to the American South and participating in a Beauty Pageant. Imagine he wants to wear a gown, which simply isn’t how it’s done in the South – they don’t care for the concept of “gender fluidity.” It’s possible that these southern folk would feel that his desire to wear a gown, to be “equal” with the girls participating in the pageant, is disrespectful to the culture and tradition of pageantry, or of what they perceive to be US culture and tradition itself – it might look like you’re mocking the tradition itself, as in that culture a man in a dress is a joke. I can see that. In a more realistic example, a transgender woman trying to compete in Miss America would probably not fly for political reasons, as the culture of beauty pageantry isn’t known for being on the liberal end of the scale. I can see this being how the Thai woman who criticized my problem with the bottom rope being like this; she said, “if you don’t like the traditions, don’t do Muay Thai.” I do believe that one can have conflicting beliefs within a single heart. For example, you can love and want to participate in beauty pageants while still finding some objection to the more restrictive representations of women, femininity and male-consumption of objectified sexuality. I imagine that if a contestant who felt some of these objections to the Miss America representation of women wanted to compete without waxing her underarms because she feels that’s a socially restrictive beauty measure for women, a more conservative contestant whose interests are toward the defense and preservation of the “traditional standards of beauty” would tell her, “if you don’t like the rules, don’t compete.” Perhaps the questioning of the bottom rope feels something like this to the woman who objected to my criticism.
The example of the reverse of gender in a pageant, making by analogy Muay Thai to be a kind of pageant of Thai masculinity, may allow us to imagine what custom transgression may feel like, but simply giving the privilege of one gender to the other does not automatically produce justice. The issue of the bottom rope is a representation of sexism at large, but it’s not the seed of sexism and a change that allows women to enter the ring in a way more similar to how men do also doesn’t erase sexism or gender disparity on a much larger scale. The problem of trying to use theoretical examples is that 50/50 reversals of gender, as in the boys taking part in traditional beauty pageants, don’t fully work. The world we live in is not equal down the center, so trying to equate the same treatment of the opposite demographic across gender, color and class lines fails, because those power differences are real.
An example from the real world is the growth in sexual tourism among western women. Western men have been traveling to disadvantaged areas of the world for the purpose of exploiting global prostitution for a very long time; western women have recently started dipping their fingers into the tourist sex trade in more recent years and the market has grown accordingly. There is a portion of western feminist thought which celebrates women’s sexual freedoms and greater access to global markets, so sex abroad kind of meets at the intersection of these two things. Women being able to purchase whatever they desire with the spending power of western male capitalism is, in some regards, a win. Economic freedom is somewhat “new” for the female sex and economic power is a real power that grants greater access to the world around us as well as greater independence within it. But purchasing the bodies of disadvantaged men and boys isn’t a win for Human Rights around the world. Equal opportunity exploitation is not liberty, it’s liberty over others. Leveling the playing field for equal opportunity sexual exploitation isn’t really a “win” at all.
There are cases in the Muay Thai world where older western women have felt liberated to be in Muay Thai gyms around young, six-packed Thai teens of relative inexperience, and who have exercised their western-won freedoms of sexuality, economy and mindset, to – in my opinion – take advantage of this power differential. While not the same case as sexual tourism – dollars for sex – it does feel like only a difference of degree and not in kind: leveraging power and lack of consequence to a gain an inexpensively acquired pleasure. The question of consent becomes quite muddled by difference in culture, age, status, economic class, privilege, experience, etc. In the west we seem to have a hard time taking seriously the sexual abuse of male minors by female adults, often in positions of power (like teachers), which may carry over into our inability to see sexually opportunistic behavior by privileged western women in the same light that we see male sexual tourism.
I wrote a little about the complications of gender in Thai gyms when clinching here.
Slut Shaming, Advantage and Responsibility
Which brings me back to the tricky line between “slut shaming” a woman for how she’s dressed and criticizing a woman for how she’s dressed. The difference is thin and I think where it has the most foothold is in intention and responsibility. Feminism itself is a lot of women policing other women. Feminism is not a free-for-all pass for any and all women to do and say anything and everything we want without consequence. There is always consequence and, to me, feminism is about owning our personal awareness and responsibilities, as well as working to make those consequences less one-sided across the gender line. (For more on this subject of “slut shaming” and why it’s not unconditional, please see this very good article “‘Slut-Shaing’ Has Been Tossed Around So Much, It’s Lost All Meaning,” by Callie Beusman.) The other day I walked into the grocery store that I visit frequently in Pattaya and saw this sign on the front doors; it’s a new sign:
This must be in response to a recent incident or incidents of someone shopping or eating at the restaurant inside the store without a shirt on. The western men in Pattaya are especially keen on going everywhere without a shirt. Pattaya is pretty lenient on the Thai scale of tolerating public “indecency,” but even though its reputation is a place where western men come for an extended sex holiday, there are still lines and limitations. In America, for example, we have “No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service,” signs that must have been in response to the relaxing attitudes towards dress assumed by the young generation of hippies and surfers. In our own culture, most of us know that playing Frisbee in the park is an acceptable time to be shirtless, but if you’re going to pop into a restaurant, mall or store afterwards you need to put your shirt on. I believe the western men in Thailand know this differentiation, but because they’re in a “holiday” mind about being outsiders they’re less likely to abide cultural restraint. They’re “hanging loose.” What I find interesting about this sign is that the English requests that people be “considerate to others.” (The Thai basically says to dress “politely,” which is similar but doesn’t have to describe what that means, as the English does.) And this, I think, is where the disconnect between western, liberated feminism and eastern cultures finds tension. On the one hand, my bid for women to pay heed to local custom is not all together different from nagging women to be “well behaved.” And that is, in some ways, problematic as polite women are often historically suppressed women. But it also needs to be noted that, especially White and Middle-Class Feminism needs to be reminded that it’s not only about you. Especially coming from a place of privilege, we need to be conscious of pushing toward our rights, equality and freedoms while still being considerate of others; which may mean limitations we’re not comfortable with. Going under the bottom rope is something I intellectually push against, but in practice it’s non-negotiable and in action I’m consistently going under the rope because it’s polite. Not because it’s “right” in an moral, global sense.
When I’m thinking about the bottom rope custom in Thailand I’m exercising resources that Thai women may not have. These are not only conceptual resources that my privileged, western gender studies education allow me, but also my resources outside of the culture, the things that make me less of a stakeholder. I have the freedom to think this way, but I also have the occasion to as well, under a principle of consequences. I have fewer of them than those in and of the culture. It is important to me when thinking about social justice that one follow another principle, that of Punching Up. Those at the bottom are allowed to “punch up” so to speak. They are fighting for their rights, often against systematic powers of suppression. But those very same acts of protest are not the same when you are “punching down”, when you have the advantage and are punching down to protect it. It’s hard to cheer for Goliath. As a western feminist I find myself, when thinking about change and the bottom rope custom that I am both punching up and punching down. As a woman who shares a near world-wide disadvantage of gender, emphasized in expressions coded as masculine, like Muay Thai – and I can give you a long list of advantages western males receive in training and opportunity in Thailand simply by virtue of their gender, and little to do with merit – I am punching UP when I urge for equality of treatment between men and women. But as a westerner, both White and of the middle class I also want to be very careful about when I’m punching down, which is to say, using my individual freedoms and advantages in a way that may make others feel disrespected, without a great deal of immediate consequence to me.
I came to Thailand because it is the home of Muay Thai, and I’ve devoted myself not only to Muay Thai in every effort – fighting over 100 times in 3 years – but I’ve devoted myself to its traditions and it’s language, even when my own theoretical values butt up against the grain of them. Ultimately I have been powerfully drawn to an extremely masculine art, an Art that in many ways idealizes what a man is in Thailand, enough to move here and put my body on the line. As I explore my personal path of liberty in this beautiful art, I wish to remain as polite and respectful as is possible, even if my presence itself in some small way sets off some change. I try to navigate between the great historic past of Muay Thai and Thailand, and the new Muay Thai that grows to include others. Thailand itself is full of apparent contradictions. It is hyper-modern, seemingly liberal and fast-changing on the one hand, on the other hand it is socially extremely conservative, holding on fast to its past, grounding itself in tradition and custom that from the outside may appear outdated. It is just one more way that Muay Thai itself is Thailand. Inevitably, as the country and its culture change and move toward modernization, there is always a backlash against those changes where the more conservative traditions are gripped with a tighter fist – it’s like this everywhere. The way to win, for all of us to win, is to be both patient and insistent, respectful and hopeful.
I will say one last thing about the bottom rope in Muay Thai. While we are thinking about the traditional need for women and men to remain distinct, and the need for some women who don’t feel respected to find better ground, I can’t help feel the appeal of the solution proposed by this female Thai fighter that women be given at least one rope, to be allowed to enter between ropes rather than beneath the lowest rung. One reason to give it weight is that it comes from a stakeholder in the culture.
For women, I’ve started a discussion thread in the Roundtable Women Only Section if you’d like to offer thoughts on the ideas here. If you’re not a member of the forum do join. If you’d like to start a thread in the Men and Women section we can do that too.
You can read my other articles on Gendered Experience in Thailand