When a woman wearing a purple T-shirt with the slogan “This is what a feminist looks like” saw her photo being taken as she attended International Women’s Day in Bangkok on March 8, she didn’t give too much thought to it.
That was until the photo was posted on popular Facebook page “Everything Bangkok” and quickly attracted 300 comments, with the top-rated ones including an offer to “beat that feminism out of her,” a photo of a smoking gun, and an offer to point her to some “good suicide spots.”
Screenshots from the viral thread
In a country infamous for its sex tourism and where the gender role of local women is viewed by many as more traditional than in the West, the Western woman in the photo was taking part in a flash mob event at Central World that aimed to raise awareness about violence against women.
Yet it provoked exactly the opposite response — an irony not lost on her, or the event’s organizers.
“I was shocked,” the woman, who has asked to remain anonymous, told Coconuts Bangkok.
“But, at the same time, I feel like these people proved why we need to be out there doing events and wearing those shirts.”
Sarah Martin, a gender-based violence specialist who has worked all over the world, including working for the UN in Bangkok, is used to reading appalling things posted by expats on social media, but was particularly surprised to watch this saga unfold.
“They are talking about beating and raping her. Who can call that a joke? The thread was a shocking intersectionality of racism, classism and sexism,” she said.
A Photoshopped image of the woman in the T-shirt by a Facebook commenter on the viral thread
Martin pointed out that what attracts some foreign men to Bangkok, and to Thai women, is specifically the traditional societal gender roles.
“That appeals to some foreign men because, to them, it harkens back to some imagined time when women were just there to serve their needs,” she told Coconuts.
“But that’s a fantasy that never existed. Women have always had power, in the homes and in families. This mindset is a dangerous Orientalist fantasy world where women aren’t even real people.”
“It’s a challenge to deal with the entitlement of these men. Thailand is not even their country and many of them are here specifically to exploit Thai women,” she added.
Martin said she doesn’t doubt that there are foreigners in genuine relationships with Thai people, although she was quick to add that “those aren’t the kind of people that spend all day posting in these forums attacking strangers and casting aspersions at people and things they know nothing about.”
Patricia* and Kate* are two of the coordinators of Bangkok Rising, a group of volunteers focused on gender issues and eliminating gender-based violence, which hosted the flash mob event.
In response to the viral photo thread, members of Bangkok Rising created a post on Buzzfeed designed to draw attention to what happened and call out the offenders, mostly Western men in Thailand, by compiling screenshots of their sexist remarks including how “feminists should jump to death.” The post has been viewed 10,000 times.
Screenshots from the viral thread
Kate told Coconuts: “With the Buzzfeed post, we tried to be hard-hitting, without being vindictive. We don’t hate the people that did this but think it’s not okay to do this to someone who did not sign up for the page and the kind of humor there. This is an innocent bystander who didn’t deserve to have such things said about her body, her sexuality, her safety. That is abuse.”
“The fact that we got so much support shows that people were also shocked by this. It’s situations like this around the world that cause kids to end their lives due to cyberbullying,” she added.
Patricia added that it would have been just as shocking and abusive if the hate speech had been directed towards a man.
“There’s no protection online. That scares me. What are the implications if this happens to children or people with fewer defenses?”
And her musings weren’t just hypothetical. Some of Bangkok Rising’s members have taken part in workshops with teenagers in Bangkok, raising awareness about body issues, self-esteem and similar subjects.
Several female students in Bangkok have received the same purple T-shirt at these workshops, and it’s not a massive stretch to wonder if any of them could have been targeted in the same way, and if they would have had the same resources to cope with it.
“Some people might find Everything Bangkok funny but there are actual people in the world, and in that group, that hate women and wouldn’t be afraid to inflict violence on a woman. When you participate in something like that, even making an innocent-seeming joke about a woman making you a sandwich, you are encouraging them,” said the woman in the photo.
The viral thread on Everything Bangkok hosted many opinions that Bangkok Rising was a group of “Western feminists” trying to “force their ideals” onto Thai women.
One comment read: “The day that everybody was afraid has arrived. Feminist are here. To the western feminist. Who you think you are to teach thai people what they should do? What they should think? Did they ask you? [sic]”
Screenshots from the viral thread
I attended a Bangkok Rising meeting for the purpose of this story and, at that event, the attendees were about 25 percent Thai. Patricia and Kate also made mention that, at last year’s International Women’s Day, their group joined a group of 400 Thais representing the Thai Women’s Wellness and Gender Justice Program, a group dedicated to gender equality and LGBTQ rights.
Everything Bangkok, which had 34,000 members at the time of the controversial thread, was removed from Facebook, possibly after being reported over this incident. Another group has already sprung up in its place called “Everything Bangkok (The Original).”
The administrator of the original group, Everything Bangkok, Charlie, told Coconuts: “Everything Bangkok is all about having a joke. I haven’t got anything against feminists and good on them for sticking up for what they believe in… but when people don’t agree with them they get upset.
“Learn to have a laugh and realize it’s Facebook. I know there were a few people who took it too far, but there will always be those few people who do no matter what the topic is.”
There was no direct contact between members of Bangkok Rising and Everything Bangkok aside from a comment posted by vocal Everything Bangkok member Blake on the Bangkok Rising page.
Blake told Coconuts the group “gives people a place to use whatever type of humor they want. The admins have a no-ban policy. People can say anything unless it violates Facebook’s Terms of Service.”
“I personally can’t participate in the vulgarity,” he commented on some of the thoughts expressed on the page, though he did add many jokey comments on the feminist photo about “women making sandwiches.”
Blake said he didn’t think the thread went too far.
“A lot of the comments were stupid but it wasn’t too far. If they started posting her address or harassing her in person, that would be too far. The only thing I feel bad about, with the Bangkok Rising people, is that they didn’t understand the context. If they could appreciate that kind of humor they could have just had banter with us.
“In the end, it will be good publicity for them but terrible for Everything Bangkok.”
That was a prophetic comment as the group was removed from Facebook just a few days later.
Martin, the gender-based violence specialist, says has seen a rise in attacks on women online, noting the particular threat that some men feel when the topic turns to feminism.
In countries where she has worked, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Myanmar, the US, Jordan and Syria, the threats have become so bad that some women are afraid to go online at all.
“People forget that the women who find themselves attacked online are legitimately afraid. Men are often clueless that this is actually frightening and there are women all over the world being attacked, beaten or killed to silence them.”
Bangkok Rising raises money for charity and gives 100 percent of it away to local organizations. For their next event on March 24 and 25, a staging of The Vagina Monologues, they will donate the proceeds to House of Refuge in Chiang Rai, a home to 29 girls who have been victims of sexual abuse.
Participants at International Women’s Day. Photo: Bangkok Rising
Kate said: “There is a positive side to all of this. People are talking about these issues now. We’re lucky to be in Thailand, where we can have events and put on shows like The Vagina Monologues, which is banned in many countries.”
The woman in the photo said that, in the end, she would not change what happened.
“This has been inspiring and I can use it to bring awareness to the issues of feminism and cyberbullying. I’m lucky to have experienced all kinds of common and typical gender discrimination and be at a point where I can do something about it instead of passively standing by like most women are forced to do.”
The woman in the photo poses for Bangkok Rising. Photo: Bangkok Rising
In closing, she offered: “If you have something bad to say about a woman, write it down and give it to your mother. Can they do that with the comments they left under my picture?”
*Names have been changed
Bangkok Rising will host a fundraiser on March 24-25 when they perform The Vagina Monologues at Check In 99.
Check Inn 99 Bangkok, 97/1 Sukhumvit Rd