Charismatic Zainab, the 10-year-old daughter of a tribal leader in Northern Pakistan, is at the age where she dreams of meeting her Prince Charming. Like a pretty doll in a pretty dress, Zainab often imagines what her future wedding will be like.
The same moment the child is brushing her doll’s hair at home, her father arranges to marry her to a man his age to end vengeance between two tribes.
“What is this spot?” Zainab pointed at the red stain on her mother’s wedding dress, days before her wedding.
“Blood. Mine, your grandmother’s and her grandmother’s,” Zainab’s mother, also forced into marriage at 15, said in tears.
This powerful scene in “Dukhtar” or “Daughter,” a film by independent Pakistani filmmaker Afia Nathaniel, reminds us that the violence against and abuse of women and girls goes back generations. Despite two thousand years of civilization and today’s modern age, women and girls sadly still yearn for a fantasy world where they are guaranteed safety in their day-to-day activities. Violence began against them long ago, and it is still happening today.
“Dukhtar” was screened at SF Cinema World Thursday night for the premiere of the Bangkok’s International Film Festival on Ending Violence Women and Girls. The four-day festival, which is showing award-winning films from across the world until Sunday, is the latest attempt by UN Women to raise awareness of gender-based violence.
“The real change is the change that comes from the government, the change of the laws, when services are there, when the police are prosecuting criminals who abuse women, when the social norm changes, so that boys and girls grow up to believe in gender equality, to believe in human rights. These are the real changes that the campaign is aiming for,” Anna-Karin Jatfors, UN Women’s regional program manager told Coconuts.
Anna noted that gender-based violence is not unique to Thailand, yet the country does not have a positive reputation when it comes to women. The unsolved Koh Tao rape and murders has not cast a good light on the Land of Smiles. Meanwhile, Thai residents are constantly shocked and saddened by gruesome crimes against women and children, including the train employee who raped a 13-year-old girl and threw her off the train and the man who raped at least 10 children and killed 4 of them. The same awful stories take turns to appear on newspaper front pages. When one story of violence against women ends in silence, along with laughable punishments imposed by Thailand’s justice system, another one emerges.
The government’s bikini obsession
While the Australian Embassy in Bangkok yesterday was lit orange, the theme color of the UN’s anti-gender-violence campaign, on the same day Phuket police made headlines after they casually told tourists in bikinis to put on some clothes to “ensure the safety of the women who might be sexually harassed.”
The story reminded many of the famous remark by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha in which he joked that tourists in bikinis were not safe unless they were ugly, while addressing the murders of two Britons on Koh Tao.
“There are always problems with tourist safety. They think our country is beautiful and is safe so they can do whatever they want, they can wear bikinis and walk everywhere,” Prayuth told government officials last year. “But can they be safe in bikinis… unless they are not beautiful?”
In a conservative culture where victim-blaming is the automatic response to crime, Prayuth’s bikini remark was ignored by Thai media until the story was picked up by Western media and criticized globally. In the Thai-speaking world, the story was widely reported with the usual subject line of “foreign media quotes Prayuth’s bikini remark,” as if the statement had never been an issue in the Thai culture until someone enlightened them
But acceptance of victim-shaming is surprisingly not only upheld by Thai men. Dr. Air, or Anchulee Thirawongpaisan, the spokeswoman and star of the Royal Thai Police, proudly led the online YouTube campaign “Rape Diary” last year where she interviewed imprisoned rapists and asked them why they raped.
After each interview, which mainly discussed how the victims dressed “a little bit sexy” and aroused the rapist, the video ended with a slogan subtitled in English, “If you do not want to be a victim, then do not open any chances to a rapist.”
In Thai culture, girls grow up as they are taught every day to watch out for themselves and to not “tempt criminals.” In Bangkok, telling women to “text when they get home” has become a common occurrence for them to feel a little safer when traveling home alone. Reports of violence lead women to always think of the “what ifs,” the possibility that it could happen to them. Yet again, the idea that women can live life with a zero chance of getting attacked only exists in a fantasy world.
Chances are that when violence against women happens, there will be voices, as heard in the government’s Rape Diary campaign, that blame it on the victim’s dress being too short or chastise them for being stupid to wander alone in a certain area.
Stop victim-blaming. Victims did not ask to be victims.
Support UN Women’s “16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence Campaign” by attending the film festival with the hashtag #EVAWGfilmfest – or simply teach your children about gender equality.