Written by Tamara Nair.

You’d be surprised if someone tried to connect John Le Carré’s 1974 novel, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – about an ageing spymaster trying to uncover a Soviet mole in the British Secret Service – with the lives of some women in today’s Southeast Asia. But what if I told you that with an almost obsessive push for economic growth and development in the region, especially under the Association of Southeast Asian Nation’s (ASEAN) Economic Community, these code names can equally reflect the clandestine roles women adopt in the underbellies of the region. Not unlike a spy novel, many women here negotiate dangerous terrains; on paths that do not lead back home, in search of jobs and a life that gets them out of extreme poverty and servitude. For many, the paths that are supposed to lead them out lead them straight back into greater suffering.

What women in Southeast Asia need is a a Feminism that is endemic. One that is rooted in a unique experience of patriarchy, religion, colonialism, conflict and poverty. Women’s equality is intimately tied to the security of an ‘ASEAN Community.’

The Tinker.

There are many definitions to the word ‘tinker’. It could mean to fiddle with something in an attempt to improve it, it could mean someone who invents, or it could mean someone travelling from place to place, usually to make a living. All three definitions suit our purpose here. Little is known of the clandestine experiences of some of Southeast Asia’s female migrant workers. They often manoeuvre ‘murky’ systems that are exploitative, dangerous, and violent. They try to ‘fix’ their lives by moving out and around, exploring all and any options and ‘inventing’ new and different personas. They tinker within and without these systems as far as they can and in as many ways as possible in order to address the numerous insecurities they face. They push against power dynamics where they are born in attempts to better their lives and that of their families.

The Tailor.

The garment industry is a significant employer in Southeast Asia. Many women, especially from Cambodia, Myanmar and Lao PDR travel illegally (and sometimes legally) under the supervision of ‘agents’ whom they pay to get them across the international borders of neighbouring countries. The adoption of neoliberal capitalism in these post conflict societies, along with the capitalist fervour of their leaders, have made their traditional livelihoods almost redundant. These women move to where the jobs are. Popular fashion or sportswear companies that outsource their manufacturing to Southeast Asia are their potential employers. Irregular pay, fines for ‘sick days’, and harassment are all part and parcel of these women’s lives away from home, including those with legal employment status. In light of limited options at home and very little skills or education to fall back on, these women trudge on. Their families depend on them, and in some cases it’s the only way out of even worse situations such as human trafficking or forced prostitution.

The Soldier.

Recent cases in Southeast Asia show that women are radicalised and tempted to embrace terrorist causes for a variety of reasons. This has serious ramifications for the efforts of government and society to safeguard the population from terror threats and to preserve peace and security. Women are now reportedly also attracted to these causes for reasons of psychological displacement and the search for a sense of ‘place’ in dominant power structures. The case reported in the New York Times of Ms. Ayu (a pseudonym) in Hong Kong and the one of Ms. Syaikhah Izzah Zahrah Al Ansari in Singapore showcase the very real possibility that women are equally salient targets for radicalisation. Most recently, Indonesia sent to jail its first would-be female suicide bomber, Ms. Dian Yulia Novi. These women were lured by online propaganda. The overlying power structures of the State, society, the patriarchy, and religion prey upon their fears as a marginalised individual. Radicalised behaviour, then, is an attempt to ‘resist’ these powers by emulating men fighting the ‘good fight’; equally uncompromising in their roles as mothers, sisters, daughters and wives.

The Spy.

In September this year, an online article on the CNN website strung together a story on the plot to murder Kim Jong Nam, half-brother of North Korea’s Leader Kim Jong Un. Two women, Siti Aisyah, an Indonesian and Doan Thi Huong, a Vietnam national, face the death penalty if convicted of murder. With the geopolitical fallout over the assassination receding, both women still await decisions that could mean life or death. This case has highlighted the clandestine movements of women often travelling between countries like Singapore and Malaysia, taking advantage of the no-visa conditions to work as masseuses, hostesses and prostitutes. Much of the money they make is sent back to support families who often have no idea what they are up to. In some cases, as in that of Ms Doan, they have not seen them for months on end. Both women say they were duped by a group of men, thinking they were part of a television show. Others think they are North Korean spies and trained assassins. While they await their fates, we await for details to piece their stories together.

Our Own Brand of Feminism.

Such stories of gendered insecurity and subjugation are not unique to the region. Yet, given Southeast Asia’s phenomenal growth, its young and vibrant population, its goal to be the ‘third pillar of regional growth’ and its attempts to build a peaceful and resilient region, such disenchanting ‘stories’ can throw a serious spanner in the works. ASEAN’s growth potential is expected to accelerate in a market of more than 600 million people with a combined GDP of more than $2.4 trillion. This vision will undoubtedly require an empowered labour force that can spur the growth of the regional economy. With increasing numbers of people, especially women, becoming outliers to this vision because of widening income gaps, policymakers will have to remove their rose-tinted glasses and address the issue of gender inequality more seriously.

ASEAN has always waited for the ‘right time’ to launch into what it sees as controversial issues, like those surrounding human rights and gender. And in fairness, there has been inclusion of women and women’s issues in ASEAN’s agenda for a regional economy, for peace and stability and for sustainable development. In November 2012, ASEAN launched the Declaration of Human Rights, and a lot of momentum and energy have been devoted to this since. Although women’s issues have been on the table since 1975 with the very first ASEAN Women Leaders’ Conference, women remain unequal citizens. Southeast Asia did produce some female Heads of State. But these women have always ‘ungendered’ themselves and moved up the ranks on ‘masculinised’ agendas, or had the way paved for them by being related to powerful men. Yet, inviting women to join conversations where agendas are already set rather than inviting them to set the agenda are two very different things.

What women in Southeast Asia need is a a Feminism that is endemic. One that is rooted in a unique experience of patriarchy, religion, colonialism, conflict and poverty. Women’s equality is intimately tied to the security of an ‘ASEAN Community.’ It would bode well for countries to pay particular attention to women’s insecurities, and gender equality has to be an indelible part of their national development and foreign policies.

Will ASEAN ever regret having waited for the ‘right time’ to give greater credence and devote necessary resources to understanding women’s roles in peace-building, economic restructuring, nation-building or dare we say, national security?

Best not to wait to find out. As Le Carré would attest, such dispirited attempts at survival by some and the feelings of subjugation that sort of life entails does little to uplift the human spirit. It will undoubtedly develop fractures within the established regional socio-political order. Something ASEAN cannot afford, given its vision of a peaceful, properous and progressive future.

Tamara Nair, PhD. works on the Women, Peace and Security Agenda in Southeast Asia. She completed her doctoral studies at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. Image Credit: CC by Manhal/ Flickr

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