BANGKOK – When tens of thousands of people gathered around a line of people Protests for Democracy In Thailand, their ranks have been dominated by a rising political force in recent weeks: young women.
Many of the earliest and vocal organizers of the rallies were female students. In the recent protests, women also appeared to form the majority of participants.
While the demonstrations are aimed at pushing Thailand’s old guard to embrace new ideas, they have also addressed concerns that often fail to make it onto the national stage. Many of them are specific to women, including abortion, taxes on menstrual products, and school rules that force girls to conform to an outdated version of femininity.
Above all, women are increasingly speaking out against a patriarchy that has long controlled the military, the monarchy and Buddhist monasticism, Thailand’s most powerful institutions. They have joined a wider range of voices calling for greater say in a country where democracy is on the decline, even though the challenges for women remain high even within the protest movement.
“The monarchy and the military have all the power in Thailand,” said Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, one of the students who got the political opposition on their toes. “I shouldn’t be afraid to say that men have almost all power in Thailand.”
The protests are rooted in resistance to the military, which last carried out a coup in 2014. The generals who led the coup said protecting the palace from critics was one of their main reasons for doing so.
In particular, the government’s stance on women’s issues has got some activists on their toes. Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the coup leader who retained his position after last year’s controversial elections, has rejected the idea of gender equality despite serving as chairman of a national committee devoted to this ideal.
“Everyone says we have to create justice, women and men have equal rights,” he said during a vocational training speech in 2016. “Thai society will deteriorate if you think so.”
Mr. Prayuth, a retired general, said women had authority over the house.
“Outside the house we are great,” he added of men. “At work we have the power.”
Such ideas upset women.
“The male dominance society has grown since the coup,” said Chumaporn Taengkliang, co-founder of Women for Freedom and Democracy, a political alliance that helped fuel the anti-government rallies in Bangkok.
That must change, added Ms. Chumaporn.
“Women don’t take the back seat,” she said. “You are the front.”
It is a phenomenon that is not unique to Thailand. Hundreds of women were arrested in Belarus last week March in Minsk to protest against the return to power of the strong man of the country, President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko. And in the United States Women and girls are often at the forefront of protests against Black Lives Matter against police brutality.
In a way, it shouldn’t be new for women to help lead the protest movement in Thailand, which by some standards is one of the fairest societies in Asia for women. It gave them the right to vote in 1932, one of the first countries in the region to do so. More Thai women than men go to college. They make up 45 percent of the workforce. Around 40 percent of private companies are run by women, which is above the global average.
But women lack a voice in institutions like the military and the palace. Your political representation is poor. Women only occupy 14 percent of the seats in parliament. (That’s at least better than after the 2014 coup, when only 5 percent of lawmakers were female.)
Although women warriors have been known throughout Thailand’s history for repelling foreign invaders, the country’s top military academy does not accept women. Last year, the Royal Thai Police Cadet Academy, which had been open to women for about a decade, closed its doors to female applicants again.
Women have participated in previous protest movements. A core of so-called aunts, many from rural areas ignored by Bangkok’s ruling elite, was an integral part of an opposition force called Red Shirts that occupied downtown Bangkok for weeks before a bloody crackdown in 2010.
But women were largely absent from the protest leadership.
“Almost all men in previous democracy movements were men,” said Jutatip Sirikhan, a student at Thammasat University in Bangkok, who was arrested this month for her involvement in the current protests. “Until now, Thailand has not had a gender movement.”
The inclusion of social media savvy young women has changed the tenor of the current protests. Many are well-educated middle and upper class daughters and wonder why the #MeToo movement has bypassed Thailand.
They have taken defiance to some of the chicest private girls’ schools in the country and raised their hands during school assemblies in a defiant three-fingered salute from the Hunger Games books and films instead of respecting the national or royal anthem. Many of them are bound by school rules for hairstyles, uniforms, and even underwear, which they consider invasive.
As the rallies grew larger that summer, women protested to criticize the persistent wage gap and denounce the so-called rape culture. They opposed the government’s designation of feminine hygiene products as cosmetics, which could make them liable for higher taxes.
They highlighted abortion laws that they believe do not give women control over their own bodies by limiting the procedure to cases where physical or mental health is compromised. And they spoke out against beauty pageants popular in Thailand, in which women were dismissed as reserved, decorative objects. (A beauty queen who expressed support for the democracy rallies was denounced online for having dark skin.)
“The younger generation now has the vocabulary to identify what is wrong with society in relation to gender issues,” said Duanghathai Buranajaroenkij, an expert on gender studies at Mahidol University in Bangkok. “When I started studying gender, most people in Thailand didn’t even know they should use a gender lens to look at things.”
During a night-time rally last weekend, the largest since the 2014 coup, spokespersons targeted the patriarchal traditions of Thailand’s royal palace. Inheritance law stipulates that the crown must go to a male heir. The privy councilor, a select group of advisers to the monarch, is purely male.
King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun was married four times. Two of his former wives were cleaned. Last year, the king robbed his royal consort of titles, a position resembling an official mistress that had not existed since the country’s abolition of absolute monarchy in 1932 until his return.
The wife was accused of “wrongdoing and unfaithfulness to the monarch”. But this month the palace announced it had been her returned to their previous position. It is not clear why.
On a protest stage in front of the Grand Palace on Saturday evening, Ms. Chumaporn, co-founder of Women for Freedom and Democracy, addressed an issue that is rarely discussed in a country where criticism of the king can earn people up to 15 years in prison. (The king was not at home because he spends most of his time in Germany.)
“We ask you to add one more point,” said Ms. Chumaporn to cheer the crowd. “This is supposed to destroy the male supremacy structure under the monarchy.”
But the weekend rallies also showed that a movement spurred on by many leaders is now grouping around fewer individuals – and most of them are men. Of the 18 keynote speakers on Saturday, only three were women. (However, Ms. Panusaya produced a letter of protest for the king.)
One of the male speakers was Attapon Buapat, an activist who said to even greater applause than Ms. Chumaporn that “women are frankly a curious sex”. “So God cursed women for having weak bodies in order to effectively reduce their interference.”
In a Facebook post, Mr. Attapon later apologized and said he had “failed to take into account the subtlety of the matter”.
Sirin Mungcharoen, a student leader at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, said she and L.G.B.T.Q. tries to promote feminism. Rights as an integral part of democracy. When she did that, some male activists who had fought by her side mocked her, she said.
Meanwhile, online harassers have made fun of their looks. They went around her picture and said that her dyed blonde hair made her look like a loose woman. She went off social media.
“They couldn’t see that one person could work on democracy and women’s rights at the same time,” said Ms. Sirin. “Thai society is still very patriarchal.”