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Feminism in Taiwan today
Where have all the feminists gone?

The Lost Garden
Photo (detail): The Lost Garden © Columbia University Press

When it comes to feminism in Taiwan, novelist Li Ang remembers the old American anti-war song "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?“ and asks where feminism has gone in present-day society.

By Li Ang

New Feminism New Feminism © Pioneer Publishing In the 1960s, Annette Lu, who later became Vice President of Taiwan, returned from the US to Taiwan and got involved in the struggle for women's rights. In those days of martial law and political persecution, the Taiwanese were not allowed to use the word "movement", so the feminist movement was referred to as the "New Feminism" instead.

Later on, a group of women activists started up the so-called “Awakening Foundation”, which became the driving force of Taiwanese feminism. And since the turn of the millennium, all the basic civil rights have been granted to Taiwanese women, making Taiwan one of the most progressive Asian societies in matters of gender equality.

Same-sex marriage was then legalized in Taiwan in 2017, a milestone in progress towards equality of sexual orientation in Taiwan, which now occupies a unique position in Asia on a par wih Western nations.

Feminism influences society

The feminist movement was imported, mainly in the form of feminist theories from the US, as well as Europe, that were taken up here in Taiwan and served as guidelines for social change. French feminist positions, on the other hand, did not gain much traction until the 1990s. More novel ideas such as the blurring of gender boundaries came to be discussed not only in academic circles, but also in newspapers, magazines and other mass media, including television.

The interest in feminism has declined, however, in the 21st century. So the question is: Who is still holding high the flag of feminism today? Because anyone who does so is promptly regarded as backward-looking. So where has all the feminism gone in Taiwan? My positive answer to this question is that it has actually spread and permeated our whole society.

Feminism has enabled women to lead independent, self-determined lives, and it has overthrown traditional patriarchal role models. Not only has it improved women's rights, it has also enabled men to discard the confining corset of their own gender roles. It may be said that feminism, along with political liberalization and democratization, has shaped present-day Taiwan.

Feminist bookshop Fembooks went bust

Fembooks © Fembooks
There were some setbacks, however, on the road to gender equality. Last year, Fembooks, established in 1994, the first feminist bookstore in the Chinese-speaking world, had to close down after 23 years due to insurmountable losses.
It might now be supposed that a feminist bookshop that stood for the women's liberation struggle had achieved its goals after a certain phase and that a new generation is now using other means to emancipatory ends. Or does society have no further need for feminist books?

Men still condone domestic abuse 

We may believe we’re living in an age of equality. But Taiwan's Ministry of Health and Welfare has just published a study on "Attitudes Towards Violence Against Women" showing that the majority of men aged 56 to 65 actually condone such violence. This is hardly surprising in view of the traditional notions prevalent among a generation that overvalues men and undervalues women.
More alarming, however, is that young men aged 18 and 19 also ignore or even condone forms of violence against women. Experts believe they may be influenced by violent computer games and lack experience dealing with women. And yet, after ten years of gender education, such a reactionary attitude among young men is truly cause for concern.

Conservative forces remain strong

As a novelist, I’m not used to discussing the collection and analysis of statistics. So let’s turn to specific instances that shed a revealing light on present-day women’s issues in Taiwan. A serious case shook up the nation in 2017 when a 26-year-old married woman named Lin took her own life. She had previously published an autobiographical novel describing how she’d been sexually abused during puberty by her tutor, a married man. This insurmountable trauma was believed to be the main reason for her suicide.

The teacher, over 50 years old at the time, had seduced a pubescent girl - obviously a relationship involving an imbalance of power. The teacher's behaviour was generally vilified, but some people actually accused the schoolgirl of encroaching on her teacher's marriage. Since a novel is not evidence that can be used in court, the teacher was not held criminally responsible.
A number of Taiwanese feminists have seen to it that this case was discussed and scrutinized in depth in our society. If we had what it takes, this case would suffice to spark a movement against sexual harassment in the workplace like the #MeToo movement in the US, making this serious problem for women an issue of national or even worldwide concern.
The fact is, however, that Taiwanese society is sorely lacking in the ability to ventilate issues and set trends. Although within Asia we can be proud of our democratic, liberal society, in which gender equality prevails, we’re still a small country. We don’t have enough influence to position new issues the way Western societies do.

Different forms of independence

Equality is not an issue for today's young generation in Taiwan, who are growing up in a period without martial law and with gender education at school, for they are in fact the beneficiaries of this equality. Traditional machoism is less pronounced among young men nowadays, whose behaviour tends to be more gender-neutral. And it is no longer rare for young homosexual men to come out of the closet.

Even more interesting trends are observable among young women in Taiwan: the experience that we can fight for and actually obtain rights has made our generation more independent and courageous, but also more radical and extreme. Having grown up with equal rights, today's young women take advantage of the wider latitude to choose freely between traditional and modern mind-sets and ways of life without having to worry about social opprobrium.

What is striking, on the other hand, is a sort of ”backward-looking" conservatism among quite a few young women who opt for a traditional dependent role. They think they’d be quite content to have a man provide for them and satisfy their material needs.

And then there’s the phenomenon of women instrumentalizing the supposed "weakness" of their sex to gain sympathy and avoid responsibility for their own lives. And some men believe they stand to gain certain advantages from indulging their partners.

Redefining "the feminine”

Based on French feminist theories, we are trying to redefine “the feminine" and imbue it with new meanings, but if combined with traditional "female humility", the result can be a form of passive-aggressive manipulation of men by women. I have described such women in my writings, and the exceptionally cunning female protagonist of my novel The Lost Garden makes unscrupulous use of such manipulative methods. This politically incorrect behaviour has sparked some fierce controversy.
Because my novels often address gender roles, gender politics and gender equality, I am often asked where I stand on feminism. I proudly answer, "Yes, I am a feminist." Which brings me back to the aforementioned folk song "Where Have All the Flowers Gone” and its cycle of flowers – girls – young men – soldiers – graveyards – flowers – girls: we are bound to face setbacks, but let’s not forget that we’re the ones in this cycle who hold the flowers in our hands.