- Grassroots Women Transforming Patriarchy with Spiritual Activism
Buddhism, grassroots women, spiritual activism
In 2014, I led a six-day training on feminism, structural oppression, and social justice for social activists that work across issues and areas throughout Thailand. Many of the participants are members of the People Movement for a Just Society (P-Move) that started thirty years ago and became the most powerful social movement in our country. This group shared stories about the problems that their movement is working to address, which include slums, landlessness, homelessness, the impacts of mining, government threats to take away land from ethnic minorities, and numerous other negative effects from government economic projects. These grassroots activists have been facing multiple forms of oppression through their class, ethnicity, politics, citizenship, and education. What particularly struck me was the experiences of grassroots women leaders in this movement.
Our center, the International Women's Partnership for Peace and Justice (IWP) was founded in 2002 to focus on training grassroots women, because their wisdom and leadership ability have been missing from mainstream social movements, organizations, and groups. Grassroots women work hard taking care of their families while suffering under the government policies and patriarchal culture that continue to dominate activist groups and social movements. Despite the fact that their suffering is not being addressed and alleviated by male-led organizations, groups, and movements, they continue to organize and lead other women to resist. For instance, Aunty Jong started organizing her landless group in the southern part of Thailand thirty years ago. Her women's group has gone through many changes in government policies and tactics. But, she shared, "We just keep on speaking the truth about our suffering, and I have no fear when I speak our truth. And every time I was on stage speaking, I would notice the policemen who came to control the protesters nodding their heads while listening to me. I think [End Page 113] they understand the problems we face, and that we do not lie."1 Nowadays, her group has more than 40 million baht ($1.3 million USD) in savings, and all of the members have homes and land in their names. However, in most Thai activist groups and networks, women make up at least half of the membership (and often a majority) but very few are elected to decision-making positions. In the late 1990s, while I was working at a Buddhist social activist ashram near Bangkok, we organized a panel discussion and invited the leaders of the most powerful Thai grassroots social-justice movement at that time—the Assembly of the Poor. In a private talk with one of the woman leaders, Aunty Pha, I learned that there were only two women among the forty leaders of their movement. When I asked what their job was, she said, "the main job of myself and another woman was to mediate conflict among the male leaders." I also asked one of the male panelists, Uncle Joni, a prominent Karen (a heterogeneous Sino-Tibetan ethnolinguistic group) leader from northern Thailand, his opinion about the lack of gender balance in their movement's leadership. He said, "This movement will never win because they do not value women's wisdom and power. In our Karen culture, the ancestor spirits that protect us consist equally of females and males. So, if we are not following that gender balance, we will not succeed in our work." His answer has stayed with me—he is the only male activist leader in Thailand I've ever known to believe in gender equality.
When women do come into power in movements, the media often erases or renders their leadership invisible. For example, it was a women's group that led the initial fights against the very powerful state-owned Electric Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT), which built the biggest dam in the northern part of the country. When the Pak Moon Dam was built in the late 1980s, it compromised the livelihood of a million villagers whose life depended on the Moon River. Women from these villages began organizing nonviolent actions to protest the dam. After these actions were picked up by the mainstream...