While Taiwan’s Oct. 10 National Day celebrations were being punctuated by incursions from Chinese military jets, the democratic island’s president Tsai Ing-wen was busy giving shout-outs to the nation’s women.
As part of her traditional nod to the armed forces of the island, which is still formally governed by the 1911 Republic of China founded by Sun Yat-sen after the fall of the Qing Dynasty, Tsai made a point of singling out female members of the army, navy, and air force.
“At an army engineer training center, I saw a female officer lead her fellow engineers with the kind of spirit that can carve a road through any mountain or build a bridge over any body of water,” Tsai said in her Oct. 10 annual National Day address.
“At the Navy Underwater Operations Unit, men and women wearing heavy equipment fearlessly dove to the ocean floor to remove obstacles,” she said. “This is the Republic of China military.”
“Whether they are on the front line or in logistics, male or female, they are all children of Taiwan and committed to safeguarding our nation,” she said.
In the 20-minute speech, Tsai, who has previously spoken out against sexism from male politicians who have attacked her single status and lack of children, also name-checked aboriginal female artists and nurses.
On Oct. 11, the Republic of China’s first female leader posted a call to social media for people in Taiwan to stop making gifts of golden hairpins — a symbol of traditional, subservient femininity — to young girls.
“We I talk about a democratic Taiwan moving forward with confidence, this also means I want Taiwanese women and girls to live … in a more equal society,” Tsai wrote on International Day of the Girl.
‘A good start’
Kuo Chia-yo, founder of Taiwan’s Digital Diplomacy Association, said the president’s comments were a good start.
“This is a good start [in the direction of] enshrining gender equality all the way down to the deepest levels of our culture,” Kuo told RFA.
Kuo, a highly educated woman in her 20s, says she has already felt the benefits of living in a progressive democracy with a focus on equality.
“I often tell people overseas that I’m not constantly reminded that I’m female here,” she said. “There is little gender distinction here when it comes to life or work.”
“This country is going after the same ideals as me. Taiwan really tries to put its feminism into practice,” she said.
Hsu Chiao-hsin, who serves as a Taipei city councilor for the opposition Kuomintang (KMT), knows what Kuo means, saying that young women in Taiwan now take for granted the widespread involvement of women in political life, in stark contrast to the situation just two decades ago.
“In Taiwan, from the president down to the county and city mayors, from legislators to local councilors and district chiefs, women’s voices are becoming louder and louder,” Hsu told RFA. “Taiwan’s progress in respecting different genders is something to be proud of.”
The 2020 general election in January ticked off a number of milestones for gender equality, not just in Taiwan, but across the whole of East Asia.
As well as the re-election of the island’s first woman president with a record 57 percent of the vote, women were elected to nearly 42 percent of seats across the National Assembly and Legislative Yuan, the highest proportion in Asia.
Tsai also appointed Taiwan’s first female representative to its trade and economic office in the United States, Hsiao Bi-khim, who vowed to go to bat for the democratic island as a “battle cat” to counter China’s aggressive, “wolf warrior” style of diplomacy.
Support from democratization
But the island’s progress on equality didn’t just happen because people’s attitudes changed, according to Chen Fang-yu, who has a Ph.D. in political science from Michigan State University, and is currently a stay-at-home father.
Any progress on gender equality has been accompanied by an impressive process of democratization that began under President Lee Teng-hui in the 1990s, followed by equality legislation in 2000, which mandated revisions to academic textbooks to remove discriminatory ideas and promote equality, Chen told RFA.
“[This improvement in the status of Taiwanese women] didn’t just happen by accident,” Chen said. “It is the result of long-term legal protections coupled with progressive shifts in public opinion.”
And it’s still clearly not easy being a woman in the public eye.
As recently as July 2, 2019, Tsai hit out on her Facebook page at “personal attacks” she has endured ever since entering politics.
“These sorts of personal attacks against me have never stopped,” she wrote, after a rival politician criticized her family policy, citing her childlessness. “Many Taiwanese women also frequently experience this sort of treatment.”
“Launching personal attacks on the basis of gender or fertility status is an act that negates women and undermines the efforts of the government,” she wrote.
Hsieh Pei-fen, spokeswoman for Tsai’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), said she has high hopes for Taiwan, two decades from now.
“[Let’s hope] we will just take having women as elected representatives or president for granted by then,” Hsieh told RFA. “It’s already very common for women to get involved in politics, [and] I look forward to seeing how Taiwan develops in future.”
Reported by Jane Tang for RFA’s Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.