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Pet Sins October 2009

Is a women's army equivalent to a women's prison? Male stereotypes on female empowerment

I am pleased to read the article Chinese women in history - soldiers, pirates, scholars, sages and rulers hosted on your site. I only wish that these stories of empowered Asian women of antiquity are more commonly known in the West than the stereotypes of oppressed Oriental women. But I believe the issue at this point in time is not just one of availability of information. I have reason to believe that that some Westerners (of any color) are already so vested in the idea of 'oppressed Asian female' that they prefer to hear or read stories of oppression even when stories of empowerment are readily available.

I am from the Hakka ethnic group that launched the Taiping Rebellion in China. The Taiping Army fielded a few regiments consisting entirely of women. Now I am not by any means claiming there is gender equality in my ethnic group in general or the Taiping Army in particular - women soldiers, although numbering in the thousands and engaging in frontline combat, were still a minority in the Taiping Army. Nevertheless, the Hakka peasant women, especially those from Guangxi, known for their ferocious temperaments and aptitude for hard physical labor, had seemingly taken for granted the jobs that women from other ethnic groups, including European women, generally did not undertake on a large scale. In peacetime, Hakka women ably ploughed the fields, a sight that inspired a recent Chinese observer to liken them to 'iron men'. In wartime, Hakka women joined the peasant army in the thousands, even serving as shock troops. My father would talk proudly of how strong his foremothers were.

I was discussing this phenomenon of these all-female regiments of 2000-3000 Chinese women with some friends of Chinese descent when one of their white friends, an older man, interrupted. "All-female armies? That's just like a women's prison."

But my immediate response to the old white male was: "Then an army consisting of men is just like a men's prison."

He began to stutter and finally said, "Well... yes, of course. Exactly. A men's army is like a man's prison."

Yes, of course, exactly. He thinks that armies are like prisons, or so he has been forced to say, following his own logic. Now I don't know what motivated him to make such a statement. Maybe this guy is a staunch pacifist or an rabid hater of the military, but I doubt it. I think the more likely explanation is: the idea of women in general as victims of gender oppression, or maybe of Asian women in particular as victims of an assumed-to-be-more-sexist-than-Europe society, is so deeply ingrained in this elderly white gentlement that he cannot accept anything to the contrary.

So when confronted with evidence that (Asian) women were more empowered, aggressive and active than what he expected them to be, he had to find a way to interpret the information in a way that would still cast (Asian) women in an oppressed light. So an apparently relatively egalitarian military in which full regiments consisting solely of women who undertook the same combat duties as male soldiers HAD to be mentally framed as a "women's prison", prison being a word with clear connotations of disempowerment.

Of course, these are purely my subjective opinions on the elderly gentleman's motives, and I don't think that he is someone who is consciously racist/sexist or intends to be offensive, but this goes to show how deep and irrational prejudices can be in the best of us. One of the Asian women present during the conversation was also apparently taken aback by the implications of the old white man's comment.