While the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements and conversations about sexual assault have been raging elsewhere, Thailand remains as resolutely oblivious as ever. Sexual violence, especially against women, is a topic that has never really been addressed on a national scale, and in everyday life, it is swept under the carpet to the point that little thought is given to the massive imbalance between the way women and men are perceived and treated in this country. With a new campaign called #DontTellMeHowToDress, however, there is an undeniable sense that the issue is being slowly brought to the forefront.
#DontTellMeHowToDress was first started as an online campaign by model Cindy Sirinya Bishop. In March, just a month before Thailand’s water festival (Songkran), she began posting videos and messages on her Instagram page criticising the “advice” given by authorities for women to “cover up” during Songkran in order to avoid sexual harassment. Her first clip – in which she talks about, among other things, her own experience of sexual harassment during Songkran – struck a chord with many Thai women, and #DontTellMeHowToDress and #TellMenToRespect hashtags began trending online. Many other female celebrities lent Cindy their support by raising awareness on their own social media platforms and encouraging other women to share their stories.
The #DontTellMeHowToDress exhibition, born out of this online campaign, was inspired by an exhibition in the United States where clothes of sexual assault victims are shown alongside their testimonials to raise awareness and combat misconceptions about sexual assault. Stereotypical sentiments that Thais usually express about sexual violence are plastered on a wall: “Rape is something that only happens to ‘low-class’ people, the uneducated, or migrants”; “You were raped because of the way you dressed; if not by this offender, you would have been abused by another”; “What were you wearing the night the attack happened?”; “Why were you drinking?”. These blatant misconceptions bring to mind a high-profile case from a few months ago, in which a 22-year-old woman was raped by a taxi driver but had to apologise publicly for the way she was dressed and for being drunk at the time of the attack.
The clothes on display, which include school uniforms, maid uniforms and a child-sized T-shirt and shorts, provide a stark reminder of the recent report made by the UN: that nine out of 10 Thai women knew their abusers and that most women who were abused did not report their attackers or were failed by the Thai judicial system. “This is what I was wearing that day,” reads one testimonial. “A T-shirt and cartoon print shorts. I was four years old. I was raped by my neighbour. I just stayed silent because I was too scared.” Another reads: “This is what I was wearing that day. High-school uniform shirt and shorts. My class male friend whom I’ve known since nursery lured me to his house and sexually assaulted me. Then he brought nine of his friends to rape me.”
Unfortunately, the exhibition still has to rely heavily on star power to gain popularity; alongside the victims’ clothes and words are photographs and interviews of various Thai celebrities, including famous leading man Ananda Everingham and well-known transgender model and actor Poyd Treechada Petcharat. One can only hope that, as the movement grows, social workers or activists who combat these issues on a daily basis would be given a similar spotlight, and that there would be a better way to bring low-income women and women from underprivileged backgrounds into the conversation; although the venue for the opening of the exhibition, Siam Paragon, might be one of the biggest shopping malls in Bangkok, it is still one with a largely affluent clientele.
No doubt there is a still a long way to go when it comes to addressing gender inequality in Thailand – not only in empowering Thai women from all walks of life to speak out, but also in encouraging Thai men to listen and take responsibility for their own shortcomings. (It is particularly telling that the vast majority of people who come to see the exhibition are women.) But, no matter how small, a step forward is a step forward. And hopefully, with more campaigns and exhibitions like #DontTellMeHowDress, one day Thailand will finally be ready to reckon with its own sins.
The #DontTellMeHowDress exhibition is now at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre from 5-15 July.