Do you know any Asian descent feminists? Probably activists of our time, but what about the pioneers of feminist movements in Asia?
Maria Lorena Barros
She is remembered as a charismatic leader, a talented poet and writer, and a feminist icon. Maria Lorena was born on the 24th March of 1948 in Baguio, a Filipino northwestern city. She is known under the name Laurie as her mother nicknamed so from a young age. She was a great student with an excellent educational background, As Laurie was in high school, she embraced writing while being a writer for a newspaper. She received a special prize for creative writing. At university, Laurie kept up her literary activities, chairing a writers’ club and publishing in top magazines.
At the end of the 60s, Laurie became an English teacher and a political activist. Her trips to rural areas were the tipping point, as a way of understanding the consequences of the oppression caused by colonization, capitalism, and imperialism. This time is impacted by growing political awareness, with protests all over the country against the Marcos government. Thus, Laurie and other activists had the idea to create an organization that ‘specifically addresses the women’s issues in a semi-feudal, semi-colonial, and patriarchal Philippine society’.
In April 1970, the Makibaka organization was born, branches flourished in towns, villages, factories and even schools for young girls emerged. Two years later, the country is governed by martial law. Laurie, one of the student activists accused of subversion, is wanted. She then went underground. In 1973, Laurie was arrested and imprisoned, but a year later she escaped from the rehabilitation center where she was held.
Her determination was stronger than never, she went back underground and fought against dictatorship established in the country with poems, essays and songs. The government promised a reward for her capture. When she was captured in March 1976, Laurie ended up seriously injured and preferred to die for her beliefs rather than cooperate.
Qiū Jǐn was a revolutionary feminist poet. She grew up in a well-off family and embraced foreign literature by spending her whole time reading. After getting married to a merchant’s son, Qiū Jǐn moved to Beijing but soon decided to change her life. She left her husband, her children, sold her jewellery, and went to Japan for her studies. During her stay in Japan, she became involved in political activities. Qiū Jǐn also founded the first association of Chinese revolutionary women in Japan to campaign against the Manchu dynasty and promote the emancipation of Chinese women.
One of her autobiographical works dealt with oppression, exploitation and slavery experienced by Chinese women during Manchu domination. Those topics are embodied through the portraits of five women who flee their daily lives to join Japan and become involved in political life. This work clearly expresses her political opinions and her opposition to Manchu domination. In 1907, she took step with her cousin and attempted an uprising against the government of the time, governed by a Manchu royal family. She was arrested and executed.
The main topics Qiū Jǐn focused on her literary works are feminism and patriotism, as they became life choices. In addition to advocating freedom of marriage for women and the abolition of footbinding, Qiū Jǐn led a life labelled unconventional for the time. She left her husband and children, got involved in politics, drank wine, and sometimes dressed like a man. Her lifestyle and beliefs exemplified what Qiū Jǐn fought for, freedom of choice and women’s emancipation.
Meena Keshwar Kamal
Meena Keshwar Kamal was a feminist activist from Pakistan. During her schooling, Meena quickly became involved in social activism. In 1977, she founded Rawa, the Revolutionary Association of Women in Afghanistan (Jamiat-e-Inqalabi Zanan-e Afghanistan), with the aim of giving a voice to Afghan women. ‘RAWA is the oldest political/social organization of Afghan women struggling for peace, freedom, democracy, and women’s rights in fundamentalism-blighted Afghanistan since 1977.’
Meena kept working in Pakistan where she established schools for children refugees, a hospital dedicated to Afghan soldiers and ‘handicraft centers for refugee women in Pakistan to support Afghan women financially.’
In 1981, Meena started a bilingual English-Afghan Payam-e-Zan feminist magazine, a means of exposing the social problems of Afghan society in writing. On February 4, 1987, Meena was murdered in her home with two other family members. One of her famous poems, “I’ll Never Return”, evokes her freedom and her dedication to social and feminist causes.
I’m the woman who has awoken I’ve arisen and become a tempest through the ashes of my burnt children I’ve arisen from the rivulets of my brother’s blood My nation’s wrath has empowered me My ruined and burnt villages fill me with hatred against the enemy, I’m the woman who has awoken, I’ve found my path and will never return. I’ve opened closed doors of ignorance I’ve said farewell to all golden bracelets Oh compatriot, I’m not what I was I’m the woman who has awoken I’ve found my path and will never return. I’ve seen barefoot, wandering and homeless children I’ve seen henna-handed brides with mourning clothes I’ve seen giant walls of the prisons swallow freedom in their ravenous stomach I’ve been reborn amidst epics of resistance and courage I’ve learned the song of freedom in the last breaths, in the waves of blood and in victory Oh compatriot, Oh brother, no longer regard me as weak and incapable With all my strength I’m with you on the path of my land’s liberation. My voice has mingled with thousands of arisen women My fists are clenched with the fists of thousands compatriots Along with you I’ve stepped up to the path of my nation, To break all these sufferings all these fetters of slavery, Oh compatriot, Oh brother, I’m not what I was I’m the woman who has awoken I’ve found my path and will never return.
Raden Adjeng Kartini
Raden Adjeng Kartini was one of the Indonesian feminists pioneers in the struggle for Indonesian women’s rights. Born in 1879, Raden Adjeng Kartini was raised in an aristocratic family. Her interest in feminism grew up through the epistolary correspondences she had with Dutch feminists such as Stella Zeehandelaar, writer for a socialist feminist magazine.
Through her correspondences, Kartini expressed her stand for decolonial feminism as well as her opposition against forced marriage, polygamy, and patriarchy impacting negatively women’s emancipation. ‘It would be a blessing for Indonesian society if the women received a good education. The only road open to the Javanese girl… is marriage… teach them a trade so that they be no longer defenceless prey… The only way to escape from such a life is for the girl to learn to be independent.’
Her epistolary friendships and the influence of Dutch feminist ideals in no way prevented her from being critical of colonization and Western societies. ‘We do not expect the European world to make us happier. The time has long gone when we seriously believed that the European is the only true civilisation, supreme and unsurpassed.’
Having theorized her feminist ideals, Kartini decided to put them into practice by creating a school for young girls. In 1904, 120 students were enrolled but Kartini was unable to continue her work since she died the same year at the age of 25. In the following years after her death, the number of girls enrolled in school increased significantly throughout the country, rising, for example, from 3,000 to 8,000 pupils enrolled in the island of Java and Madura in the space of three years. Although she died young, Raden Adjeng Kartini contributed greatly to girls’ education.
Che Zahara Binte Noor
Che Zahara Binte Noor was a women’s rights activist, one of the leading figures in Singapore. The post-war period was the beginning of her career in activism. Noticing many widowed women had to work as prostitutes to survive, Che Zahara decided to take in more than 300 women and orphans in her home, regardless of their origin or religion. She earned her the nickname Che Zahara Kaum Ibu (according to an article in a Singaporean newspaper), a Malaysian term meaning Che Zahara, the one who protects women and children.
She turned her house into a shelter, thanks to the donations she received from all over the world. Her shelter is now called the Malay Women’s Welfare Association, where women can learn skills that could help them earn a better living. In addition to her drop-in centre, Che Zahara campaigned for various causes, including raising the minimum legal age of marriage from 9 to 16. In 1955, she took part in the World Congress of Mothers in Lausanne, representing Singapore. She took the opportunity to call for international support. She also contributed to the adoption of the Charter of Women’s Rights by the Singaporean Parliament in 1961. She died the following year.
Takamure Itsue greatly contributed to the development of feminist studies in Japan. She grew up in the suburbs of Kumamoto in a middle-class family. In 1917, she began her career as a teacher’s assistant at her father’s school and worked briefly for a local newspaper. Three years later, she decided to move to Tokyo and continued her career as a feminist poet. In 1925, Takamure caused a controversy when she left her husband for a period of time with another man. In response to the controversy, she wrote a poem entitled Ie de no shi (Leaving Home).
In her first prose poem titled Ren’ai sо̄sei (Genesis of Love), Takamure called for the abolition of the institution of marriage, for greater social support for women and children, and more generally for the women empowerment in Japan. The poem led her to dedicate her work for feminist studies in Japanese history. Through her poetry and research, Katamure demonstrates how the system of male domination in Japanese society stems from history.
Through her poetry and research, Katamure demonstrates how the system of male domination in Japanese society stems from history. Examples include Bokeisei no kenkyū (study of matrilineal systems), Nihon kon’in shi (the history of marriage in Japan), and Josei no rekishi (the history of women). She dedicated herself to women’s history until her death in 1964. Katamure’s work was more than necessary in the construction of the feminist movement in Japan.
Pandita Ramabai was an unconventional social reformer and feminist for her time. She learned Sanskrit at an early age, married someone who was not of her caste, and converted to Christianity. Pandita Ramabai grew up in a Brahmin family where education was essential for both girls and boys, which was very frowned upon at the time. As a result, they were ostracized from their village, located in the Karnataka region, and forced into being nomadic. Due to famine, Pandita Ramabai lost her parents in 1874 and decided to go to Calcutta with her brother. So impressive was her knowledge of the puranas she received the title of Pandita, which could be translated as scholar.
Thanks to this title, she traveled all over the country to give lessons. Pandita Ramabai then became aware of the situation of women and devoted her life to the improvement of women’s conditions. She established women’s organizations in the state of Bombay and promoted education for women. She published a book Shri Dharma Neeti in which she discussed the emancipation of women and traditional practices to be banned. In 1883, Pandita Rambai went abroad and visited some countries like England, Canada, and lived in the United States for two years. In 1889, she returned to India and founded Sharada Sadan, a home for the underprivileged. The shelter saved the lives of thousands of children and women from the famine in the state of Maharashtra in 1896. By 1900 the organization had more than 1500 residents. Pandita Ramabai was rewarded for her services in 1919 with the Kaiser-I-Hind Medal. She died in 1922.