Phan Bich Diep, 59, is vice president of Hanoi’s Disabled People Association, and previously worked at Voice of Vietnam as a Russian translator and editor
Nguyen Thi Mai Anh, 34, works independently as a women and gender activist. She is also Advocacy and Consumer Coordinator at VECO Vietnam
Nguyen Hai Van, 38, is Deputy Editor-in-Chief of Viet Nam News
Nguyet Ca, 26, owns Enci English Language School and is the founder of the Trinh Cong Son Fan Club
According to the popular saying: “behind every successful man is a woman”. What or who stands behind your successes?
Diep: As someone who is physically impaired, my husband’s support and respect are very important to me. In society, it’s commonly assumed that women, especially the handicapped, should stay home and don’t need to go out and work.
Van: If success can be defined by being able to do what I want, then my success could be attributed to many people. It could be the influence of my father or my brother, but I didn’t get it from a man in my own household. From my experience and what I have observed, behind women’s success rarely stands a man. Vietnamese society has its roots in feudalism and patriarchy, so it’s very rare that Vietnamese men would feel comfortable in the backseat.
Mai Anh: I don’t feel like I’m considered successful. If I were a man, I feel like I probably would have received more recognition. Behind my back, people often pity me because they think I have had to compromise happiness for success. I’m not sure what is behind my success, but it’s not a man, for sure.
Nguyet Ca: I recently got married and have noticed that despite being exposed to other cultures, my husband still has some very traditional elements of a Vietnamese man about him. Men are ‘always right’, and that’s not likely to change. People think it’s obvious that a man will be successful, but a successful woman suggests that something has gone wrong.
It seems like the expectations of women in society haven’t changed during the last 30 years. Do you agree? What are the expectations that society has for you?
Diep: I grew up during the French War and experienced the American War, too. An ideal woman at that time was considered to be someone who could sacrifice their happiness for their family and their country. Now, I think women have more opportunities and can be in charge of their own lives more.
Van: Our society has created an endless list of things that women need to do in order to become a ‘woman of the 21st century’. In the past, women just needed to take good care of their families. They were also expected to participate in social work or would serve the country by enlisting in the military. But now I feel like the expectations for women are endless as opposed to liberating. If I followed the list of expectations I would be totally exhausted, so I don’t even bother trying. I would like to live a life where I can find joy in every single day.
Mai Anh: I don’t think much has changed between now and before in terms of society’s expectations of women. In the past, an ideal woman had to be good at housework, good looking, articulate and moral. And now we’re engraining that model into everyone’s minds — particularly through all the competitions that we have created, such as beauty pageants or examinations for Vietnamese women to get foreign husbands, or tests for women who want to migrate to big cities from the countryside. Those examinations are getting harder and harder. So, ironically, I think our society is actually tightening the lead on women’s liberty.
Do you feel happy that you’re a woman? If you had a baby, would you want a boy or a girl?
Diep: I’d like to have a boy so he wouldn’t have to suffer like women do.
Nguyet Ca: I have a two-month-old baby boy. I’ll raise my son so that he will appreciate women, and I’ll teach him to do housework and be able to share it with his future wife. I think the mother is the one who can influence her son’s behaviour. I don’t want my boy to turn into someone like his father or grandfather.
Mai Anh: I think I’m happy to be a woman in Vietnam, considering that women in the Middle East or in many African countries are not entitled to basic rights. Here, I can talk about things at work that I’m dissatisfied with, or I can talk during my women and gender consultation courses with female students who believe in old traditions and are unable to separate themselves from society’s norms.
Van: If happiness doesn’t have to be perfect then I think I’m happy being a woman. But if I could choose the gender of my child, I’d want a boy because it will still take hundreds of years before my children experience gender equality. I want my child to be happy so it’s best to be a boy here.
The Vietnamese economy has changed dramatically, particularly within the last ten years. Do you believe that a better economy will make women happier?
Nguyet Ca: I think the number of people who are becoming better off [in Vietnam] is still very small — probably less than 20 percent of the population, and even then it’s mostly concentrated in the big cities. When people enjoy a higher standard of living they start spending more money on themselves. But the majority of women here are still poor, so it’s hard to generalize about women being happier.
Van: I think a better economy will provide women with more opportunities, which in turn will make them happier. And it’s true that when women are financially independent, they have more options. I know many people who are miserable, but they’re unable to divorce because they are afraid they won’t have enough money to raise their children.
Mai Anh: I also think that as long as the Vietnamese social welfare system remains undeveloped, having money will make women more happy — especially for those who are suffering in unhappy marriages or coping with domestic violence. Our society values money a lot. People pay attention to the car you drive and how big your house is. So I think women can’t be happy without money. And women should always be prepared to be financially independent.
Family has always been an important factor in Vietnamese culture. As the economy develops and Vietnamese society becomes more integrated with the rest of the world, will the family continue to be just as important?
Diep: Society is made up of families, so happy and stable families make a stable society. I think in the future, families will still be crucial no matter how developed a society becomes.
Mai Anh: I’m not happy with the definition that people assign to the word ‘family’ now. Too much value is placed on the number of people in that family — not the quality of the family.
Van: I personally think that family will always have its importance. But the way people appreciate a family will be different. Now many people think that I love my family and I value it a lot but if it doesn’t work out, I need to get out of it and create another happy family — a family that fits in with my needs and desires.
Nguyet Ca: Yes, in the recent years, ‘single mums’ or families in which the father and the mother are separated are not rare and people have started to accept it more.
So it’s likely that women need to find their own happiness and seek out a more equal relationship with men. What will you do in your own family or on your own to liberate yourself and make that happen?
Diep: I think it will take generations for the situation to improve. And I believe that a better education system with a gender-equality curriculum being implemented at school will be the first step in this process. Children need to learn that men and women should be treated equally.
Van: I think I’ll start with very little things. I’ll encourage my daughter to be herself and do whatever she wants as long as it’s not illegal. If she wants to have her hair cut short or learn a martial art, she should do it and not be worried that she would appear masculine.
Mai Anh: Women who do a lot for their families have forgotten that a sufficient amount of sleep will make them happier. And we should always be positive, too. We’ve fought for ten years for the domestic violence law to be launched. We should continue in our actions and hope to see an improvement over the next ten years regarding the relationship between men and women.
Nguyet Ca: I think the term ‘be yourself’ has become popular among my generation. We try to do things we enjoy that make us happy — not things that society expects us to do. I also think conversation is good and needed. Women shouldn’t stay silent if they don’t feel happy — they need to talk about it.