Why I will leave Vietnam a feminist

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The word feminist conjures up a wide array of meanings and emotions. There are women who are strong advocates for gender equality who would baulk at the idea of being labeled ‘feminist’. There are radicals who create their whole identity around their female strength and warrior stance and wholly embrace the title of feminist in everything they do. There are others who think feminists are a bit of a joke, walking around hating men whilst letting everyone else get a glimpse of their hairy armpits and unshaven legs. There are women who cook and clean and knit and use these traditional female roles as a soap-box to promote their personal views of feminism yet at the same time there are feminists who would rather choke on a bar of soap than ever be seen to condone this kind of behaviour.

Feminists come in all shapes and sizes and sentiments and every woman has walked their own path towards their form of activism. My path, although it began a long time ago, before I was ever even aware of gender inequality, came to light to me during my time in Vietnam.

There are many reasons why it happened to me here. It hasn’t been just due to my location, although this has played a big part, but also due to the people I have met, the stories I have read, the experiences I have had and lifestyle I have led.

One huge reason has been the way many Western men have treated Vietnamese women. A few weeks ago I was sitting in a roof-top bar one Friday evening, sipping slowly on a Cosmopolitan, talking about the woes of life as an English Teacher with some new friends, and I heard a middle aged man opposite from me, without any use of discretion, telling another bloke sat next to me about the intricate joys of Vietnamese women’s genitalia. All too often I hear this level of derogatory discourse from a large proportion of single male expats and I don’t want to hear it. In fact, what woman wants their sexuality exposed while sat on a table with 10 men? But perhaps this ‘gentleman’s’ respect for women may have never actually existed.

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Of course there has been the typical Western sexism that you can find back at home; wannabe playboys sexually harassing women in the street, usually in the direction of Vietnamese women, because you know, they ‘want it’. It is infuriating that these men seem to think that they have a green light to behave like animals just because they aren’t in their home countries and they have countless Vietnamese women and girls flocking to their feet.

I have lost count of the number of conversations I have had with Vietnamese friends who have specifically told me that they want to marry a foreigner. I don’t disagree with their reasons why although it saddens me that some of these girls feel that they need a Western man to give them and their families everything they want.

Wherever Gareth goes without me in tow, it has always resulted in a story involving a girl asking him lots of personal questions: what’s your job? what’s your salary? where do you live? how much do you pay for your apartment? Their eyes getting wider after each answer uttered and then, on cue, literally walking away when he tells them about his English girlfriend.

On the contrary, I have some close Vietnamese girlfriends who are empowered and have clear directions for their lives, who have strong goals for their careers and are working their way up to the echelons of their sectors. Some of them don’t really care to get married. Nonchalant and determined to succeed on their own merit. Some of them want to be with a foreigner because they believe that the man will treat them with respect and also be their best friend and confidant. I have seen these kinds of relationships here, and they are beautiful.

Vietnamese women are fast becoming some of the most successful women in the world. In March this year, The Guardian posted an article, From war babies to billionaires: Vietnam’s wealthiest women, about how female entrepreneurs in Vietnam own 25% of private enterprises in the country. That certainly can not be said for women in the UK who are a measly 17% of all business owners. Although being a billionaire isn’t something that I think we should aspire to, it is a call to British women to realise their roles in positions of leadership.

Women are women, everywhere, and all these diverse characteristics can be found in most cultures I’m sure. What has also shocked me into feminism has been the misogyny directed at women and the disgraceful vitriol used against women in Britain this past year. From the abuse inflicted on Caroline Criado-Perez after she began a successful campaign earlier this year for the Bank of England to keep women on banknotes and then much more recently the outcry across the Isles each week over the success of female contestants on The Great British Bake Off, a lot of which came from women themselves. What the hell is going on??

For those who read my blog regularly you’ll remember a couple of weeks ago I wrote about being the victim of an unsuccessful mugging. Unsuccessful in that my bag wasn’t stolen although it did leave me with a sour taste in my mouth, so to speak. I was able to protect myself and my belongings using sheer strength that I had built up over the month or so I had been doing weights at a local gym.

After the attack I felt powerful. In all honesty, I’m actually glad it happened. It allowed me to be more than equal in strength to a man sitting on a moving motorbike, which ultimately fired up my feminism. I will say that it was this moment that brought the warrior out of me. This moment that led to me ‘leaning in’ for the fight. I was attacked because I was a woman. The two men involved believed I would be weak, an easy target. Pity that.

I want to use this blog also as an acknowledgement to the fabulously strong women I have had the pleasure of working with and befriending here in Vietnam; Vietnamese and Non-Vietnamese alike. And not to mention all of the women who have been the archetype of female strength throughout my life. Without their example, their fearlessness and sense of adventure I would not be who I am today. Ladies, we’ve needed one another and I have been so blessed to have had you in my life. You have all challenged me and helped me to see what I would have otherwise ignored. You are all superb women.

So, what kind of feminist am I?

I am this kind.

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Safe

It’s been nearly 7 weeks since I wrote my last blog, and as it was about me getting a new motorbike to whirl around Ho Chi Minh city I thought it would be only right to let you all know that I am alive, I’ve had no accidents yet, touch wood, and I am getting more and more confident on it.

The irony is, the only issue I have had occurred whilst being a pedestrian. Two days ago, after 16 months of living and working in the city, I was the victim of a failed mugging while walking along a quiet road in broad daylight.

Wondering what we should eat – the options were endless – my friend Claire and I were slowly making our way to a nearby cafe when we had to step off the pavement due to some obstruction, and walk a few metres along the road. Strangely, I noticed a motorbike slowly pull up beside me. Then I felt a tugging on my bag strap, which was across me.

My primal instincts were unleashed and I screamed and tensed every muscle in my body. I wasn’t going anywhere, but the bike was already pulling away and gaining speed. I instinctively held tight to my bag and the strap near my left shoulder to protect my neck, and pulled as hard as a could.

Ahead I could see two young men on the bike, the one at the back I noticed was holding on to a piece of my bag strap, about 15 to 20 cm. Even now I’m not sure how I escaped being dragged across that road.

I have heard so many stories of muggings from friends that I had half expected it to happen to me at some point.  Although, before the attack I found myself scoffing at the advice given to me by the locals; “hide your bag”, “put your phone in your pocket” etc. Now I know that they have always had my best interests at heart.

A Canadian male friend of mine, a big guy, was sat at a roadside cafe when two opportunists on a bike drove onto the pavement and into the chairs of the cafe to steal his mobile phone. They got away with it.

My friend Claire told me about her friend who had been mugged in a similar way to me and ended up having severe bleeding from her neck, her bag emptied all over the road.

And of course the Vietnamese are not immune to attacks. Some time ago a woman actually had her arms hacked off just for the items she was carrying on her motorbike.

When there are two young white women taking a stroll, and one is wearing a knee-length blue and white striped summer dress with her little leather bag so tantalisingly hanging against her right hip, what gambler isn’t going to want to at least give it a try?

Safety has become my number one concern now that this has happened to me and I want to offer you an analysis of what I believe I did right and what I did wrong.

Take heed and do not make the same mistakes as I.

What I did right

  • I have always worn my bag across my body, this means that if someone has the audacity to try and steal it then they have to deal with my body weight first.
  • By screaming and tensing my body I was able to immediately use the adrenaline to fight against the motion and strength of the mugger.
  • For the last 6 weeks I have regularly been going to the gym and focusing on doing weights for my back, arms and legs for the sole purpose of growing in strength for the next bout of travelling that we will be doing (and to get Michelle Obama-arms). I felt that I wanted to be able to defend myself from attacks but never truly believed that I would need to do it so soon.

What I did wrong

  • Although carrying my bag that way was a benefit, it was also to become a big huge target that made me fair game. I am now an advocate for carrying things in pockets or even better a hidden bumbag/fanny-pack (hahaha, fanny-pack!!). If one needs to carry larger items then DEFINITELY use a backpack. One might feel like a douche but one will be a safe douche. Keeping valuables out of sight is the number one priority.
  • Walking on a road, unless absolutely necessary is now completely forbidden to me. It takes someone with giant balls to ride up onto a pavement and mug.

This week I am investing in a backpack and I intend to wear it across my chest when I ride my bike. It’s substance over style for me from now on.

OK, maybe a cute brown leather backpack that will go with my blue and white striped dress…