Not long ago I met a young Vietnamese woman named Trieu Nguyen, a 23-year-old university graduate and fluent English speaker. She told me she had just been interviewed and accepted for a job as a dental technician, where her employment conditions, pay and rights would be the equivalent of her male colleagues. In the meantime, she has fallen in love with a fellow university student and they are planning to get married next year. Trieu’s achievements are something that would have been unthinkable for her grandmother; as out of reach as a distant constellation.
In Trieu’s grandmother’s day, the lot of the Vietnamese woman amounted to little more than domestic slavery. Her schooling, if she received any at all, would be brief, often not extending beyond primary level. If she was educated she was one of the lucky ones - at that time Vietnam’s female population was 98% illiterate. She would be married young, any time after her thirteenth birthday. Her marriage would be arranged by her parents, grandparents and the local clairvoyant. She had no say in the matter, and may have been completely unaware of her husband-to-be’s existence until the decision was announced. Once married she had to bow to her husband’s every whim - his word was law, his decisions not open to question. A Vietnamese proverb sums the situation up well: ‘As the boat follows the helm, the woman follows her husband’. At home the husband was not expected to get involved with any household tasks; those were the responsibility of his dutiful wife, along with child-bearing. In her day eight children was the average for a family, but families of twelve were not unheard of.
In spite of the rigid roles that were prescribed for Vietnamese women in the old days, there were some who broke out of the mould and made names for themselves. In the days of the Han Chinese occupation of Vietnam, the Trung sisters, Trung Trac and Trung Nhi, set out to challenge Chinese domination of their country. In the year 40AD they led a rebellion against the Chinese, and after their victory ruled the country for three years. One of the Trung sisters’ soldiers was a woman named Phung Thi Chinh, who gave birth in the midst of battle but fought on with the infant strapped to her back.
Trieu Thi Trinh was another to take up arms against the Chinese, earning herself the label of ‘Vietnam’s Joan of Arc’. An orphan, she killed her overbearing, dictatorial Chinese sister-in-law and fled to the hills to raise a thousand-strong army to fight the Chinese. She led her troops into battle wearing golden armour and riding an elephant, a sword in each hand. There’s a shrine to her memory at Ba Trieu temple in northern Thanh Hoa province.
NGUYEN THI DINH & TRINH THI NGO
Other heroines emerged in later wars. Nguyen Thi Dinh became famous by fighting courageously in two wars. In 1945 she fought with Viet Minh forces against the French, then in 1960 against the southern administrations of Ngo Dinh Diem. She went on to become a founding member of the National Liberation Front (NLF). In the American War, Ngo Thi Tuyen participated in the defence of Dragon’s Jaw Bridge, a key point on the main north-south highway, and helped down two US fighter planes.
Trinh Thi Ngo made regular broadcasts in English on Voice of Vietnam in the mid-1960s. Between playing anti-war songs like ‘We Gotta Get Out of this Place’, she would broadcast messages along the theme of ‘Defect, GI. You know you cannot win this war.’ American troops dubbed her ‘Hanoi Hannah’.
Apart from in the various wars when Vietnamese women were able to show their true mettle, back on the home front it was the same old situation: submission, servitude, and total acceptance of the traditional role that Confucianism decreed for women. Then, step by step, a number of developments occurred to change all that.
The provisional Government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, which was founded after the August Revolution in 1945 and headed by President Ho Chi Minh, was committed to, among other things, pushing for greater equality between men and women. Women’s rights were championed by making known women’s achievements and allowing them to participate in the government and in Communist delegations. Women took advantage of their new rights and assumed roles as nurses, guides, couriers and propagandists in the struggle against French occupation.
Then in gender equality was formalised by writing into the 1959 constitution: ‘Women are equal to men in all respects.’ The wording of the constitution ensured that women received the respect due to them, equal pay, and four to six month’s paid maternity leave. A further milestone was reached in 1959 when the Marriage and Family Law banned concubines, forced marriage, wife-beating, and child marriage.
With these new reforms and laws in place, the lot of Vietnamese women underwent a fundamental change. Women now enjoy the same education as men, the same employment opportunities, the same working conditions with similar pay structures, and the same status as their husbands. They now have the freedom of deciding when to marry, who to marry, and how many children to have.
Consequently, modern-day Vietnamese women enjoy a freer, more fulfilling life than ever before. They can date who they please, run businesses, and generally set the shape of their own lives. The traditional preference for sons rather than daughters has now all but disappeared.
However, a few inconsistencies remain. Vietnamese women still lag behind men in political and economic leadership. Only one-quarter of the members of the National Assembly are women, and they are also under-represented in the leading bodies of the Communist Party (they’re catching up fast, though). While the ban on abortion largely put paid to any discrimination against female babies over male babies, in the Red River Delta this practice appears to still exist. In this region, there are 150 boys to 100 girls at birth. (In the rest of Vietnam the ratio is evenly split.) The rate of literacy among women is 5% below that of men. The emancipation of ethnic minority women hasn’t kept pace with women in the mainstream of society. It seems that Vietnam still has a little way to go to achieve 100% gender equality.
Even so, the progress that has been made to date is impressive. The facts speak for themselves - look at the successful women holding government positions and managerial roles in Vietnam today. Three out of 19 Politburo members, the Vice President of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, the Chairwoman of the National Assembly, A vice-chairwoman of the National Assembly, and the Minister of Public Health are all women. The CEOs of SEAbank, Vinamilk, REE Corporation, and DHG Pharmaceuticals are women. As is the founder and 95% owner of Vietjet Air, Nguyen Phuong Thao, Vietnam’s first self-made female billionaire. Women have made their mark in every aspect of Vietnamese society; something that would have been an unattainable dream just a few decades ago.