The banes and banes of being a woman in Southeast Asia
By Nanthinee Shree
Social rules and superstitions govern the bodies of women all over the world. But how far do these prevent women from doing what they want or even getting what they need? The Southeast Asian Short Film programme in this year’s iteration of SGIFF allowed me to investigate a myriad of roles that women play in today’s societies across the region. Particularly, three films justly portrayed the agency (or lack thereof) that women possess in various aspects of their lives due to social norms that they are subjected to and explore how they respond to these situations.
Even before a woman steps out of her home, she is bogged down by the rules
of the household. In Dharma Putra Purna Nugraha’s The Scent of Rat
Carcasses, a young woman is seen transitioning to her role as the head of
household after her father’s demise. The opening shot of the film shows a
little bird flying out of its cage. In this shot, the young woman’s
voiceover, “I thought after father died, all that was restrained, I could
set them free” informs us of the authority that her father used to wield in
A grieving household copes in various ways. In this film, the young woman takes it upon herself to deal with the rat infestation in the house as soon as her father dies. She places rat poison in every nook and cranny of the house. In each shot of the young woman clearing the house, Nugraha places her in the middle of clutter: in between cupboards, tables and pots and pans. In each of these frames, the claustrophobia she faces due to her new responsibilities is palpable.
Despite all her efforts, even standing on a stool to reach places high up—responsibilities beyond her capacity—it just does not seem enough. Not enough to eradicate the rats or fill her father’s shoes. A scene that struck me was when the young woman walks out of her home with a dead rat in her hand to witness her backyard decorated with a large cluster of dead rats. However, she does not let this get in the way of her newly assumed responsibility. She proceeds to bury each of those rats in the backyard without a moment to process what she has just seen. At this juncture, her mother says, “Sooner or later, someone needs to take care of us”. The young woman has done everything she possibly could, from dealing with the rat infestation to even protecting her mother from mosquitoes when she was asleep. However, her mother does not believe that her daughter can look after the family. Who does she mean by “someone”? A man?
One of the final shots shows the little bird going back into its cage. I believe this is what the young woman is gazing at longingly in the final scene. Among all that was set free after her father’s demise, we learn that she too wished to be free – from the shackles of patriarchy. However, social norms and her mother’s beliefs have caused her to lose her brief experience of agency.
And then the woman leaves her home. She goes to work, and it is a whole new
ball game there. It is no secret that some departments in filmmaking are
dominated by men. One such department that has the legacy of a predominantly
male workplace is film production – especially for below-the-line employees.
With the #MeToo movement, several misogynistic practices and cultures in
various workplaces have been exposed in recent years. When I viewed Pom
Bunsermvicha’s Lemongrass Girl for the first time, I sank in my seat with my
mouth wide open. I witnessed a woman voluntarily getting sexually harassed,
for the benefit of the entire set and team.
In the film, Piano, a production manager, is tasked to find someone to enact a traditional ritual to keep it from raining on set. What irks me is that this peculiar tradition, in any other circumstance, would account for sexual harassment at a workplace. In a conversation with filmmaker Kirsten Tan at SGIFF, Bunsermvicha mentioned that virgins (believed to be pure beings by Thai people) are chosen to plant the lemongrass upside down to allow the team to have the biggest odds at upsetting the gods and keeping the rain away. But how do they figure out who is a virgin? Extrapolating this tradition to any other place of work, it seems bizarre to even understand this tradition without acknowledging the hostile environment which it creates for female employees on film sets.
 IG Live Session – Kirsten Tan & Pom Bunsermvicha (5:00 – 5:30)
Just by existing as a woman on a film set, in this circumstance, the female
crew members have their personal lives and choices under scrutiny. Their
ability to effectively carry out their duties are hindered by their sexual
history. There is a marked passivity in the way women on this film set
behave that underscores the lack of agency that they have at their place of
work. None of the women that Piano approached questioned this practice. They
simply explained why they would not be effective in keeping the rain at bay.
Bunsermvicha’s subtle narrative compellingly portrays this farcical practice and the production assistant’s dubious significance on set without overtly condemning the tradition. It is preposterous that the entire shoot schedule’s fate depends on a female crew member’s virginity.
In the two films I have mentioned thus far, we recognize how social norms
and superstitions made women lose agency at home and at a place of work. Mo
Mo (pseudonym) and Leïla Macaire’s February 1st , on the other hand,
presents us an atypical viewpoint on how women regain their agency by
playing into these social norms and superstitions in Myanmar’s society.
Through Mo Mo’s interactions with her mother throughout the film, we learn that misogyny and patriarchy in Myanmar society are deeply entrenched in families. Mo Mo’s mother forbids her from living the liberal and independent life she led in the US as long as she lives under her roof. Their reason? She is “not a boy”. This makes you wonder if Mo Mo and women like her can only dream of living a life without rules in a foreign land – not in a place that they call home.
Menstruation is and has been cited as a reason for why women are impure in
countries across Southeast Asia and South Asia. In Myanmar, it’s no
different. In the film, Mo Mo narrates to Leïla her involvement in the
protests against the military coup. She details the disgust men have for
longyis – skirts worn by women who bleed monthly and how they consider it
bad luck to walk under them. This is based on a superstition that details
the loss of men’s glory if they come near these longyis.Women in Myanmar
took advantage of this irrational fear and raised their longyis during
protests as a barricade against men in the military. This was a fine example
of turning the table—weaponising misogyny to women’s benefit.
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When it comes to political engagement, women are just as involved as men, even when the agency they have in their daily lives pale in comparison to their male counterparts. This is evident in the film when Mo Mo recollects men and women raising the longyis together against the military. There are also records that prove women activists have been at the forefront of these protests all around the country. Could fight be a default response for women because it seems like we have to constantly fight for our agency, our independence and our space in every aspect of our lives?
It is compelling to note that in all these films, none of the women let the
obstacles in the form of superstitions and social norms prevent them from
accomplishing the task they set out to do. Despite her mother’s belief that
they need a man to take care of them, the young woman in The Scent of Rat
Carcasses dutifully took the place of her father after his demise. Risking
an open investigation of her virginity, Piano still slogged for that
lemongrass and reverently obeyed the tradition to protect her film shoot.
Regardless of the stifling restrictions set by her own family, Mo Mo still
fought for her country and her people. Identifying as a woman in Myanmar,
Indonesia and Thailand also means dealing with centuries’ worth of
superstitions and deep-rooted misogyny in society. While the reason for such
patriarchal systems varies from country to country, it is undeniable that
they affect women in these societies at differing magnitudes.
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