Emma Gage
Apr 8, 2015

Women in Southeast Asia: The rise of soft power

Women are a hot topic for marketers at the moment. Brands across the world are seizing the opportunity to align themselves with pro-empowerment messaging, in a bid to tap into more emotional spaces and to stand for something bigger.

Emma Gage: gender not seen as a barrier
Emma Gage: gender not seen as a barrier

The world of business is also taking note, recognising the importance of feminine values; of collaboration, nurturing and flexibility and their importance in the modern world. There is a new wave of opinion leaders talking about the strength of being female rather than the weakness of femininity.

Much of the brand activity happens at a global level: development of global missions, cross-market brand platforms and such. How different can things be? Surely everyone can buy in to a positive empowerment message at some level? If it’s done with genuine intent then it’ll at least do no harm in parts of the world where it fails to resonate. These seem to be the received wisdom. And there may be some value in this. But it all depends on whether the endgame is simply to create a warm feeling towards the brand, or whether there’s a real strategic desire to move the needle.

Nuance and geographical diversity always costs money, but to really resonate with individuals on such emotive themes, they really matter. Women in Southeast Asia are a good example of this. 

The historical trajectory of women here is quite different from that in the West. In pre-modern times, in many cultures, they were genuine equals with men; they were allowed to trade, own property and divorce their husbands at will. They stood shoulder to shoulder with men, working with them in agriculture and commerce; and of course, they were also mothers. These women have always been busy working mothers, never having had the luxury of being tied to the home.

It was with the import of the great philosophies and religions of the region—Confucianism, Islam and Buddhism—that ideas of male difference and superiority arrived. This meant the gender boundaries were embedded in the foundations of society, and still are today. The definitions of femininity and womanhood were of course limiting: she was to be the dutiful daughter, wife and mother and be beautiful.  Beauty became the measure of a woman’s worth. She had to make an effort with her looks but also look demure, docile and sweet. Talked about as the “flower(s) of the nation” through their beauty and docility, their job was to keep men happy, helping them to be the “fence(s) of the nation”. Such notions were in stark contrast with the pre-modern orthodoxies.

This article is part of the Cultural Radar series

Today, things are more complex. Modern opportunity has exploded in the region: the ability to work in a foreign company; get an office job; be exposed to global influences of celebrity, fashion and style, or to travel. But of course the engrained cultural expectations of womanhood have not gone away. She’s still expected to be doting wife, loving mother, dutiful daughter, and in some instances devout woman of faith. In many respects, the bar has been raised. Today she can’t be a success unless she’s all of these things, as well as ‘modern’ in the way she approaches life, be it in her fashion, her style or her approach to work. And as the definition of ‘femininity’ evolves, it blurs the lines. Women themselves have to work out their own boundaries. What’s more, often living in cultures of judgment, they are playing this out on a very public stage.

A modern woman in Southeast Asia has to balance, with guile and art, traditional expectation and modernity. But that’s fine—she plays multiple roles and makes her femininity work for her. Beauty allows her to create a public face for each role, in a bid to show everyone that she’s achieving the balance. And she very consciously creates a number of different ‘faces’ to allow her to stretch the boundaries of permissibility and achieve that all-important balance. She strives for a chameleon-like look; a look that stretches across her different roles and shows that she is modern, but still respectful of traditional expectations. 

Women use their femininity as a soft power to get what they want, wield it with absolute precision.  They’re aware of the need for harmony between the genders: those with a job, some with roles more senior than those of their husbands, will play up the ‘hyper-feminine’ at home. Modern religious women will play with cues of their faith, such as the hijab, to show the world their commitment and allow themselves greater freedoms. Again, it’s about the public face of balance.

In the West, feminist movements are a familiar aspect of post-war societies, with their powerful drives to end male hegemony. Seen through this lens, one sometimes hears such behaviour labelled as manipulative or as a sad reaction to male dominance. But the whole idea of empowerment is of course subjective. For her, a world of opportunity has opened up and her aspiration is not to change the system, or to rage against the machine, but to work within the collective norms to gently challenge those boundaries.

While many big global empowerment campaigns get talked about and even go viral, in this part of the world, I wonder if some brands are missing a trick. These women aren’t engaged in a battle and they rarely see their gender as a barrier. Quite the opposite. Empowerment can also be about inspiration, optimism and a celebration of the new opportunities, big and small. A battle that’s already been won.

Emma Gage is managing director of Flamingo Singapore

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