Don’t tell me how to dress

by Sirinya Bishop

It was a perfect day for a water fight. The sun was out, not a cloud in the sky. Armed with a brand-new super-soaker, my valuables secured in a watertight pouch around my neck, and my girlfriends by my side, we headed off for some wet and wild fun. Songkran is a 3 day festival to ring in the New Year in Thailand. The entire nation celebrates by returning home to be with family, making merit and using water to wash away the misfortunes of the past year and to ask for blessings from our elders. We also have massive water fights all over the country. For many, this is a time to let loose, have fun, and get completely soaked to the bone, which is also a refreshing way to combat the sweltering April heat. Our group arrived at Khaosan Road, already pumping with lively music and full of tourists and local revellers, although it was barely noon. About an hour or so into the fun, I briefly lost sight of my friends in the crowd. A man approached me to rub some of the traditional talcum paste on my cheek while another poured a bowl of water down my back.

They stood close to me, uncomfortably close, and suddenly I realised that there were about five of them, surrounding me and putting their hands all over me, down the front of my T-shirt, around my waist, on my backside and between my legs. All around me, the other partygoers were oblivious, spraying water, laughing and dancing. I felt helpless, violated and scared. I don’t remember if I managed to force my way out of their grasping hands or they decided to move to their next victim, but suddenly I found myself free and running as fast as I could through the crowd to hail down a taxi and escape. My friends told me later they had no idea where I had gone and had spent the next few hours looking for me.

This was before everyone had a smartphone. I was 17 years old. I never joined another Songkran party after that and to this day the sight of wet revellers jostling each other around on what should be a happy festival just leaves me with memories of that day. This happened during one of my favourite Thai festivals, in the middle of the day, with hundreds of people around. This is the sort of thing that happens a lot to women during Songkran, nearly 60% out of 1650 women surveyed recently by the Women and Men Progressive Foundation. Only 26% reported the incident to authorities because like me, they probably can’t even remember the faces of the strange men, most likely lost them in the crowd, and more that any other reason,feel ashamed and powerless to do anything about it.

Sirinya (Cindy)

So when I came across an article in the local paper in March of 2018 with the headline, “Don’t dress sexy, dept. tells women” in which the local authorities were telling women to avoid dressing in sexy outfits as they try to prevent sexual harassment or sex assault cases during the upcoming Songkran festival, I immediately felt my face getting hot with anger. Hang on, Cindy, it’s just the headline, I told myself, designed to capture the readers’ attention and draw them to read the rest of the article. Surely, in the next paragraph there will be a list of other precautionary measures that the authorities will suggest in order to keep women safe from such crimes. There will be a stern warning to everyone to behave and outline the harsh penalties they will face if caught harassing or assaulting anyone, regardless of gender. Surely…I skimmed the rest of the article in hopes of finding something of the sort. Nothing. Except for flimsy explanation that every year, there is a rise in crime during the holidays and that is the reason they’ve decided to launch a campaign to encourage tourists, especially women, to dress appropriately so they do not fall victim to sex crimes. That did it for me.

I picked up my phone and recorded a clip in which I ranted in Thai about how utterly shortsighted, sexist and unfair this solution to curb sexual assault was. I briefly touched on my own experience that day many years ago, even though I was wearing a pair of three-quarter length jean shorts. I asked why was there no warning to the men who thought they could take advantage of women, or at least an outline of what of penalties they would face if caught doing so. How is that these authorities had only one solution to reducing this problem and that is to tell women how to dress? I added that this is exactly the kind of backward thinking that keeps this country in the dark ages when it comes to women’s rights. Then I posted it to my Instagram and Facebook accounts, threw my phone in my bag and thought nothing more of it. Within a few hours, the clip started to go viral, with hundreds and then thousands of people, mainly women, sharing and commenting on how they shared my exact sentiments, and even detailing their own stories of how they were harassed or assaulted during what should have been a fun and happy holiday.

By the next morning, my clip was all over the news. It had obviously hit a nerve with many Thai women. After reading their comments, and hearing their stories, I decided this is a conversation that was long overdue, and there is an underlying seething anger in this country over the injustice of women continually being blamed for sexual assault. I decided to create the hashtag #DontTellMeHowToDress and ask people to join me on social media in pushing back against what is an infringement on our basic human rights as women to dress and express ourselves, our right to privacy and safety and against the rampant victim-blaming that goes unchecked in our society. With the help of some of my celebrity friends, the local media and the overwhelming support of the Thai public, we were able to create a level of visibility and attention needed to become a proper social movement, and in a few days, my hashtags caught the attention of news media around the world, likening #DontTellMeHowToDress to that of #MeToo in the west. 

Sirinya  Bishop

After the initial online campaign, I decided to take the movement further and teamed up with the Thai government, UN Women, local NGOs and other partners to create the Social Power Exhibition Against Sexual Assault in which we showcased the actual clothing worn by women and girls at the time of their assault. By displaying the clothes, ranging from sweatpants to a toddler’s playsuit, the exhibition aimed to challenge the misconception that it is because of what women wear that is the main cause of rape and sexual assault. The exhibition also featured photographs of celebrities and influencers with the intention that they would be able to carry the message even further and shed more light on at issue that is most of the time kept in the dark, not spoken of and hidden away. Together with the online #DontTellMeHowToDress campaign,I wanted to create a new conversation and challenge the social attitudes in my country and around the region with then hopes of eventually reducing the problem of gender based violence.

To date my exhibition has been showcased in venues all over BKK, including the UN headquarters, and is currently on a university roadshow in order to educate and engage the younger generation to be a part of the solution. It has also been recreated in the Philippines as part of a nationwide campaign against GBV called “Respeto Naman” launched in November last year, and most recently, in Singapore March 2019. There are still so many widespread misconceptions and stereotypes associated with sexual assault and gender-based violence. Many people think sexual violence involves the use of excessive force by strangers or usually happens in a public or remote place far from home, when in fact the statistics based on the Trial of Rape study by UN Women, show that the majority of cases, in fact 91%, are perpetrated by someone the person knows and many of them happen in the community, in the home and by family members. There is the idea that rape is only a crime or even a problem if it happens to a good or innocent girl, but to a woman deemed to be dressed or behaving inappropriately, it is expected or even justified. There is the belief that assault must result in visible injury if the incident truly happened without consent, when many cases there is no visible trauma, which then poses a challenge when it comes to reporting the incident or collecting evidence.

Too often, women do not seek help because when they do speak out, many feel ashamed and are blamed for the violence committed against them by the very people tasked with protecting them. What started as a spur of the moment rant on social media back last year has now become a life mission for me. I am inspired and emboldened by the countless stories and voices of women who have joined in this campaign and I am grateful for all the male champions who have also lent their support, because this is a not just a women’s issue. This is a human rights issue. And it’s an issue that requires a concerted effort from all levels of society, from the top levels of government, law makers and law enforcers to private sector and civil society. We must fight back against the normalisation and tolerance of all kinds of violence against women. We need to encourage and empower women to speak up and fight for their rights. We need to educate the next generation about responsibility, values and respect.

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