Elayne Clift


» Back to the Elayne Clift page

Not the Hind Legs of the Elephant

Virada Somswasdi was a university law student in the 1970s when she first became disillusioned with women’s status in Thailand.  Not one to sit still in the face of social injustice, she quickly became an activist and organizer for the Women Lawyers’ Association.  From there -- with a detour to Cornell University in Ithaca, NY to study family law – it was a pretty direct route to the unofficial founding in 1986 of the Women’s Studies program at Chiang Mai University. 

With other members of the CMU Faculty of Social Sciences, Somswasdi persevered until 1993 when the Women’s Studies Center was officially established and recognized as a new department at the university.  It now offers a master’s degree in Women’s Studies, the first such program in Thailand, and is widely recognized as a major resource center for feminist perspectives on law, human rights and development.

In addition to its masters program launched in 2000, the center hosts a comprehensive Information Center and a program that offers paralegal training for rural women in northern Thailand.  It coordinates and organizes various workshops, conferences and lectures locally, nationally and internationally, and runs a Women on Film Project. It also has a weekly radio program, “Not the Hind Legs of the Elephant.” 

The Thai Constitution of 1997 looks good, at least on the face of it, to any western feminist.  It has an equal rights protection clause and includes language designed to guarantee and protect the rights of all human beings. Thailand ratified CEDAW, the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, in 1985 and is now working on affirmative action legislation.  Despite that, Somswasdi, current president of the pan-Asian Foundation for Women, Law and Rural Development (FORWARD), believes that more must be done in order for women to enjoy full equality in Thai society.  She worries that Parliament has fewer than 10 percent women and that “not one feminist woman serves in the cabinet.” None of the women in high office are activists, she says.

Further, she is concerned that in a so-called post-modern world dominated by globalization and superpower economies, Third World women are being left behind.  “It’s all about self,” she says.  “Everyone has their own terrain and emphasizes difference and individual identity.  This softens the solidarity among women’s groups.  There must be common issues we can work on together.”  She hopes that Third Wave feminists – the daughters of her own generation of Second Wave feminists active in the 60s and 70s – won’t mock or minimize the hard work and contributions of their foremothers.  And she cautions against a “leap without context” from Third World to First World issues.

Activists like Virada Somswasdi are working hard on behalf of Thailand’s women, and they are making steady gains.  Putting one foot in front of the other to ensure women's full participation and equality, they are decidedly the front legs of the elephant.

For information on the Women's Studies Center see: