Back to Forum

A Different Battle: Asian Women’s Leadership

During these challenging times, there are Asian women from West Asia to South East Asia who have shown leadership. It is not to present a sort of essentialist leadership of Asian women, but to present a trait otherwise unknown to many of us from Asian women.

West Asia: Syrian women’s leadership in a “No Man’s Land”

Let’s start with the conflict zone of Syria, where schools and hospitals have been targeted by shelling. Children and adults have endured massive trauma over a decade, which requires therapy and rehabilitation. But few mental health professionals exist in Idlib, Syria. Fortunate enough, there is one strong-willed woman who is not deterred by the chaos around Syria – Abeer al-Faris, is the Director of Dar al-Amal Education Village, an independent care center for widows and orphans of war. Despite the situation in Idlib (a war zone and the latest rebel-held territory in Syria), the centre is able to provide residents with some services such as health care, education and counselling. Abeer argues that rendering services in a war zone is not intended for the faint of heart. As she says, there are daily struggles, from lack of resources to resistance to criticism from conservatives, especially men. The violence in the area has resulted to thousands of people fleeing the place and risking their lives by crossing to Europe with the hope to find peace and a secured life. Given the overlaying humanitarian concerns, mental health is obviously one of the needed healthcare of the people, which unfortunately they have scarce access and limited resources.

Another woman who stood against the odds in Syria is Dr. Amani Ballour, a pediatrician who supervised an underground hospital in eastern Ghouta for six years, similar with Abeer al-Faris, has also defied obstacles. During her stay in Ghouta, she expanded the underground hospital by deepening its bunkers and dug tunnels to have two clinics in the said town. She, together with her team were committed to finding ways to deliver healthcare where medications are rationed, resources are prioritized for those who have more chances of survival, and in many instances, music was substituted for anesthesia. They also faced food shortages to feed patients and their medical staff. With all the destruction they experience they believe that the al-Assad regime do not care for human lives (who are bombarded by sarin and chlorine attacks). It is not only the lack of resources that Dr. Amani must face daily, but also men who questioned her credibility to manage a medical facility, simply because of her gender. In 2018, their lives and their patients were in great danger; faced with threats they were left with no other option but to leave the hospital. Today, she carried a new responsibility of advocating for her people and founded the Al Amal (Hope) to support women leaders and medical professionals who work in conflict zones. She also calls on the international community to end the humanitarian catastrophe, where millions of Syrians are displaced in tent cities and who seek asylums in other countries. These Syrian women – Abeer al-Faris and Dr. Amani Ballour were fortresses of hope for the people who continue to face uncertainty and hell on earth.

Southeast Asia: Women leadership, Defying Tyranny

On the 20th of May 2020, Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen has sworn in for her second term. She calls for unity and non-complacency. In her inaugural speech, she said, “It takes more than fervor to govern a country. Leadership means calmly taking the right course in a changing world.” Nearly a year after her inauguration, we witness how she and her government have proactively handled the COVID-19 pandemic with only 967 cases and 10 deaths (0.4 per capita death) as of this writing. President Tsai’s leadership can be said is with integrity and competence. Her government’s response to the pandemic is one thing, but another mandate that she stands firm is protecting the democracy against Beijing’s muscling of powers over Taiwan. Despite the “showcase” of pressure and intimidation by Beijing over Taiwan’s sea and air, President Tsai publicly asserted their rights and made a bold decision that will protect their country from aggressive powers of Beijing. As in her speech, where she categorically said that leadership is calmly taking the right course, she offered a dialogue with Beijing, but as expected the latter remains undeterred to its stance that Taiwan is a break-away province of China, and therefore cannot and should not be seen as a sovereign state by itself and by the international community. In the face of threat and pressure from Beijing, President Tsai remains steadfast that Taiwan is an independent nation. She remains opposed to China’s formula of “one country, two system,” as this is beginning to crumble in Hong Kong. She is open to dialogue with Beijing, but with the condition that the latter must respect the democracy of Taiwan, a reality that China must face.

Another country in Southeast Asia that can be an exemplar of leadership is the Vice-President of the Philippines, Maria Leonor “Leni” Gerona Robredo. Since the beginning of her oath, she has been shunned by Duterte, who excluded her from Cabinet meetings, fired her as drug czar, and excluded her office from the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) that looks into the “synchronicity” of the executive offices in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, the exclusionary habits of the Duterte gave VP Robredo no other choice but to act independently, yet Duterte erroneously perceived this as an attempt of Robredo to compete with him. The government has misled the people by creating a narrative that VP Robredo does not work with the executive branch, when the truth is that Duterte and his cohorts kept her from working with them. In spite of Duterte’s multiple dismissal of VP Robredo, she remains respectful toward him. In fact, she is able to manage and focus on the needs of her people, giving concrete suggestions and actions on how to address the problem of the pandemic. With a limited budget provided to her office, she is able to collaborate and have coordinated actions with private institutions and individuals, who trusted that whatever they supply will be given to those who truly needs it. She and her team collaborated with local designers who produced and provided personal protective equipment (PPE) for our healthcare workers. At the height of the pandemic, the Philippines also experienced typhoons, which exacerbated the country’s problems. Nevertheless, VP Robredo was has had well-directed coordination with private corporations and individuals, and her team were able to deliver goods and relief to areas devasted by calamities. She was always on the ground with the people and ensured that her office was open to anyone who asked for help. Her style of leadership is to bring people together and work with transparency, because it is essential to build trust, for this will enable to address and solve the needs of the people.

Asian women’s leadership: What can they offer?

To break the glass-ceiling is not a concern of Asian women leaders featured in this article. Their leadership and governance are strategic, capable of delivering, collaborative and egalitarian, this is despite the experiences of dismissal and bigotry of the men around them. They bravely accepted the responsibility of being a leader not to prove that a woman can be an equal but more so because they are moved by the situation surrounding their people. These women cannot tolerate not doing anything, and they opted to use their privilege to alleviate the people from a dehumanizing situation. They have exemplified a womanism aimed at finding solutions to the pressing matters in their society. Perhaps at this stage it would be wise to retrace the roots of Asian women’s leadership, particularly in the Filipino context, which may be another example of womanism.

Women in the pre-colonial Philippines

History has carved the Philippines, which was colonized and Christianized just 500 years ago. In fact, the first recorded conversion and the mounting of a cross took place on the island of Cebu on April 14, 1521. It was the colonizers who introduced a different socio-political and religious system in the archipelago. Prior to their conquest, the Philippines is known to practice egalitarianism in all dimensions of life, from the households to communities. The fundamental framework of the pre-colonial Philippines has placed the well-being of the community as its goal and priority. It matters that the community lives harmoniously; this is marked by consultation of views and opinions among the leaders of the community, namely: Datu (chieftain), Bagani (warrior), Panday (native technologist), and Babaylan (shaman/healer (herbalist)/counsellor-female leader). A Babaylan has multiple functions, she was a spiritual leader, but she also holds a significant role in agriculture, because she knows the land too well. In this regard, the community has high respect towards her, thus in recognizing her leadership, we can say that the pre-colonial Philippines was egalitarian. Gender was never an issue then, and there was empowerment, both among men, women and even gays. Traces of a Babaylan leadership manifests today in women (and even with men) who took the task to lead the nation and recognize the voices of the least in society. For a Babaylan, what matters is the well-being of the people and the community.

Appropriating a Bayi Indigenous Womanism

Western feminism finds it difficult to permeate into the majority of Filipino women, perhaps because of our context. Though there may be incidents of gender imbalances, in the aggregate, Filipino women enjoy a fair share of equal power and authority with men, such as in civil rights, labor, politics and sociocultural roles. In fact, in the recent Global Gender Gap Report, the Philippines ranked 16 of the 150 nations, while in terms of economic participation and opportunities and political empowerment, we ranked 14th and 29th, respectively. The Philippines is the only country to outperform other ASEAN countries when it comes to gender equality. In retrospect, when I was involved in the business industry, most of the senior positions in the business were held by women. Filipino women have held key government and corporate positions. Of course, given the existence of exclusionary structures and a sitting president who is a misogynist, all the more Filipino women are active and are engaged in equipping other women to be critical to the powers that work against them and at the same time they take effort to conscientize and empower women to assert their agency.

An egalitarian strand among Filipino women can be considered as traces of a Bayi rooted in an indigenous womanism evident in the pre-colonial Philippines. The term Bayi basically means, “female” in Hiligaynon (located in the Central Philippines). The Bayi can be considered home-grown or Filipino indigenous womanism where it recognizes the significance of female leadership in their community, whose voices matter in the overall identity of the community. The egalitarian system in the pre-colonial Philippines afforded women, their agency that is evident in their influence, position, and power. They committed to using their privilege for the well-being of the community, which lives on today. Historical accounts of Filipino women who exemplified valor, have sustained the modern Filipino women to this day, including those who are in the diaspora.

The determination of the Asian women featured in this article can be said that a Bayi indigenous feminism seems to resonate in their way of leading their people, where their main concern is the well-being of all, regardless of gender or religion. In addition, an indigenous Bayi womanism embodies the balance of leadership in society, which seems to be lacking today, where in some nations, male governance exercises authoritarianism and “privatized” control. In this regard, a Bayi indigenous womanism can be an example of a leadership marked by harmonic balance that effectively unites and connects the community as one with each other, with nature, with the Divine. Thus, Bayi indigenous womanism is the kind of leadership our world needs today.

Selected Resources:

Brazal, Agnes M. A Theology of Southeast Asia: Liberation-Postcolonial Ethics in the Philippines. New York: Orbis Books, 2019.

Hega, Mylene D., Veronica C. Alporha and Meggan S. Evangelista, Feminism and the Women’s Movement in the Philippines: Struggles, Advances, and Challenges. Pasig City, PH: Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (ADB), 2017.

Insight Report: Global Gender Gap Report 2020. Geneva: World Economic Forum, 2020.