To some men, having women in politics is unfortunately often still about good looks. It’s a distraction to many of these males. Think of the recent wave of adoration surrounding Jinny Yotsuda Leelapanyalert, the “cute” 19-year-old daughter of Pheu Thai de facto partly leader Sudarat Kaeyuraphan.
Local Thai-language and social media were enchanted by Suradat’s daughter who accompanied her mother to campaign for elections.
Many of these men would say Sudarat herself is rather “pleasant looking” and it seems that for them, this is a key additional prerequisite for women politicians.
Think of Future Forward Party’s spokesperson Pannika Wanich, another politician noted by some men for her looks despite her London School of Economics education. On the other side of the political spectrum, we have Watanya Wongopasi, or “Madame Dear,” former manager of Under-23 Thai national football squad joining pro-junta Palang Pracharat Party on Nov. 16. The 33-year-old rookie politician had become a media obsession prior to entering politics due to her looks.
Unfortunately, beauty could be distracting, particularly in politics. Instead of seeing these politicians for their ideologies, abilities – or the lack there of – people, particularly many male voters, end up liking or disliking women politicians based on their looks.
According to a recent meeting held by UN-Women and its partners including the European Union and the Embassy of Finland, the percentage of women in Thailand’s junta-appointed parliament as of January 2017 was among the lowest in Southeast Asia at 5 percent. That’s only 12 out of 247 seats. In Finland it’s 42 percent, while in Sweden it’s almost 44 percent.
So Thailand has a problem of not just a low number of women in politics but also a misplaced focus on the few women in politics.
There are other challenges too. I spoke to Arja Alho, a former cabinet minister at the Finnish Finance Ministry and she said even in Finland – where 42 percent of parliamentarians and half of cabinet members are women – being women politicians requires support and understanding from your family.
But that’s not all.
“There is an expectation that women should be more moral, not corrupt and honest. You should not be drinking too much… The expectation is that I should be more modest,” 64-year-old Alho said.
Alho first entered politics at 28 and observed that while old male politicians are often described as “decisive leaders”, it often became “wicked old woman” when it came to old Finnish female politician.
While the male gender is invisible in politics, being a woman comes with a lot of baggage and expectations. This make it extra difficult for women to succeed in politics without relying on good looks.
Think of fugitive former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. It’s also her good looks that attract many male voters to her – not just the fact that she is seen as a mere proxy of Thaksin Shinawatra – another ousted and fugitive former premier.
Yingluck has been called names, such as “traitor whore,” or karee khaichart, or “stupid bitch,” or e-ngo, and all the sexist remarks. It’s hard to imagine if a loathed male politician could have been described in a worse manner.
These specific challenges will persist as long as members of Thai society – male, female and LGBT – do not seriously contemplate, rectify and find a solution.
With the upcoming promised elections being mostly about whether you are pro or anti-junta and the economy, the issue of women in politics is once again nowhere to be seen.