Washington International Law Journal


Wendy N. Duong


Exploration of women's issues in Vietnam strengthens the emerging voice of the "exotic other female" in contemporary international feminist discourse. Any women's movement in Vietnam today must be cast as the revitalization of the Vietnamese woman's collective cultural identity, rather than as a Western imported feminist doctrine. The Vietnamese woman's collective cultural identity is based on the history and cultural folklores of Vietnam, including expressions of feminist ideas in law and literature, and a long history of warfare and collective sufferings, wherein women have been seen as martyrs, national treasures, and laborers in war and in peace. The advocacy of gender equality in Vietnam today is limited by eight "risk factors." First, Vietnam's strong matriarchal heritage that persisted through its early history has at times led to the disingenuous proposition that Vietnam has no need for a feminist movement. Second, Vietnam's repetitive, prolonged war and poverty have together overshadowed gender issues. Third, women's movements in Vietnam have not evolved into a doctrine with a structured basis that is independent from nationalism, socialism, or literary movements. Fourth, gender equality in Vietnam has become entangled in what this Article describes as the "fallacy of a trio," in which gender equality becomes synonymous with nationalism and socialism. Fifth, the rule of law in Vietnam has traditionally been considered secondary to customs derived from the oppressive values of Vietnamese Confucian society and the autonomy of the Vietnamese agricultural villages. Sixth, women's rights advocacy has been caught up in the "universality versus cultural relativism" discussion, further complicated by the question of whether there should be "Asian-styled gender rights" in Vietnam. Seventh, Vietnam, despite its age, is a new nation with a wide variety of philosophical bases, legal traditions, and paradoxical values. Finally, the single-party political system of modem Vietnam renders any feminist movement susceptible to Party politics. The limitations on advocacy for gender equality are illustrated by the shortcomings of Vietnam's Year 2000 National Action Plan, which attempted to address women's issues in the aftermath of the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women held in Bejing in 1995. While the reassertion of cultural identity can effectively empower Vietnamese women, the feminist advocate must approach cultural identity with caution in order to avoid the semantic traps of euphemism, empty ethnocentricsm, and unhealthy preoccupation with the past that can impede progress for the future. [This article was originally written as the author's LL.M. thesis in conjunction with a seminar on Asia Pacific Legal Community taught by Professor Raul Pangalangan and Professor William Alford, Director of the Center for East Asia Legal Studies, Harvard University.]

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