Same Same but Different Gender Inequality in Southeast Asia by Lauren Riley


“Same same, but different” is an expression in Southeast Asia that I became familiar with my first week in Thailand. It covers all kinds of distinctions that don’t really matter here…

“Wait, I’m eating what?

“Chicken heart…like chicken! Same, same…but different.”

This expression can also describe a set of realizations I’ve had while backpacking Southeast Asia: the cultural differences between how men and women are treated, and how backpacking safety is different for girls than it is for boys.

Same, same, but different.


"Same Same, But Different: The Gender Gap in Southeast Asia" --- The Borderless Project
Bogor, Indonesia – Photo by The Borderless Project


The Culture

One of the first things we (my friends Megan, Henry, Jonathan, and I) noticed pretty quickly was that women were seen in public much less than men. We first realized this in Vietnam and then realized we were seeing it all throughout our trip: groups of men gathered everywhere – to drink, play card games, gamble, talk – but not women. Where were they all?, we wondered.

When we stepped out with our cameras in our next country, Indonesia, the men shouted for our attention and struck bold poses for their photos to be taken. They were so excited to see foreigners visiting their cities and couldn’t resist the allure of our cameras. Beside them, beautiful women of all ages smiled at us from underneath colorful hijabs, but when we asked if we might be able to take their photos, we received waving hands and heads shaking; no, no. Henry and Megan told me the same happened when they visited a school in Myanmar, where the boys squealed and fought for attention in front of the camera lens and the girls sat demurely behind, never asking for a photo but simply taking a back seat, watching the boys.


"Same Same, But Different: The Gender Gap in Southeast Asia" --- The Borderless Project
Inle Lake, Myanmar — Photo by The Borderless Project


As we continued on the backpacker route, we saw plenty of old gender roles still in play. In Bali, we got into discussions with local men who told us that they were trying have more children: everyone wanted a boy. One of the employees at our hostel had just had a daughter two days earlier. We went to congratulate him, but the owner gave us the side eye: they’re going to have to keep trying. Maybe unsurprisingly, girls were valued for other things. One Indonesian man summed it up eloquently: “No woman, no rice”.


Bogor, Indonesia – Photo by The Borderless Project


Megan and I were asked if we were married often, which the boys obviously were never asked. The conversations we had with local men far and wide outnumber those we had with local women. These little moments and others painted a picture for us.


Backpacking as a Girl

Before embarking on this 6-month adventure, Megan and I had been told, mostly by our loved ones and the news, that we as girls had to “be careful”. But because these situations girls are warned about are vague and across the board, small moments would become stressful. For parts of the trip when Megan and I traveled without the boys, we had to straddle the line between wanting to adventure off-the-beaten-path while still being smart and safe. When we were with the boys, we could take risks, knowing we could make decisions based on logistics rather than worrying about safety.

Once on a night van to Jepara, Indonesia, we were told we would be dropped off at 6 am and were instead woken in our sleep at 2 am. We were left on the side of the road with no hostel booked. I realized in that moment how lucky Megan and I were to be with two boys, considering what my feelings would have been had it only been the two of us to wander the city in the middle of the night. It was lucky that this only happened when we were with them.

In Jepara I noticed again, inexplicably, not ONE woman could be found on the streets of the fairly deserted looking town. That night, we were followed by a young guy on his motorbike for a bit. He was asking us where we were going and where we were staying, kept imploring when we didn’t answer, and moved closer. I took the stance of not wanting to take another step until he drove off, so I slowed down to look him in the eye in my best attempt at being intimidating (ha). Megan was also nervous and instead began walking faster, ignoring him and keeping her head down to avoid eye contact. He eventually drove off, and we both picked up the pace to get back to our hostel. Though nothing happened, I realized that nobody can be prepared for every situation, and not knowing exactly how to react in the moment can be the worst part.

But then, as we do, we kept moving on. Our group continued on through beautiful Bali and the Philippines (ranked #7 in the Global Gender Gap Index for 2015, which is so cool), and finally back to what felt like our home base in Thailand. And with all the friendly people and smiling faces we encountered as we went on, it was easy to forget the stress.

But I don’t want to.

I want to share and remember these stories, because I want to acknowledge the perspective they gave me. Otherwise, I’ll go back home, and I’ll worry about what it means to be woman there – will I be paid the same for doing the same job? Will policies created by politicians affect my reproductive rights? Will I be more vulnerable as a woman in certain situations? Those kinds of issues will probably be the extent of it.

What I don’t want to forget is that my fears for safety while I was traveling were based on real victims who have been shamed and used as reasons why “women shouldn’t travel”. I also don’t want to forget the nearly 40% of women in Southeast Asia for whom home is not a safe place. The hyper-awareness and extra precautions we took were based on the fact that the world today is not as safe a place for women. I want to remember that the loss of power for one women is a loss of power for us all. I don’t have the answers or solutions, just observations about what it’s like to feel less than in these small moments. I realize that for some women in some parts of the world, maybe they aren’t just small moments, but a lifetime of them.

In the end, the thing I love most about travel is gaining perspective, seeing firsthand how people from other parts of the globe are living, and seeing with my own eyes rather than take the media’s word for it. It opens my mind to all the ways we can do better, and I believe that we can and will do better. As Gloria Steinem put so perfectly, “when people ask me why I still have hope…after all these years, I always say: because I travel. (My travels) left me amazed by what is, angered by what isn’t, and hooked on what could be”. Me, too, Gloria.


"Same Same, But Different: The Gender Gap in Southeast Asia" --- The Borderless Project
Java, Indonesia — Photo by Lauren Riley




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