03.jpg

Le dictionnaire

tags

WOMEN, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF VIET-NAM

Vietnamese communists were not the first to take up the “question of women” (van de phu nu) or their emancipation. The place of women in Vietnamese society had been an important subject of debate during the interwar period as a new generation of Vietnamese began to question the oppressive nature of “traditional” society, of its “out-moded customs”, and of Confucianism in particular. This was more pronounced in the colonial cities of Hanoi and Saigon, where Vietnamese intellectuals, journalists, and editors contributed regularly to and ran papers and magazines dedicated to women’s issues, most notably Phu Nu Tan Van (Modern Women).

The leaders of the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP), created in 1930, also attached considerable importance to the liberation of women from traditional Confucian and bourgeois oppression. Vietnamese nationalists also understood that speaking to women about their rights was essential to winning their support as one of the most important untapped political forces in Vietnamese society to date. The French were shocked to learn that following the execution of Nguyen Thai Hoc, the leader of the failed Vietnamese Nationalist Party revolt, his wife wrote a double suicide note addressed to her husband and to the nation before she killed herself. Another woman, Nguyen Thi Minh Khai, rose to the highest ranks of the ICP before she was arrested and executed by the French on the eve of World War II.

Communist nationalists certainly had women in mind when they created the Viet Minh in 1941, explicitly mentioning the need to win over their support as part of building a broad-based nationalist front to fight for independence. Theoretically, both the ICP and the Viet Minh’s political platforms ensured equal rights for women and assigned them a major revolutionary force. Upon coming to power, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) instituted legal reforms designed to liberate the postcolonial Vietnamese woman. Decrees no. 14 and 51 of 1945 provided women with the right to vote. Elections in January 1946 sent ten women to the National Assembly. The 1946 constitution, the first, proclaimed the equality of the sexes. Article 37 of the 1947 labor law stipulated that equal work meant equal pay. In 1950, as Vietnamese communists renewed their ties with the Sino-Soviet bloc, the DRV issued decrees affirming the equality of boys and girls within the Vietnamese family, in a move designed to roll back Confucianism and its male-centered hold on power. Young women also received the right to choose their marriage partner. In November 1950, the government provided women with the right to divorce.

War itself contributed to changing the status of Vietnamese women, especially for those living within the DRV’s territories. Given that women constituted half of the population and that the war state was faced with a chronic shortage of manpower, women were called upon to participate in a wide variety of political, social, economic, administrative, and even military occupations. During the battle of Hanoi in January and February 1947, the Capital Regiment of 1,200 individuals counted 200 women and 170 children. The evacuation of the cities in 1945–1947 towards the countryside was such that traditional family hierarchies broke down and the influence of urban ideas on “women’s questions” expanded into the countryside.

Meanwhile, the DRV’s needs for labor only increased as the fighting carried on. Women worked in village, provincial, and zonal bureaucracies. Many were involved in services in charge of women’s, family, and cultural questions and used their positions to promote greater equality between the sexes. The DRV also set in motion an educational and literacy programme that schooled young girls as well as boys. In Viet Minh zones, Confucian-minded notables lost their central role at the village level. Meetings no longer excluded women, given their role in mobilizing local girls and women for national salvation fronts and productive power. Nguyen Thi Ngoc Toan not only served as a clandestine militant for the Viet Minh in Hue with the advent of the DRV in 1945, but she also studied at the DRV medical school and tended to grievously wounded men during the battle of Dien Bien Phu. She also openly challenged the powerful male cadres who had organized a court marshal of innocent men, going so far as to call into question the legitimacy of the trial.

Hundreds perhaps even thousands of women carried out dangerous undercover espionage, sabotage, and assassination missions behind enemy lines and in the occupied cities of Saigon and Hanoi. In Hung Yen, 6,700 women enrolled in the militia forces and took part in 680 guerrilla operations. Many paid with their lives and were tortured severely. Nguyen Thi Chien, Mac Thi Buoi, and Bui Thi Cuc died in the line of duty and were recast as new heros to emulate.

However, in practice things were not quite as egalitarian as communist nationalist historiography and these statistics would have us believe. Of the “ten essential tasks of the revolution” laid out by the ICP in 1930, women’s rights were only contained in the penultimate point. Like the French, the DRV refused women the right to enlist in the national army. For the DRV, women were expected to “replace men in all tasks in the rear” and tend to the family and to children. Remarkably few women truly moved into the upper levels of leadership either in the DRV or the ICP during the Indochina conflict. In the DRV’s 1946 National Assembly, women held only ten seats out of a total of 403. As of mid-1948, Le Duc Tho reported that “women comrades” made up less than 8% of total party membership.

The application of more communist-minded reforms and policies from 1953, including land reform and a marriage law, severed the hold of male-dominated land holdership and liberated peasant women from the male-centered Confucian order. However, as recent research on Chinese communism suggests, the Party’s liberation of women was not always altruistic. By breaking traditional Confucian bonds of domination in the countryside, the Party also sought to insinuate political cadres (mostly men) into villages in order to better control and mobilize women for the Party’s sake and ends. See also EMULATION; LOVE AND WAR; MINORITY ETHNIC GROUPS; ORPHANS.