A royal lesson for Vietnamese women

By Nguyen Thi Khanh Huyen   May 29, 2018 | 06:23 pm PT
A royal lesson for Vietnamese women
Meghan Markle arrives at the High Altar for her wedding ceremony in St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle, in Windsor, on May 19, 2018. Photo by AFP/Jonathan Brady
Social prejudice should not deter Vietnamese women from getting a divorce and taking the chance to make a new start.

Amidst the oohs and aahs over the recent Royal wedding in Britain and the “controversy” over Meghan Markle’s already-married-once status, a sobering thought struck me.

Even today, as many as 35 percent of Vietnamese women believe that husbands have the right to beat their wives, according to a United Nations report.

It was not long ago that a woman I care a lot for asked me if a foreign boyfriend would beat his girlfriend. I laughed at the question and said: “It’s the 21st century, no progressive man would ever lay a hand on women.”

She sighed: “I wish all Vietnamese men can think like that.” Her husband would beat her up every time he got drunk, and sometimes this happened several times a week. She was desperate but did not know what to do.

I asked her if she’d called the police, and she said she’d already done that, more than once, but the response was always the same. No police officer showed up. The typical advice was this:

“Oh well, he will stop beating you when he gets sober tomorrow, and you two should figure it out together.”

In short, a drunk husband beating a wife was no big deal, and institutional protection was conspicuously absent or atrociously difficult.

In case my friend sought more help, local authorities would send someone from the women’s union for counseling. But such calls for help would only make things worse as her husband would beat her even harder.

The root of this evil is an ingrained belief among many men that it is not wrong to beat a woman. It is not uncommon that a husband gets mocked by his drinking friends. He is mocked for being so scared of his wife that he does not dare to beat her. Being a man means knowing how to “educate” the wife, goes the sage advice.

Another woman showed me dark purple bruises on her back and thighs, and yet another one showed me text messages full of revilement and threats from her ex-husband, who is quite a famous writer, an intellectual.

Sadly, women facilitate this oppression with their submission, and are even proactive in doing so, sometimes. They bite the bullet in different ways to live with husbands who abuse them and do not dare to file for divorce.

They hide the abuse, physical and mental, because they are afraid of being shamed and ostracized by society.

Back to the fairy tale royal wedding that was the subject of innumerable posts on social media, many of them pregnant with prejudice.

No wonder.  

Meghan Markle is the child of a black mother and a white father. She is three years older than Harry and comes from a “common” family. In these “modern” times, many patriarchal notions still stand strong. Parents want their son to marry a virgin, a younger girl from a “suitable” family.

It is not surprising then that this prejudice also extends to divorce, especially women who want it.

I am not saying that all broken marriages are because of husbands, and I do not advocate for divorce at all costs, but I understand that in some cases, divorce is the only option left for women.

My friends who have divorced are all strong and independent women. Some have chosen to be single moms, opting for a future that might see them be lonely for the rest of their lives over the fate of spending it with someone who has hurt them.

This is a very brave decision, given the context of divorce being seen as a punishment which ends the dream of a happy family for women. Most of the time, women are advised to be patient and tolerant for the sake of their families. The popular wisdom is that no matter how badly the husband treats them, they should keep in mind that having a husband is better than getting divorced and becoming a woman who’s been married once.

It is often said that it is the children that are hurt most in a divorce. It is rarely mentioned that couples staying together in an unhappy relationship, giving up all chances to find true love, can also have negative impacts on children.

As noted earlier, also in the West, Prince Harry choosing a woman who’d already been married once had triggered gossip, which has been doused with a bucket of cold water by the royal wedding.

It is to her credit that after divorcing a man she’d been with for nearly a decade, Meghan did not let her broken marriage stand in her way. One of the things she did after the divorce was founding a fashion brand dedicated to female office workers. She won critical acclaim for the role she played in a TV series. She became a United Nations volunteer fighting for women’s rights. She also worked as a World Vision Global Ambassador in 2016 after traveling to Rwanda to help with a new clean water pipeline. And these activities brought her to Prince Harry.

Meghan’s story shows the importance of women not letting a failed marriage stand in the way of taking another chance and opening their hearts to love again. A person is not some inanimate object or device for its value to be judged by whether it is used or new or refurbished. This is sexist and should be recognized for what it is.

Studies show that in Vietnam, as many as 58 percent of the women are victims of domestic abuse and 3.6 percent of them believe that the husband is the head of the family. And far too many of them think that husbands have the right to “educate” their wives by beating them.

So instead of creating days to celebrate women and admiring some wedding in the Western world, can we focus on doing what is needed to help Vietnamese women break free of deep-rooted, patriarchal prejudices and beliefs?

*Nguyen Thi Khanh Huyen is doing a Masters in Computer Science at Stanford University. The opinions expressed here are her own. This essay has been translated and edited.

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