The Rise of Women-Only Spaces in Bangkok
Updated: May 21, 2021
Women-only spaces are nothing new. From convents to bathrooms, women’s shelters to girls’ schools, Girls Guides to the Women’s Institute, women-only train carriages to ladies zones in gyms. Women-only spaces fulfil a collective need for safety, ease, understanding, communication, support and community.
And now, women-only spaces are on the rise in Bangkok.
The rise started steadily, with significant women-only and women-focused spaces emerging in the past decade, such as the Wonder Women Meetup group for women-only social events, Bangkok Rising - a volunteer-based community organisation centred around gender issues, and Dragonfly360, a regional platform designed to mobilise society towards gender equality in Asia, and which organised the Wo = Men Summit 2019, the first gender equality summit on the continent.
Then, despite a pandemic (or, perhaps, because of it), women-only spaces doubled down. The year 2020 saw the opening of Maison Rouge, a female-focused multi-purpose event space; all-female comedy line-ups such as Lady Laughs (at The Hive Thong Lor) and Tits and Giggles (at Maison Rouge); plus the first Female Founders Farmers Market, run by ila, which is a female-founded social enterprise that trains organisations in inclusivity and is also developing an app to combat gender-based and domestic violence in Thailand.
Now into 2021, the increase shows no signs of slowing. This year alone has seen the formation of the Bangkok Boss Babes Facebook group for business networking and social media engagement; Female Film Co. photography meetups; Womxn Living in Thailand Clubhouse group for live podcast-style workshops; FemVestors financial advice platform for women; and – shameless plug – The F Word.
Why are women-only and women-focused spaces popping up all over the place? In the fight for equality, why are women choosing to create their own spaces, rather than advocate for gender balance in existing ones? And most intriguingly, why now?
The F Word spoke to Bangkok’s best known women-only and women-focused spaces, both new and well-established, to better understand the answers to these questions.
Trigger Warning: Mentions of rape, sexual assault, domestic abuse, and suicide.
The first and most obvious benefit of a women-only space is safety. The year is 2021 and unfortunately, women still have to stick together out of fear of being attacked.
A recent example of this was the rape of a 16-year-old Thai girl by a Bolt driver, who drugged the teen, then assaulted her at a motel. According to the young girl, the police took no action, despite confirmations from a hospital that she had been drugged and sexually assaulted, and the fact that the teen had identified her attacker by finding him online.
Both Bolt and Grab, Bolt’s biggest competitor, have since rolled out women-only rides with female drivers. We hope that these companies are also focused on other solutions such as background checks on drivers and measurements put in place to protect female drivers (or, y’know, Thailand could work on improved sex education, particularly when it comes to consent), but women-only taxi rides is at least something.
Violence against women in Thailand is an enduringly severe issue that has prompted the founding of a number of women-focused spaces and organisations, including Bangkok Rising, a volunteer group that campaigns for the elimination of gender-based violence through events; as well as กล้าเล่า (Speaking Out TH), a Facebook page that shares stories of sexual assault and harassment in Thailand, and Break the Silence TH, a Facebook support group for victims of gender-based violence – the latter two both co-founded by activists Jomtien “Jom” Jansomrag and Tanawat "Tata" Suwankanit.
These safe, supportive women-only spaces for survivors and victims are more important than ever. Due to the pandemic forcing people into isolation at home, domestic abuse and gender-based violence in Thailand has skyrocketed.
One organisation aiming to provide a lifeline to women in abusive situations during this difficult time is ila, a UK-based enterprise co-founded by Net Supatravanij, who is Thai. Returning to Thailand in light of Covid-19, Net decided to set up an Asian base for ila and develop an app called ALLY, which trains people in spotting signs of abuse and directing victims towards help.
“During Covid, there has been such a rise in domestic abuse cases - we wanted to build a tech solution that enables bystanders to become allies,” explains Net. “One of the amazing stats that really drives ALLY is the fact that 87% of bystanders are more likely to help if they’re trained.”
The ALLY app has been partly funded by two Female Founders Farmers Market events, organised in collaboration with Bangkok Rising. The first was held in December 2020 and the second in April 2021. All vendor fees go towards the development of the application.
"Everyone really enjoys the atmosphere, there’s female empowerment in the air."
“We realised we needed to be a bit different, stand out, have something unique about ila,” says Net. “It came to us so clearly that it [the fundraising event] needed to be a space for female founders and female entrepreneurs. There’s never been a space that celebrates female founders anywhere in Thailand, especially in a market format. There’s nothing in Bangkok for female entrepreneurship.”
The first Female Founders Farmers Market, held in December, saw 500+ attendees. The second, held at the start of April, was just as successful. So much so, that ila hopes to hold several of these events throughout the year.
Beyond the fundraising impact of these events and the unique selling point of a women-only space, Net noted that the ambiance of the Female Founders Farmers Markets is special, and that both attendees and vendors picked up on this:
“One thing that’s clear from the feedback is that everyone really enjoys the atmosphere, there’s female empowerment in the air. Everyone is just so nice and welcoming, and championing each other and their businesses. And, I don’t know, I’m going to go off on a hunch and say you’re not going to find that in a mixed-gender environment or an all-male environment.”
For women who are recovering from gender-based violence, support is integral. One group providing this support is Break the Silence TH, a private Facebook group set up by Jomtien that splintered from the Speak Out Facebook page, a Thai-language platform that was established to address taboo issues such as sexual abuse and gender-based violence in Thailand, by sharing personal stories as well as information.
Established in December 2019, the group is not only open to women, but the majority of members are women, as Jomtien notes that it’s harder for cis men and non-binary people to speak out on this difficult subject. She estimates around 90% of the group’s members are survivors of sexual harassment and around 10% are survivors of domestic abuse.
“Some of the men in our group are actually boyfriends of survivors, as the survivors themselves don’t want to speak out or want anyone to know what happened to them.”
In the group, trauma survivors can share how they’re feeling and their experiences. Older members can give advice to newer members, and there’s also a volunteer counsellor who helps take care of the mental health side, as some of the survivors are at risk of suicide. It’s also a place where members can share information, especially news about policy changes and activism related to sexual abuse and gender-based violence.
"I thought, why don’t we all come together and talk about it? That’s why I started the group. I want them to know what I know.”
Outside of the group, Jomtien arranges meetings in person (until the pandemic prevented such gatherings). Events included a discussion on Thai law, an art therapy session, a Muay Thai session with a female boxer, and a workshop on how to communicate trauma.
Members provide each other with support if survivors wish to go through the justice system, and Jomtien is a case worker who accompanies survivors to places such as a police station or hospital, should they wish or need to.
“Recently, a survivor was in court for her rape case,” Jomtien explains as an example. “Her family wasn’t supportive, so myself and four other members of the group, whose mental health were in a stable enough condition, went along to support her.”
Jomtien, a survivor herself, recalls how when she went to her school and family for help, no one supported her. Once she grew up, she decided to become an activist. By speaking out in public about her own trauma, Jomtien received many messages, especially from women, asking for help.
“Everyone who contacted me asked me things like: ‘How can I get help?’ ‘I went to the police station and the police denied my case.’ ‘My therapist doesn’t listen when I try to talk about what happened.’ ‘I can’t tell my parents.’ This was the pattern of what survivors asked me, so I thought, why don’t we all come together and talk about it? That’s why I started the group. I want them to know what I know.”
"We need to speak out more in order to get the policy changed.”
The path to healing from traumatic experiences such as rape is not easy, nor linear, and for some it’s a lifelong process. However, the group does have some success stories.
In one case, a woman contacted the Speak Out page to tell her story. A man filmed them having sex without her consent, then used the footage to blackmail her, later posting the videos on social media platforms.
Jomtien got in touch with the woman and they worked on the case together – resulting in the man paying THB200,000 in damages, the woman recovering from suicidal thoughts and depression, and opening up to family members who supported her. Now, she is working with other activist groups and has been able to provide advice and support to other women facing similar experiences.
“Just knowing that there are other people going through what you are going through is useful enough,” says Jomtien. “In the future, we want to change governmental policy to be more survivor-centric. Having been through so many cases and seeing where the system need to be changed, we need to speak out more in order to get the policy changed.”
One clear phrase that recurred throughout all of our interviews with organisers of women-only spaces was that these were “safe spaces for women.” Yet, this didn’t only relate to physical safety, but also how much more comfortable women feel in women-only spaces (studies show that women speak less in groups where there are more men), away from the judgment and harassment of mixed-gender and male-dominated spaces.
I mean, have you ever read the comments on the mixed-gender Bangkok expat Facebook groups?
“There’s a reason why I’ve never posted in one of those groups,” says Chelsea Cochran, the founder of Female Film Co. “I already know there’s going to be snark: ‘If you don’t like it, go back to your country,’ and this super-negative, disgusting… I don’t even know how to put it into words… just this terrible vibe. That used to be how Bangkok felt as a city. I did not always love living here, that’s for sure.”
It was this uncomfortable feeling that led Chelsea to create a women-only film photography community, which comprises of photography walks held every month or two, as well as an Instagram page that showcases the work of the photographers.
“Thailand in general has got better over the last 10 years, but I think it’s safe to say it does have a very ‘boys’ club’ vibe to it, and the photography scene is no different,” says Chelsea. “It could be a bit (I hate to use this term but) mansplain-y, or in some of the film clubs there can be this air of condescension when you ask a question or say something you think. It wasn’t the most welcoming environment that it could be.”
“Thailand in general has got better over the last 10 years, but I think it’s safe to say it does have a very ‘boys’ club’ vibe to it, and the photography scene is no different.”
Chelsea curates the photography walk routes herself, which have a collaborative element; there is no teacher role, but rather all the women are sharing their knowledge with each other. The route ends at a café, so participants have a chance to discuss their work and get to know each other.
“I’ve joined film walks in Bangkok in the past, but they always lacked a certain social element. You meet up, you’re walking, walking, walking, taking photos, then you go home. So, I wanted to end at a café, so we would have time to talk together and make friends.”
A sense of community is another theme that echoes throughout all our interviews, whether that community is based offline or online, or a bit of both. Kavitha, who ran the Wonder Women of Bangkok Meetup group and Facebook group for the past year, and has recently passed the baton on to a new organiser, cites community as a prime reason for joining, and later leading, the group.
“As an Asian expat, it was hard for me to meet female friends. I feel like there are very few single Asian expat women around and Wonder Women really helped me to secure a safe circle for myself here. The group is about women seeking solace in each other’s company. It’s a safe zone where women can shamelessly be themselves, regardless of their differences.”
The group welcomes both Thai and expat members, though the meetups mainly attract female expats new to the city, looking to make friends and connections.
“Women come and once they find people they vibe with, they meet up on their own,” says Kavitha. “That’s my target – I want you to forge your own friendship group.”
Past meetup events have included ladies night drinks, bottomless brunches, art and craft workshops, roller derby, comedy nights, belly dance classes, and much more, which appeal to a wide range of women with different interests.
"The group is about women seeking solace in each other’s company. It’s a safe zone where women can shamelessly be themselves, regardless of their differences."
The meetups are also an opportunity for women to support female-owned businesses, and Kavitha notes that she specifically seeks out women-led enterprises when she’s organising events:
“As much as I’m trying to bring people together, I’m also trying to support female-owned businesses, which we can really contribute something to. That is the other really rewarding part of Wonder Women – being able to support women-led, especially Thai women-led, creative businesses during this time.”
The pandemic has disproportionately affected women’s jobs, with women accounting for 39% of global unemployment, yet 54% of Covid-related job losses. Factors include the burden of unpaid care, overrepresentation in sectors hit hardest by Covid-19 (manufacturing, care services, travel), disproportionate impact on female entrepreneurship (female-owned businesses statistically employ more female labour), and existing pre-Covid gender inequalities.
Bangkok Boss Babes, another Facebook group, was set up this year to support the city’s female entrepreneurs during this difficult time. In the group, members can grow their social media followings and engagement rates through reciprocal Facebook and Instagram “threads.”
The idea came from entrepreneur Jojo, and the origins of the group lie in the 2020 lockdown goals she set herself to grow her own business accounts on social media.
“Some of my friends were like, ‘Hey, why is your Instagram growing so quickly? Can you teach me what you’re doing?’”
These requests turned into a LINE group of women who wanted to support each other and enhance each other’s algorithms on Instagram by liking, commenting and following each other. However, as the group grew, some members found it increasingly hard to keep up all of the time and tensions became evident.
Women account for 39% of global unemployment, yet 54% of Covid-related job losses.
As a solution, Bangkok Boss Babes was formed with a team of moderators - Sheila, Tay, G, Dev, and Nat - with different backgrounds, who could keep the group organized.
“You can choose which engagement thread you want to do and it’s at certain times of day. So, if you have time to do it, great, drop your link; if you don’t have time to do it, you can skip until whenever you’re free.”
Beyond the engagement threads, other benefits of being part of the group started to come to light, as the women learned about each other’s businesses, bought each other’s products, and recommended other members’ products and services within their social circles.
“We do have a kind of solidarity, we do want each other to succeed.”
Collaborative giveaways were organised that gave members the opportunity to work on cross-promotional marketing campaigns. Tay and G started the weekly “Babe on Spotlight” posts to highlight a different member each week. Jojo started to share tutorial videos on social media and marketing. Nat and Dev make sure that the threads are different, so that members get different engagement for their posts on Facebook or Instagram (and this may be expanding to more platforms in the near future). Naturally, friendships blossomed.
Bangkok Boss Babes held their first offline networking event in March, led by Sheila, where many of the members met in person for the first time, while everyone was invited to participate in a live reciprocation thread to better understand how the social media engagements work.
Planned future events include talks where members can pitch their businesses in a showcase. Later, the group plans to expand to Southeast Asia, as many of its members ship products overseas.
“We do have a king of solidarity; we do want each other to succeed,” Jojo says. “Having that support group is important; it helps motivate you to do better, to learn more. We’re stronger as a team, a tribe, a group.”
This idea of women sharing knowledge and empowering each other is also the concept behind FemVestors, a new financial literacy platform aimed at women, recently started by Lea Charles, who splits her time between Bangkok and Paris, and a small team of women based all over the world.
“When I started working in finance, a male-dominated industry, I noticed the differences in hanging out with my male colleagues versus hanging out with my girlfriends,” Lea explains. “Guys talk about money freely, advise each other, brag even, ‘I made this investment’ or ‘I made this much doing this,’ but with my female friends, we talk about absolutely everything – feelings, intimate things, relationships – but we never talk about money.”
Lea’s background as a financial analyst and Fintech professional is the basis of her credentials, but FemVestors isn’t about positioning Lea or her team as financial advisors. Rather, the aim is to empower women to educate themselves:
“I’m not a qualified financial advisor and I hate that term because that is what we’re trying to get away from. You don’t need a financial advisor; they’re not going to tell you anything different to the information that you can find out for yourself. Instead, we want to share ideas so that women are empowered to look into their options, then share their knowledge with other women too – creating a community that takes away the need for people to rely on financial advisors. We want women to socialise talking about money.”
Giving up a career to have children, care for relatives, or follow husbands overseas as trailing spouses – these are much more typical situations for women than men, and can leave women financially vulnerable when something goes wrong or a relationship breaks down.
The pandemic has amplified these vulnerabilities, as jobs have been lost, salaries have been cut, and big life changes are happening, with women disproportionately affected. Now, more than ever, people are looking into diversifying their income with side-hustles, reskilling, and looking at making their money work with smarter investments.
“I always ask that question: why don’t we talk about money as women?”
FemVestors shares bite-size graphic content on social media on topics such as different types of budgets that work for different lifestyles, how much to save for a) emergency fund and b) a runaway fund, how to earn and save if you are financially dependent on a partner, how to talk about debt, as well as how to invest once you’re in the position to.
Of course, Bangkok’s women-only spaces are not perfect. Like all spaces where people come together, there can be clashes, politics and - particularly in the case of online spaces - trolling.
“As an organiser, you have to be really able to empathise with people and understand that maybe they’re having a bad day, and taking it out on you,” says Kavitha from Wonder Women.
“Shall we tell her about the cattiness?” Jojo asks Sheila, an admin of Bangkok Boss Babes, referring to the tensions that flared in the original LINE group.
Time is the major challenge many of our interviewees cite, as the moderation of online spaces is time-intensive, as is organising offline events such as meetups.
“As an organiser, you have to be really able to empathise with people."
Inclusivity and intersectionality is another, as many of Bangkok’s women-only spaces operate in either only English or only Thai. Although many of Bangkok’s women-only spaces are inclusive of trans and non-binary members, they do not always experience the same level of welcome or community:
“Right now we have three trans women in our group,” says Jomtien, referring to Break the Silence TH. “In a recent in-person meeting of 18 survivors, we had two trans women join, but neither felt safe speaking out about what they have been through; they don’t feel 100% comfortable among the women in the group. They try to speak out, and then they freeze. There is a stigma that they must be willing to have sex or that they’re waiting for some man to be with them. We’ve considered starting a separate LGBTQ+ group, but at the moment we don’t have enough members.”
Although we’ve heard many examples of serious online harassment faced by the organisers of women-only spaces in Bangkok, backlash from men is not a major challenge our interviewees describe:
“We’ve had no negative backlash. If anything, we’ve had a strong response from female vendors who want to be part of the next event,” says Net from ila. “It was great to see that men did show up [to support the Female Founders Farmers Market], who were mostly husbands and boyfriends. I think when you have a strong cause, there’s always a reason for people to show up.”
“I did have one guy ask if he could join if he dressed in drag,” adds Chelsea of the Female Film Co. “So I told him, you know what, if you put in that commitment to dress in full drag in Bangkok weather, yes, you’re welcome.”
If anything, Bangkok’s women-only spaces are not blocked by challenges, but rather adapt to them. One women-only space currently undergoing such a transformation is Womxn Living in Thailand, a Clubhouse group set up earlier this year by Caitlin Lee, Jessica Teal and Hannah Anderson.
“We started with Clubhouse and it’s now evolving into other things,” describes Caitlin. “Clubhouse is an audio platform where you can open up a private or public ‘room’ where people are talking, kind of like radio. You have listeners, speakers and moderators. People use it as they see fit. We run a women-centric Clubhouse group that is based on educating, having discussions and wellness. But, the platform lacks; it hasn’t been able to keep up with the momentum that it built.”
At present, Clubhouse is only available to iOS users, which blocks many interested women in attending sessions. To combat this, the organisers have been setting up concurrent Google Hangouts where non iOS-users can listen in and participate. They are also recording sessions to release as podcasts.
"When people share their knowledge and women are open to growing and listening, then that’s where we thrive.”
In the future, Caitlin says that the club may even move off Clubhouse altogether and evolve into something different.
“People digest content in different ways,” explains Caitlin, talking about why the club was set up and how it offers something different to Bangkok’s existing online spaces for women. “Some people prefer videos or podcasts. It’s great to have another platform out there.”
The club’s online events are held twice a week, with workshops on Wednesdays and wellness-focused sessions on Sundays. Some are public (open to anyone to listen to), while others are private (only club members can join).
Previous workshop themes have included motherhood (featuring doulas, experienced moms and mothers-to-be), the basics of trading crypto in Thailand, and a “Vent and Yell Room,” where members were invited to rant about stressors in their life – a particularly popular idea in light of Covid.
“It’s kind of like a digital commune. When people share their knowledge and women are open to growing and listening, then that’s where we thrive.”
Women Supporting Women Supporting Women
Bangkok’s women-only spaces are not only growing in number, but are also cross-pollinating by collaborating with other women-only spaces, creating a snowball effect.
As mentioned above, ila’s Female Founders Farmers Market was attended mostly by women and supported female entrepreneurs, while also funding and raising awareness of an app that aims to help women affected by domestic violence. The Wonder Women of Bangkok Meetup group organises workshops attended by women, which also support female-owned businesses.
Elsewhere, there is Samutprakarn International Ladies Club (SILC), one of Bangkok’s oldest women-only clubs, set up in 1992. The club is primarily social, but also involves fundraising and volunteering for local community projects.
“It’s a space where women can get together,” says Tracey Hewison, who was chair of the club for four years, up until the start of the pandemic. “There are lots of ladies from different backgrounds and cultures. For example, our Japanese members have hosted sushi workshops; for St. George’s Day, I hosted an English tea party; and for ‘Pot Luck’ we all bring dishes from our home countries.
The group started pre-BTS and MRT, when Samutprakarn was more isolated, but now our members are all over Bangkok. In particular, older ladies who aren’t used to meeting through Internet connections can come to make friends, establish a strong network and learn about Thailand.”
The club also hosts events that fundraise for various charities, such as Home of Grace, a refuge for teen mothers and abused women in Bangkok, which sadly lost its funding last year.
Since stepping down from her chair position at SILC, Tracey has helped establish a secondhand store on-site at the refuge, organised monthly events to raise money for the charity, and formed a pool of volunteers.
Bangkok’s women-only spaces are not only growing in number, but are also cross-pollinating by collaborating with other women-only spaces.
The most recent event, Grace & Glamour, was a secondhand clothing sale held at the Hyatt Regency Bangkok Sukhumvit for International Women’s Day. The event raised a record THB50,000 for Home of Grace and also featured a number of female-owned enterprises. These in turn donated services and proceeds to attendees, generating additional interest in the event and adding to that sum total raised.
Another women-focused organisation that connects many of the city’s women-only spaces together is Bangkok Rising. This non-profit focuses on community-building and educational events, raising both awareness of gender issues and funds for other women-focused organisations.
Previous collaborative events include the Female Founders Farmers Markets with ila, performances of the Vagina Monologues with the UN, squat workshops with the Thai Powerlifting Federation, “How We Talk About Sexual Assault” open discussions with educational organisation Ruam Chuay, as well as a stand-up comedy workshop run by prominent Bangkok comediennes Olivia Gilmore, Chelsea the Comedian, and Le’Ana Freeman.
“Bangkok Rising has a wide-reaching base and we do a lot of events where women can feel comfortable engaging in certain activities,” explains organiser Becky O’Brien, who has been running the group with Muay Thai fighter Emma Thomas of Under the Ropes since 2019.
“For example, the power-lifting event was run by women for women, offering an opportunity for women to learn about proper weightlifting techniques, in order to be able to use them in their own gyms. Funds from the event went to the Freedom Restoration Project, which works to combat gender-based abuse and domestic violence in Mae Sot’s migrant communities.”
One of Bangkok Rising’s most successful events was the Human Library, part of the UN’s 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence campaign. A storytelling concept that invited the public to “unjudge” a book by its cover, each room in the library was like “opening a book,” with a woman in that room sharing her story.
The aim of the event was to break down barriers, challenge stereotypes and remove stigma around discussing issues such as racism, rape survival, human trafficking and trans experience.
To borrow the name of one of the city’s powerful female-focused organisations, Bangkok’s women-only spaces are certainly rising.
Now, more than ever, women are in need of support and women are looking to give their support. Tired of fighting for equal space and voice in mixed-gender or male-dominated spaces, women are creating autonomous communities, both online and offline, and thriving in them. It’s a testament to the way women work; how we build each other up, collaborate, connect, share, and pay it forward.
Bangkok once had a reputation for being a man’s city, fuelled by the patriarchal values of Thai society and the stereotypical "sexpats" who make the capital their playground. Change lingered on the horizon for a while, but now, as the pandemic exposes the darkest truths in society and holds them up to the light, Bangkok’s women are pulling together.
It is this rise in women-only spaces and the collaborative efforts of women and their communities supporting each other that both birthed The F Word and inspired our second issue, themed as Sisterhood.
Looking forward to a post-pandemic world, will the momentum of Bangkok’s women-only spaces continue? Our women’s intuition, and our sincere hope, says that it will.
By Amy Poulton
Amy identifies as a bookish backpacker and British bookpacker. Hailing from Birmingham, her granddad has suggested that the family is related to the Peaky Blinders. Amy has written for Lonely Planet, Fodor’s, Lifestyle Asia, Coconuts Media, Bangkok 101, as well as other leading travel and lifestyle media. She has counted Hong Kong, Italy, Mexico and now Thailand as home. Read more of Amy's work on her portfolio site, Page Traveller book and travel blog, Facebook and Instagram at @amy_pagetraveller.
Illustration by Blue Rachapradit
Blue is an aspiring illustrator, sometimes poet, living in Bangkok. She is the founder of The F Word art magazine and passionate about the intersection between arts and social activism. You can see more of her illustration as well as her poetry on Instagram at @thisbluecreature