There is no doubt that the women of the Western world entered the battle for gender equality with guns (and bras) a-blazing.
From Emmeline Pankhurst campaigning against the masses for the right to vote, through Jane Fonda’s voice saving soldiers during the Vietnam war, to Margaret Thatcher’s iron-grip on the British government, it seems women have always had to fight for even the most basic human right.
Crammed into her tiny whitewashed office five floors below any decent sort of view, Dr Pham Thi Hong Thanh has been formulating her own gender equality battle plan.
Yet, the former University of Queensland education lecturer who now teaches at Monash University in Melbourne makes no mentions of guns, grenades or gas.
And the idea of exposing her breasts to the world in order to fly the burning-bra flag of feminism is far more liberal than her traditional Vietnamese up bringing will allow.
Instead, the tricky little tactic hidden up Thanh’s pink and green floral sleeve is education; namely the important role it plays in improving the treatment of Vietnam’s female population.
“Men have always been highly regarded in Vietnam and it was always better to have a son than a daughter,” Thanh says, the sunlight glinting off her ruby-red nail polish as her dagger-like nails wave wildly through the air.
“As a woman, you grew up, got married and moved out of your home and away from your family to live with your husband.
“You then spent your days doing housework and looking after the children.
“Education wasn’t an option.”
The attitudes towards gender equality and women’s education in Vietnam are changing, albeit gradually.
Perhaps the most crucial change to date has been the establishment of Vietnam’s Women’s Union in 1946.
Under distinct guidance and recommendation from the Union, the National Assembly of Vietnam passed a law in 1959 that aimed to eradicate the feudalistic family structure in favour of a more democratic and egalitarian perspective.
However, according to Mai Vo, a Vietnamese PhD graduate from The University of Queensland, patriotism is still a dominant factor in the decision-making processes of many modern Vietnamese families.
“Whatever decisions we make relating to family, we have to ask my dad,” she says, the subtle note of derision in her voice undermining her apparent acceptance of the country’s gradual development towards gender equality.
“It depends on each household, but men are still the head of the family.”
Indeed, the instinctive solidity of family as the basis of Vietnamese society, and the consequent prevalence of traditional attitudes, has restricted the improvement of equality in many factions of community life.
In the most recent World Bank data for Vietnam, women comprise only 48.4 per cent of the total labour force, earning little more than 75 per cent of their chromosomally-different counterparts.
As education has the very purpose of supplying individuals with the necessary skills to survive in the world, the connection between improving education and improving a woman’s life is, at least for Thanh, a logical one to make.
“Why take away the thing that is going to help them get a job, make them more employable so they can help support their family?” she says, her matchstick arm aloft in passionate punctuation.
“Sure some programmes and areas of study or work are easier for men, but why should that stop women from having access to those areas?”
If anything, the continued inclusion of women into higher education degrees may reinforce the social and political relationships between Vietnam and countries with a record of greater academic standards, such as Australia.
This is the dream for Tam Duong, a Vietnamese graduate and research assistant from The University of Queensland’s Institute of Molecular Bioscience.
“It’s hard for Vietnamese students to apply for scholarships because the research projects that we did during university are rarely published,” she says, her sweetness a stark comparison to the cold, clinical surroundings of a blinding-white laboratory.
“If they are published then it’s only in Vietnamese journals, which aren’t recognised by many universities around the world.”
Even for a bright and intelligent Vietnamese woman like Tam, who received the highly competitive UQ Vietnam Scholarship in 2009 to conduct research into the treatment of cancer-causing genes, the traditional marriage and gender role beliefs are still strong.
“As a 17, 18 year-old girl I thought I didn’t need an education, that I would just get married and have kids,” she says with a girlish giggle and romantic sigh.
“If I had the chance for a family I might not have come here [to UQ].”
Improving the living standards for women in Vietnam depends on the success of educating and raising awareness of gender equality among adolescents.
Perhaps, more poignantly, it is the attitudes and actions of gender equality advocates, such as Nguyen Thi Le Huyen, that will guide the present and future generations of Vietnamese women.
For Huyen, studying her Masters degree in community development at The University of Queensland allowed her to experience a culture in which women’s rights were a part of everyday life.
“I saw that through study, all students became aware that female students could be as good as males, and that they should be given the same opportunities to education and work.”
Whether the younger generations of Vietnamese men and women will accept and encourage the development of equal rights remains to be seen.
At the moment, Huyen’s happy knowing her message and perspectives are accepted by those closest to her.
“At least to my family and my neighbourhood I have shown that women with higher education can help a lot and can live a better life.
“I was very happy when one of my neighbours told her daughter that she wanted her to be like me.”