Xin Chào from Hà Nội,
If you already have a high opinion of Việtnamese women, after you visit the National Women’s Museum in the capital, you will truly venerate them. This is where the welcoming sign tells us that Việtnamese women know more about the grass ceiling (as in the opening for the tunnels) than they do about the glass ceiling (which they have well and truly smashed).
The five-storey museum recounts a lot more than the wartime story of women here in Việt Nam, but it’s the floor which deals with war that captivates as much as all the others combined. Here are the stories of the lives of thousands of martyrs and unsung heroines.
three decades of war
During three decades of non-stop war – against the French imperialists, the Japanese invaders and the American ideologues – women did a lot to support the male soldiers, but they were also prominent on the front line. They carried the food, tended the wounded, delivered gifts to wounded soldiers in hospital, mended the clothes and made the banners for protest marches. But they also dug deep trenches to hinder enemy vehicles.
They also played an active role in the political struggle, mobilising large groups to protest to the French and later, American governments to desist. These were all important to the war effort but they were much more than support. They were often heavily involved in the front line. Up until 1965, in fact, more than 20 million women were directly involved in warfare. Some individuals are commemorated in the museum.
Nguyễn Thị Chiên was chief of guerrilla war effort in her district. Mạc Thị Bươi led three militia groups before she was executed by the French at age 24. Ngô Bá Thành was President of the Women’s Committee for the Right to Live in Peace and Dignity and was known as “The Rose Behind the Barbed Wire”. The story of Võ Thị Tháng is the one that captures my attention.
“I do not believe you have the authority to impose that sentence.”
Võ Thị Tháng became involved in political liaison activities from the age of 9 years. At 17, she joined the student movement of Sài Gòn-Gia Định. On 27 July, 1968 she was arrested for attempting to assassinate a neighbourhood bully who had been guilty of “barbaric behaviour”. The last known photo of her shows that inscrutable Việtnamese smile. At her trial, when she was sentenced to 20 years in gaol, she famously remarked, “I do not believe you have the authority to impose that sentence”. The utterance became a slogan for all Việtnamese women thereafter.
The blurry black and white photographs of these courageous women are poignant enough. When you hear the stories, told with the Việtnamese female voice, you respect them even more. Today, Việt Nam has the highest proportion of female entrepreneurs in Asia. During war, they maintained their dignity, their bravery and their determination all at the same time. Today, they know more about grass ceilings than glass ceilings.
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