TAIPEI – Taiwan has forged a reputation as Asia’s most progressive democracy, and it boasts a higher proportion of women in parliament than anywhere else in the region — yet misogynistic insults have littered its presidential race.
The campaign for the Jan. 11 polls has exposed an undercurrent where female politicians face a gauntlet of personal abuse and jibes that their male counterparts rarely suffer.
The island’s most prominent female politician is President Tsai Ing-wen, 63, who is seeking a second term.
She has once again faced insults based on her sex, much of it focused on the fact she is not married and does not have children.
Wu Den-yih, chairman of the opposition Kuomintang, earlier this month used a Taiwanese slang term to dub Tsai “an unlucky woman” who had brought misfortune to her people.
And her presidential opponent Han Kuo-yu, 62, invoked two characters from an ancient Chinese erotic novel to describe Tsai’s rivalry with her running mate.
Han’s running mate, Chang San-cheng, also said Tsai could not understand the hearts of parents because she was “a woman who has never given birth.”
In a Facebook post, Tsai hit out at the campaign rhetoric. “I find such a political culture unacceptable and we will not accept any personal attacks against women using such language,” she wrote.
Wu later apologized, saying he respected women and meant to criticize Tsai’s job performance.
Taiwan’s election will be closely watched because much of the campaign has centered on relations with China, which has ramped up pressure since Tsai’s 2016 election.
Tsai, a law professor and trade negotiator before she became a politician, is one of the few female leaders in Asia not to have hailed from a powerful political dynasty.
She is loathed by Beijing because her party refuses to accept the idea that Taiwan is part of the “one-China” policy, which denies the island’s independence. Han, the outspoken mayor of Kaohsiung, favors much warmer relations with China.
But it is not just Tsai on the receiving end of gender-based jibes.
Chen Chu, a senior figure from Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party who was a political prisoner for six years when Taiwan was a dictatorship, has often been singled out for her appearance. The KMT’s Wu described her as “fatty” and “a big sow.” Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je, head of the new Taiwan People’s Party, described her as “a fatter Han Kuo-yu.”
During a failed attempt to win the KMT’s nomination, Taiwan’s wealthiest man, Foxconn founder Terry Gou, dismissed his wife’s initial opposition to his bid by saying “the harem should not meddle in politics.” He later apologized for his remarks.
The DPP is not free of accusations either.
A spokeswoman for KMT candidate Han complained that she was called “a vase” by Tsai’s staff — a derogatory term used to describe a pretty woman who lacks substance.
On paper, Taiwan has impressive credentials on progress toward gender equality in politics.
The 2016 election that swept Tsai to power also returned a legislature where 38 percent of the seats were held by women — by far the highest proportion in Asia. The next-highest proportion is the Philippines, with 29 percent, while South Korea and Japan have 17 and 10 percent, according to a database compiled by the Inter-Parliamentary Union as of January 2019.
Taiwan’s progressive image got a further boost when it became the first in Asia to legalize same-sex marriages in May.
But commentators say sexism and traditional views of gender still dominate — and flourish during elections.
“Taiwan has made progress in gender equality, but conservative forces are still strong,” said Tseng Chao-yuan, from the women’s rights group Awakening Foundation.
“It’s disgusting that gender discriminatory comments keep recurring,” she said, urging female politicians to stand up to the old-boy networks that dominate their parties.
A veteran figure within Tsai’s own party once remarked on her first presidential run in 2012 that a “skirt-wearer is unfit to be a commander-in-chief.” He later endorsed her.
But there are signs the sexist insults are backfiring.
Taiwan’s younger voters are much more likely than older generations to support progressive issues such as gay marriage, and social media has filled with criticism of the language being used in this year’s campaign.
Most polls show Tsai leading Han by a wide margin — although some more recent data suggests Han might be closing the gap.
“Such vulgar and discriminatory language hurts all women living on this land,” one Facebook post read. “Women need to come out to vote to show our anger and teach them a lesson.”