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Southeast Asian Studies: Women's voices in Southeast Asia


Women's Voices in Southeast Asia

Women in Southeast Asia have used their voices to effect change for centuries.  In the 19th and early 20th century women like Raden Ajeng Kartini, Lily Eberwein, and Salud Algabre took part in nationalist movements and fought for their countries’ independence and for the rights of women and the poor.  These women might not be well known, but their contributions helped shape the world for the women of today. 

Later women like Corazon Aquino and others took their voices into the political arena and assumed leadership positions.  Royalty like Cambodian Princess Norodom Buppha Devi and Thai Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn have also lent their voices in support of various organizations and causes championing the arts, education, health, and the environment. 

Today women in Southeast Asia are speaking out in support of wildlife conservation, LGBTQ rights, the environment, and disability rights.  These women, like their predecessors, are working to shape a better world for the generations to come.

Reading List

Women's Voices Then...

Raden Ajeng Kartini

Raden Adjeng Kartini was a Javanese noblewoman best known as a pioneer in the area of women's rights and education for native Indonesians.  Being that her father was a nobleman, Kartini was allowed to attend school until the age of 12, when she would have to withdraw to live a life of isolation according to the Javanese tradition of the time.  In school she learned Dutch and was exposed to western ideas.  After being forced to withdraw, Kartini wrote letters to various Dutch pen pals.  In her letters Kartini expressed concern for the plight of Indonesians under conditions of colonial rule and for the restricted roles open to Indonesian women. She resolved to make her own life a model for emancipation and, after her marriage in 1903 to a progressive Javanese official, the Regent of Rembang, she proceeded with plans to open a school for Javanese girls.  She opened the first Indonesian primary school for native girls that did not discriminate based on social standing in 1903. She corresponded with Dutch colonial officials to further the cause of Javanese women's emancipation up until her death, on September 17, 1904.  After her death J.H. Abendanon, the Minister for Culture, Religion, and Industry in the East Indies, collected and published the letters that Kartini had sent to her friends in Europe. The book was titled Door Duisternis tot Licht (Out of Dark Comes Light) and was published in 1911.  The book was published in English under the title Letters of a Javanese Princess.  In her honor, Kartini Day is celebrated in Indonesia on April 21st.



Salud Algabre

Salud Algabre was a Filipina revolutionary who fought for the country's independence from American occupation and for peasant rights, such as the equal distribution of land back to them. She was a leader of the Sakdal movement.  She actively took part in the Sakdalista Uprising, a peasant rebellion in 1935 and was the only female in the movement.  She was arrested for her role in the uprising, but served less than 2 years of her sentence.  She continued to fight big land holders until her death in 1979.


Lily Eberwein

Lily Eberwein was active in the Sarawak anti-cession movement, a nationalist movement in the 1940s attempted to retrieve Sarawak's independence from takeover by Britain. During the Japanese occupation in Sarawak, the Japanese appointed Lily as the leader of the Malay section of the Kaum Ibu, a multiethnic women's association. In March 1947, she was elected as the chairperson of the women's wing of the Malay National Union of Sarawak(PKMS), a leading group in the Anti-Cession Movement.  Eberwein was also passionate about education,  she was the Principal of the Permaisuri Malay Girls’ School in Kuching from 1930 to 1947.  She resigned from her post as a protest of the cession of Sarawak, but continued her work and established other schools.


Her Royal Highness Princess Norodom Buppha Devi

Her Royal Highness Princess Norodom Buppha Devi is the daughter of the late King Norodom Sihanouk (1922-2012) and the late Neak Moneang Phat Kanhol. When she was only 5 years old she was selected by her grandmother, Queen Sisowath Kossamak (1904-1975), to study the art of Cambodian classical dance. As a teenager, she became a renowned dancer in the Royal Ballet of Cambodia and received the title of prima ballerina. As the star dancer of the Royal Ballet, she toured around the world performing with the Royal dance troupe in public, sharing the sacred dance— once retained only for the eyes of the Cambodian royal court— with a larger public audience.

The maintenance and transmission of Cambodian dance have been attributed to Princess Buppha Devi. She petitioned to have the Royal Ballet of Cambodia inscribed on UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2003, which was successfully inscribed in 2008.

Since her days as a dancer, Princess Buppha Devi has continued to promote the preservation of Cambodian fine arts, serving as a professor of Cambodian classical dance (1965-1970), the Deputy Minister of Culture and Fine Arts (1991-1993), the Adviser to the Government in charge of Culture and Fine Arts (1993-1998), and the Minister of Culture and Fine Arts (1999-2004). She, also has served as a Member of the Senate of the Kingdom of Cambodia.  She passed away on November 18, 2019.


Corazon Aquino

Corazon Aquino (January 25, 1933 – August 1, 2009), popularly known as Cory Aquino, was a Filipino politician who served as the 11th President of the Philippines. Aquino was the most prominent figure of the 1986 People Power Revolution, which toppled the 20-year authoritarian rule of President Ferdinand E. Marcos and restored democracy to the Philippines. She was named Time magazine's "Woman of the Year" in 1986. Prior to this, she had not held any other elective office.

As President, Aquino oversaw the enactment of the 1987 Constitution, which limited the powers of the Presidency and re-established the bicameral Congress. Her administration gave strong emphasis and concern for civil liberties and human rights.

Aquino faced several coup attempts against her government and various natural calamities until the end of her term in 1992.

In 2008, Aquino was diagnosed with colon cancer from which she died on August 1, 2009.


...And Now


Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn was born Her Royal Highness Princess Sirindhorn Debaratanasuda on 2 April 1955 to His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej, King Rama IX, and Her Majesty Queen Sirikit of Thailand.

She has rendered public service continuously since her early youth. Due to her work dedication, on the occasion of the 50th Birthday of His Majesty the King, 5 December 1977, His Majesty the King conferred the Royal title of Somdech Phra Debaratanarajasuda Chao Fa Maha Chakri Sirindhorn Rathasimagunakornpiyajat Sayamboromrajakumari, the Princess Royal, upon her. 

Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn holds a doctoral degree in Development Education from Srinakharinwirot University, and has worked on development projects in health and hygiene, education, water resource development, agriculture and cottage industries.

A scholar of Pali, Sanskrit, Cambodian and several other languages, and a gifted practitioner of traditional Thai musical instruments, Her Royal Highness is currently the Director of the Department of History at the Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy. She also runs several philanthropic organizations and foundations promoting Thai culture and higher education, protecting the environment, and supporting disabled veterans. The Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn Foundation, established in 1979, supports needy students in schools, vocational colleges and universities.


Swietenia Puspa Lestari

Swietenia Puspa Lestari is an Indonesian underwater diverenvironmental engineer and environmental activist.  Lestari is a native of Pramuka Island in the Java Sea. A keen diver from childhood, she studied environmental engineering at Bandung Institute of Technology, graduating in 2017.  She is the executive director and co-founder of Jakarta-based Divers Clean Action (DCA) and leads a team of volunteer divers who clear trash, especially plastic waste from the reefs and recycle what they find.  In 2017 Lestari founded the Indonesian Youth Marine Debris Summit (IYMDS).  The same year, she represented Indonesia and spoke at the 2017 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bonn, Germany.  She also helped initiate an anti-plastic drinking straw campaign in Indonesia and convinced 700 restaurants to reduce the use of single-use straws.  In 2019, Lestari was listed among the BBC's 100 Women, a list of 100 inspiring and influential women.  Later that year, she was invited to attend Barack and Michelle Obama's Obama Foundation Leaders Forum.


Nisha Ayub

Nisha Ayub is a Malaysian transgender rights activist. Ayub is the co-founder of the community-run SEED Foundation and transgender grassroots campaign Justice for Sisters.  As a transgender woman, Nisha has faced law enforcement where Islamic sharia laws are enforced.  Ayub was imprisoned in a men's prison for three months in 2000.  Ayub, through non-governmental organizations, counsels people, provides training to develop professional careers, addresses their health and welfare issues and provides them with legal support.  Nisha Ayub was honored with Human Rights Watch's Alison Des Forges Award for Extraordinary Activism in 2015. She also received the International Women of Courage Award in 2016, becoming the first openly transgender woman to receive that award.  In 2016, San Diego declared April 5 to be Nisha Ayub Day.  In 2019, Nisha became the only Malaysian on the BBC 100 Women of 2019 list. She was recognized by BBC for her work in assisting the local transgender community.


Van Thi Nguyen

Van Thi Nguyen is a Vietnamese social entrepreneur and disability rights activist.  Van has spinal muscular atrophy.  She was born in a poor rural area of Nghe An in north-central Vietnam.  Along with her brother Nguyen Cong Hung she created the organisation The Will to Live Center in 2003 with the aim of creating opportunities for an equitable working environment. The organisation provides free IT, English language and vocational training to disadvantaged students in Vietnam. More than 1000 people with disabilities have benefited from this crucial educational and career support.  She is also the chairwoman of the digital real estate company, Imagtor.  Imagtor, employs 82 employees, more than 50% of who have disabilities, working on digital real estate photography.  In 2015, Van created the first ever fashion catwalk show for women with disabilities in Vietnam. “I am beautiful. You too!” aims to promote a perception of beauty stemming from diversity and difference.


Trang Nguyen

Trang Nguyen is a Vietnamese wildlife conservationist, environmental activist and a writer.  She is known for her conservation works in tackling the illegal wildlife trade in Africa and Asia. In Vietnam, she is well known for her book Tro Ve Noi Hoang Da (Back to the wilderness) and Chang hoang da - Gau (Chang is wild about Bears).  In 2018, at the age of 28, she received an award from Future for Nature, and named the Eco-warrior by Elle Style Awards.  She was voted as 30 under 30 by Forbes Vietnam and nominated for the Women of the Future - Southeast Asian region 2018 for her contribution in global wildlife conservation.  In 2013, Trang was immortalized as an online game character to help raise awareness of rhino conservation. The game attracted over 3 million players within the first two weeks of being launched.


Can anyone deny that the woman has a great role to play in shaping society morally? She is precisely the person for it. … Never will the uplifting and development of the Javanese people proceed vigorously so long as the woman is left behind with no role to play.



“No uprising fails. Each one is a step in the right direction.”

-Salud Algabre

The dance is sacred; we do it for the glory of God.  But it's our lifeblood we are preserving here.

-Princess Buppha Devi

“I acknowledged that I owed my presidency to People Power. I resolved during my presidency that I would in turn empower the people.”

-Corazon Aquino

It will be a tremendous satisfaction to me when the parents of other young women who also want to fend for themselves will no longer be able to say, "no one of our community has done that yet."


“As history has shown, women can achieve greatness in conservation, you need to look no further than the lives of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and our Future for Nature’s Saba Douglas-Hamilton.”

-Trang Nguyen

“There is much that women can bring into politics that would make our world a kinder, gentler place for humanity to thrive in.”

-Corazon Aquino

“In a long march to final victory, every step counts, every individual matters, every organization forms part of the whole.”

-Salud Algabre

"For the future of nature conservation, it is important that women’s voices are heard, and their actions are recognized.”

-Trang Nguyen


Corazon Aquino Time Woman of the Year in 1986


Corazon Aquino with US President Ronald Regan


Corazon Aquino presidential campaign materials


Princess Buppha Devi of Cambodia as a young dancer


Princess Buppha Devi of Cambodia molding a young dancer


Princess Buppha Devi with the Royal Ballet of Cambodia


HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn receiving an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters Degree from NIU


Swietenia Puspa Lestari with former US President Barack Obama


Nisha Ayub with former US Secretary of State John Kerry receiving the International Women of Courage Award


Kartini statue at the east park of Merdeka Square, Jakarta