Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Vietnam Women's Museum in Hanoi

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

Everyone who is here with me in Vietnam is completely sick of my tendency to connect everything back to gender, so it's a little embarrassing that it's taken me a month to visit the Vietnam Women's Museum, which I dog-eared in my guidebook before I got on the airplane. But I'm actually glad that I postponed my visit, because when I finally made the trek over to the French Quarter, where the museum is located, I had much better context for what would otherwise have been a confusing and frustrating visit. Well, I take that back - it was still confusing and frustrating. But it was also fascinating and worthwhile.

The museum is under construction, so there were only three rooms open - one permanent exhibit, and two very limited temporary exhibits, one on women in war propaganda, and one telling the stories of female street vendors. The permanent exhibit is a medium-sized room ostensibly dedicated to the history of women in the 20th-century Vietnam wars against the French and Americans, but with a bizarre mixed message. The displays begin with glass cases full of weapons used by female soldiers (shockingly primitive - I am always amazed when I see the weapons that the Vietnamese used, particularly to defeat the French in the 1940s), and the captions extol the female soldiers with the same hyper-patriotic language that we've seen in other museums ("with this knife, female patriot X killed 200 American invaders"). But the Ho Chi Minh quote that adorns the exhibit's entrance sends quite another message about women's involvement in war - women, Ho tells us, should be extolled because they are responsible for raising new generations of heroes. And the second wall of glass cases told yet another story, of women who kept the home fires burning and faithfully wrote letters to husbands, fathers and brothers who could easily be among the millions of Vietnamese soldiers killed.

I've started entering Vietnamese museums with a certain amount of skepticism about the story that they're trying to tell (a skepticism which I hope I'll bring back to American museums as well), and this one was no exception. It was clear, also, who the museum was for - I was one of a handful of Western women, dressed in a very specific way, who perused the rooms with guidebooks in hand. The museum gave almost no solid facts about the numbers of women who fought, the numbers who were killed, the stories of women on the home front, the tragedies of the women who were widowed or lost children or siblings or fathers - rather, it presented individual stories cleverly tailored to present a seemingly whole picture. There were love letters, sent from a woman in the north to her lover who was fighting on the Cambodian border, next to the knitting needles used by a woman who was imprisoned in the south in the 1970s, next to photos of women rationing their rice so that the soldiers could have enough to eat.

The effect was almost smug - leaving the museum, one was left with the impression that the Vietnamese had managed to incorporate women into the war with perfect grace, allowing some to fight and die for their country while preserving the traditional war story of the women who propped up the economy and waited for their men to return home. As I walked through the museum, I thought of Bao Ninh's The Sorrow of War, which tells quite a different story - women who fought for their country and were raped by Americans, other women who were raped by their own countrymen and were irrevocably changed. These were the women who were "ruined", the prostitutes in the north and south who fed the sexual appetites of soldiers on all sides - and the women who maintained their "respectability" but lost their husbands or their only son, and were left with no means of support in the "hungry years" after the war. I wrote a few weeks ago about the contradictions of being a woman in Vietnam, where the government's official line dictates equality, while traditional gender roles enforce something else entirely. The propaganda posters in the first temporary exhibit illustrated all too clearly that the permanent exhibit itself was nothing but propaganda - giving a pretty picture of a charged and messy set of expectations, where women are expected to be patriots, mothers, wives, students, and workers, despite the paradoxes inherent in all of these roles.

The third room presented yet another puzzle. Last summer, restrictions were placed on street vendors, who are primarily female, so that they could no longer sell their products in so-called "historic" parts of Hanoi. Ethnographers connected to the museum spent nine months wandering the streets of Hanoi, talking to these vendors both before and after the restrictions went into effect. The stories are heartbreaking. Vendors make a profit of less than a dollar a day, and they are mostly rural women who travel to the city to supplement their husbands' income. The restrictions themselves make it much more difficult for them to eke out even the most impoverished living, and they don't really get rid of the street vendor presence, because vendors still venture into the restricted areas, risking fines that simply throw them into further poverty. The stories were fascinating without taking gender into account, which the ethnographers mostly did not do. The interviews only scratched the surface of where these women fit into the narrative presented in the museum's other two rooms - there were glimpses of other problems, as when women would talk about children left with grandparents in villages, the problems of living away from their husbands, the challenge of juggling household work, and the loneliness of being single and without a community in an unfamiliar metropolis.

I left the museum with more questions than when I had entered. I wonder what the other visitors thought - did they realize that the museum was constructed entirely for their benefit? And what do Vietnamese women themselves think of the Vietnam Women's Museum? Real lives rarely make their way into museums, and the stories are always simplified. But I'm glad I visited - even if I seem like a grouchy skeptic, I want to avoid the sweeping generalizations that I think Western feminists so easily make. After all, at least the Vietnamese are celebrating their female soldiers, even if they may have an ulterior motive - Americans just hide statistics about the numbers of women soldiers who face sexual violence within the military. The women who served on the American side of the Vietnam War are all but forgotten. And rape is a hidden crime in every war in history, not just the wars here. Like the female street vendors, women are disproportionately affected by poverty in the United States, and their stories are rarely told. So I'll visit this museum again - and I recommend it to anyone who comes to Hanoi - simply because it gave me so many new questions to ask, even if there weren't many answers.

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