For International Women’s Day 2017 photographer Nicole Chan who is currently based in Shanghai initiated a global project: She asked professional photographers across the globe to ask women ‘What empowers you?’ Each photographer then assisted each woman to create a self-portrait demonstrating what they said. After shooting for this project Lilly Pugh went to ask the women a few more questions to open up the discussion on women’s empowerment in Vietnam today.

This article doesn’t strive to speak for all women in Vietnam today. It doesn’t provide a cross-section of women from all backgrounds in Vietnamese society. It serves only to give a voice to some women and a space to talk about where they think they are at and where they think they are going.

Nguyen Dang, Filmmaker

Nguyen Dang Filmmaker

What does empowerment mean to you?

To me, empowerment is acting on own my authority and responsibility, it is being able to pursue and achieve what I want in life.

When do you feel empowered?

When I make films. Making films is what I always wanted to do and now that I am able to pursue a career in the field, I feel happy. I have the freedom to do what I want and take responsibility for my own choice.

What are the limits on women today?

I am aware that many women in the world are still suffering from serious injustice, to the point that it is impossible for them to decide their own destiny. At the same time, I have seen many women, who already have the basic needs and even a good education, limit themselves just because of their mindset. They listen to all the gender bias people tell them and live their life that way. That is a self-limit.

Do people tell you that you can’t or shouldn’t do anything?

I grew up in a very supportive family. My parents never told me to do ‘this’ and not to do ‘that’ just because I am a girl. As a child, I practiced basketball, swimming and martial arts, just because I liked those activities. When I decided that I wanted to become a filmmaker and started learning how to use a camera, some people questioned me, “Isn’t that a male-dominated job? Why don’t you choose to be a writer or actress?” But people with such preconception are just minority. I’m currently working as a video editor and camera operator. I have often been the only girl in the crews but rarely heard or felt any bias against my gender from the guys I have worked with.

Do you think this generation is the more empowered than the last one?

Yes, I do. When I was younger, I often felt angry when elder women talked about gender roles. But as I’ve grown up, I realize that they thought in that way because they had to live a whole life under such pressures from society. They did not have the opportunities to pursue what they wanted in life. In my generation, dressing the way you want or pursuing the career path you choose are not something uncommon.

What do you want to change for the next generation?

Because of my mother’s huge influence over my life, I always think that a mother figure plays the essential part in defining one’s mindset. I have seen many women complain about the pressures the society put on them, but at the same time, they act and say things that intentionally hurt other women, including their own daughters. In my opinion, when you decide to have a child, you should imagine about the world that you want your children to live in. Do you want them to live in a society with full of injustice such as gender inequality? Mothers, please be aware that every word and act will play a part in building the society you want for your children. Growing up in the embrace of a proud and kind mother, a girl will know her value and how to live her fullest as a woman, and a boy will know how to love and respect women. “Be the change you wish to see in the world. Be the change you wish to see in your children.” is what I always believe in”.

Nguyen Thuc,  Fashion Designer

NguyenThuc Fashion Designer

‘Working on my fashion brand empowers me.’

Quynh Anh, Gallery Assistant

Quynh Anh Gallery Assistant

What does empowerment mean to you?

To me empowerment means the freedom and strength to do whatever we want to.

When do you feel empowered?

I feel empowered when I’m useful and helpful and have time for people around me and for myself and can do what I want.  If I could, I would like to write something for other women to encourage women to be protective and supportive of each other. We are on the same side.

What are the limits on women today?

I think today women are confused about what they want to do or should or shouldn’t do. We fought for hundreds of years for equality. Men and other women shouldn’t tell us what to do. We are confused about our mindset. If I want to take care of people then I want to do that. People tell me how I should love my life. That is limiting for women.

Do people tell you that you can’t or shouldn’t do anything?

A lot. People love to judge. They tell me I have to cover my body from the sun. Even my female friends tell me what to do. People who are genuinely supportive in my life let me make my own decisions.

Do you think this generation is the more empowered than the last one?

I think the last one is more empowered because today women know their strength in society and in their family. People know their ability. This generation depends a lot on mindset. We are confused about our identity and we are choosing something that doesn’t belong to us. People need to accept how they are.

What do you want to change for the next generation?

I hope people embrace themselves in every way. I want to support women.

Thuy Linh, Account Executive

Thuy Linh Account Executive

What does empowerment mean to you?

Empowerment for me means mental support because all our restrictions are routed in our mind. As long as I have mental support for everything I do, I feel like I can achieve everything.

When do you feel empowered?

I feel empowered by my work, it gives me financial freedom and that means my independence.

What are the limits on women today?

Family pressure and society’s expectation on women in Vietnam are still leaning toward a domestic figure. A career woman is usually expected to be unfeminine, and tends to find difficulty in finding a “good husband”.

Do people tell you that you can’t or shouldn’t do anything?

Yes, often. People say I shouldn’t act so independent: travelling alone, going out without covering up my skin, wearing comfortable “revealing” clothes), being energetic, talking confidently or asking too many questions. People often want me to be more submissive: ‘don’t ask, just follow’. Often, contending these orders just leads to more accusations; like that I am being disrespectful to older people. It doesn’t start a discussion.

Do you think this generation is the more empowered than the last one?

Yes, in HCMC I see a lot of middle class family now raising their kids more liberally and the kids have more of a voice. I believe they can achieve much more than me, even at their age.

What do you want to change for the next generation?

More freedom of speech and freedom of choice. Before my study abroad I didn’t know what my options were and I was brought up not to ask, just follow. Studying abroad broadened my world as I got to learn what independence means, living with freedom of choice and freedom of speech. I think the next generation can reform and achieve much more with the freedom that the previous generations didn’t know we lack.

Nguyen Mai, Producer

Nguyen Mai Producer

‘Being a producer empowers me. I can show myself and be me’

Ngan Linh, PR Executive

What does empowerment mean to you?

People are defined, not by who they are, but what they do with their time, energy, strength and resources; this is how they are defined in society. For me, empowerment is the strength to believe in what you are doing. It’s the thing that makes you see the road ahead and sometimes what pushes you ahead. Empowerment can come from context, the people around you and your inner self.

When do you feel empowered?

I feel empowered when I see or hear a good story. Kindness and good deeds empower me and I always feel fresh and inspired when I talk to people and listen to what they have to say.

What are the limits on women today?

Women today, especially in Vietnam have a lot of opportunity to succeed but they still have their limits. For me, the biggest limit on women is time. With only 24 hours a day women have to do their own work, the house work and care for the kids… they have no time for relaxing or creating something new.

Do people tell you that you can’t or shouldn’t do anything

Yes, when I decided to leave Ha Noi to find a job in Saigon most people said I shouldn’t because I’m a girl and in their mindset, girls shouldn’t live far away from home.  However, I chose to listen to myself.

What do you want to change in the net generation?

I would like to change the way we behave and interact with nature. We have done so many wrong things to the earth and the generation after us will have to live with the consequences. I hope they can change the situation.

If you want to share your thoughts with the women in this article please share in the comments section. You can follow the full project live on Facebook and Instagram.

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