Like many other young women Nguyen Phuong Linh grew up watching Disney fairy tales. Now at the age of 22, almost ready to finish her senior year at one of Ho Chi Minh City's top colleges, Linh says she has yet to outgrow her childhood love for princesses and their happy-ever-after stories.
Waiting with a group of chicly dressed friends to see the new Cinderella movie at a theater downtown, she is unmistakably excited. "I already saw the trailer and the cast looks great."
Asked if she is aware of the outrage among many feminists across the world at the remake of the 1950 rags to riches classic, Linh shakes her head and smiles, perching a pair of thick-framed glasses on her nose.
“To be honest I don’t see any reason why we have to make a big deal out of a movie.” Some of her friends nod in unison while others nervously look down to check their phones.
Maybe they have a point: the movie is just that, a movie.
Or maybe what they say underscores a much bigger issue: Vietnam's millennials do not feel the urge to talk about gender equality and empowerment.
Much like their cohorts born after 1980 in other countries, these young people learn, eat and breathe with novelties and progressive ideas. In classrooms, at coffee shops or on social media, they are noticeably more expressive and vehement than their predecessors.
And yet despite all the confidence and the new platforms created for them and by them, many Vietnamese millennials seem to be shying away from socio-politically charged conversations about gender issues, with some even proclaiming flat out that these discussions are no longer relevant.
Scholars and observers are not taken aback by this lack of interest in gender politics. Millennials, they say, belong to a post-war generation who see suffrage and reproductive rights as givens and believe they have control over their bodies and minds.
And for better or worse, improved access to education and employment for Vietnamese girls and women has created a comforting notion – or a deceiving semblance, depending on one’s perspective – that there is nothing much that needs to be done for gender equality.
Don't be mistaken; what the country has managed to do for women is a remarkable feat.
The United Nations Development Program (UNDP), which has kept track of Vietnam’s progress on its gender equality targets over the past 15 years, is impressed with girls’ participation in education at primary and secondary levels in Vietnam.
Surprisingly, as students move up their grades, there will be more female students than male students, the UNDP has found. The primary net enrollment rate is now 91.5 percent for girls and 92.3 percent for boys. At the upper secondary level, the net enrollment rate is 63.1 percent for girls and 53.7 percent for boys.
In the labor force, the participation rate of women is also high, at 73.56 percent compared to men’s 82.64 percent. When it comes to unemployment, official statistics show that the rate is almost the same for both genders.
Gyorgy Sziraczki, International Labor Organization Vietnam Director, said the gender pay gap in Vietnam is “relatively small”, estimated at 9.4 percent in 2013. This puts the country ahead of many others as globally women’s average wages are between 4 and 36 percent less than men.
The income gap, he said, is extensive in the low-wage sector of agriculture, where women earn 32 percent less, but in some high-wage sectors such as banking and insurance female workers are actually paid slightly more.
"This is something Vietnam should be proud of because working women in many other countries in the world are not that lucky. Having said that, the country should spend more efforts keeping up with this and moving forward to make the gap even smaller and achieve true gender equality in the workplace,” Sziraczki said.
Working women in many other countries in the world are not that lucky." -- Gyorgy Sziraczki, ILO Vietnam Director
Many experts echo the sentiment: Vietnam still has a long way to go before reaching gender equality. The caveat is that gender-based discrimination and all of its hidden forms, if left unattended, could take away the achievements made so far and, even worse, create an internal divide between women who have benefited from social progress and those who have not.
What is disconcerting is the fact that beyond the two conventional measures of inequality, namely education and employment, problems are hiding in every nook and cranny of a woman’s life. The Social Institutions and Gender Index, which examines the underlying causes of discrimination, has ranked Vietnam among countries with medium gender inequality, together with China, Indonesia and the likes.
At work, most of the victims of sexual harassment are female workers. ILO’s Sziraczki said the culture and the fear of losing jobs prevent many of them from speaking out. The issue has also been underreported by local media and a national code of conduct on sexual harassment in the workplace is still being drafted.
At home, data on domestic violence also paints a bleak picture. UN Women Country Representative, Shoko Ishikawa, said six in ten women experience some form of violence by an intimate partner, and yet again most of them do not report their abusive situations "because domestic violence socially is considered a family issue."
Then in the virtual worlds created by the media and the Internet, body shaming against girls and women is prevalent, beauty pageant contestants are publicly scrutinized, and many commercials for household cleaning products keep featuring mothers. Social media has even created a new quasi-profession in Vietnam: “hot girls”. These young women, often scantily-clad, become famous simply by posing in pictures and videos for visual pleasure, mostly for the male gaze.
Nguyen Bao Thanh Nghi, a sociology professor at Ho Chi Minh City Open University, said gender-based discrimination has its roots deeply embedded in Vietnam's society, making it difficult for women to realize that they are the victims.
“Even women reinforce sexism themselves. In some families, it is the mothers who pressure their daughters-in-law to give birth to male babies,” she said.
Nghi advised caution when accessing the country's progress in gender equality, arguing that many achievements are outcomes of global historical trends, rather than from within.
“In Vietnam, awareness of gender equality in general and of feminist movements is actually low. Very few people call themselves feminists,” she said.
Even women reinforce sexism themselves."
- Nguyen Bao Thanh Nghi, sociology professor
“There have been women's movements over the years but most of them are sporadic and often die prematurely because they can't bring together various groups of women in society and can't get men to join. As a consequence, they fail to create systematic and widespread changes,” Nghi said.
This is basically the problem that HeForShe, an ambitious global initiative, aims to tackle. Officially launched in Vietnam earlier this month to celebrate the International Women's Day, the campaign has started to gain traction, albeit at a slow pace. Its website says there has been nearly 271,000 supporters across the world so far. Just over 1,000 are from Vietnam.
"By this campaign, we want to re-emphasize that gender equality is not only a women’s issue; it is a human rights issue that affects all of us – women and girls, men and boys,” said UN Women’s Ishikawa. "We all benefit socially, politically and economically from gender equality in our everyday lives.”
The global campaign caught the attention of many late last year after British actress Emma Watson gave an impassioned speech in New York in front of global leaders.
Quite a large number of politicians and celebrities have offered their support. But some observers believe Watson, often dubbed an Internet darling, has single-handedly pushed HeForShe into overdrive on social media, helping rebrand feminism by detaching it from the bra-burning, man-hating myths.
The question is, are young people in Vietnam ready to ride the so-called fourth wave of feminism, speak up, and take action against inequality? Or will they choose to keep waiting for some magic to happen?
But again, millennials know what they want and can decide whether to get involved in activism. If they choose not to, that's their right.
And maybe there is nothing wrong when today’s young women enjoy the little story of Cinderella either. After all, like that Cyndi Lauper’s 80s feisty feminist anthem, sometimes girls just want to have fun.