WOMEN "WITHOUT CAUTION AND CARE"
From its origins, the NLF was strongly committed to winning the support of women villagers, A well informed male defector suggests that in this endeavor the Front had been far more effective than its Viet Minh predecessor. Beginning in the early 1960s, women "expressed their ideas vehemently, and participated in NLF activities agressively," according to a female defector, who then went on to recall :
When I was promoted to be a hamlet cadre I was taught the duties and responsibilities of a woman in a time of national danger. First of all, if a woman wants to be regarded as equal to a man, she must take charge of their responsibilities toward the people, and carry out the activities of a man, if necessary!
As we have seen, village Women's Associations were in the forefront of local politics. They took responsibility for motivating the people," as well as for organizing 'faceto-face struggles" against the Saigon regime.
Members of this Association were also active around issues relating specifically to their status as women. The following summary was offered by a male defector
The goals of the Women's Association, besides serving the nation, was to liberate themselves from the following three oppressions. They had to struggle to obtain equality with men, to abolish the system of daughter-in-law (the wives were the slaves of their husbands' families), to abolish the system whereby the men were respected and women despised, and to liberate themselves from the oppression of the men.
The daughter-in-law 'system" affected women's lives in an immediate way. A female defector stated that, as a result of the Front's efforts, daughters-in-law 'no longer had to observe old customs such as bowing to the in-laws every time they came in and went out of the house." Another woman, a POW, affirmed:
I liked life in the Front and did not have any dissatisfaction with the Front. I considered my serving the Front an escape from all the hardships I endured while I lived with my mother-in-law before I joined the Front. She behaved very harshly toward me, It was also an opportunity for me to care for the people's welfare and happiness, That is what I liked the most.
By agitating in this area, and also by criticizing other institutions like forced marriages, the NLF helped women identify and change sexist conditions rooted in the family structure.
The Front also conducted a campaign against "lewdness" and "illicit" behavior, According to a female defector,
We were told that the Communist policy didn't permit the men to have many wives, and that husbands should treat their wives as equals -the men shouldn't abandon their wives for other women. It was said that any cadres who took many wives violated the teachings of the Communists, and harmed the revolution in the eyes of the people.
Sexually unscrupulous individuals were among the main targets during regular criticism and self-criticism sessions, As a male POW described them, the sessions were in fact designed precisely to isolate and reform this kind of anti-social conduct :
The critique is good in that it can turn a criminal into a good individual. It can cause a lot of difficulties for people who do not want to admit their mistakes and continue to commit the crimes, For example, a married man can be severely criticized by the village chapter or the District Party committee if he is involved in some illegal love affairs with other women, If he repents from his vice, he can become a good individual, If not, he will be criticized again and again, Lots of people readily admitted their faults and tried to correct them. These would be considered virtuous and loyal to the revolution and the people, Others did not admit their mistakes and continued to commit them again and again. These would be subjected to every-mounting criticism and would feel dissatisfied with the Revolution and would seek to defect the Front and the people.
Political cadres who tried to "slip into the beds of women in the village," ran the risk of demotion or even exclusion from the Party. "I joined the Front when it first arose," stated a male defector, in explaining why it took him so long to become a Party member.
I belonged to the basic social class, I performed my tasks well, I did well in the training courses, but I was accused of having a bad behavior because of my lewdness and my many illicit love affairs, and for this reason, I wasn't admitted in the Party early, even though I became a Labor Youth member in 1962.
The transcripts make clear that the NLF attempted in a systematic way to break up patterns of sexual objectivica-
tion which undermined the dignity and autonomy of women. A POW remembered that the Viet Minh had employed "the alluring women tactic," whereby female cadres posing as prostitutes gained access to GVN military posts, But at present, he observed, this tactic "is no longer used because the Front thinks that this degrades womenhood."
Escalation had a complicated effect on the lives of village women. On the one hand, the sheer volume of physical work required of them was sharply increased. A male defector noted that
In peacetime, the majority of working people were men. The source of labor was enough. Today most laborers are women. Male villagers and youths have either joined the military service or taken refuge in secure areas, Only a few youth remain in the a hamlet. They do not have legal papers, ID cards, and so on, so they do not dare to go out to work in the field or to leave the hamlet. All hard work such as plowing, thrashing, or building small dikes are done by women and old people.
'At present," stated a female defector in 1967, the women
have not time to work for the NLF or to attend meetings, If compelled to attend meetings, they no longer express their ideas enthusiastically. In short, the people's daily problems of securing food and clothing have inadvertently taken the women back to their families.
As we have seen, all the popular associations were hurt by escalation, Women were no exceptions to the general trend which saw the Front's mass activities decline.
At the same time, the pressures keeping women out of the insurgency were being counterbalanced by a special effort on the part of Front representatives to bring them into its ranks. Faced after 1965 with a critical shortage of cadres and soldiers, the NLF mounted an unprecedented drive to mobilize the female population, One male defector indicated that in 1967 the Main Force units of the Front army inducted more women than men by a proportion of two to one, Meanwhile, the specialized branches of the Front civilian organization, the sections for finance, propaganda, security, and other tasks, were also making a special effort to recruit women, In this way, the crisis of an escalating war compelled the Front to deepen and extend its commitment to sexual equality.
This participation of women in the Front provoked opposition. First of all, families were likely to take exception. In the following citation, a female defector recallsthe complaints of her father :
You're my girl. Because you have left this house day and night and abandoned your home chores, one-half of our two "cong" of land has not been completely cultivated and weeds have grown up everywhere. Where can we get food to eat ? Many persons can work for the revolution, but I can find nobody like you! People who make the revolution do not receive any salaries. Therefore, their activities are limited. They attend meetings sporad-
ically, and they also spend their time doing their home chores. You, however, are always away, and I have to cook your meals, although I have been sick and am old. I feel very bad ! I can't stop you from working for the revolution, but you should at least take pity on me and not compel me to cook your daily meals. As your father is old and sick, no cadre could blame you if you stayed home, At present, bombs and shells are poured on the Village, All the male cadres, old and young alike, get so frightened they try to hide themselves, and do not dare to appear among the people. You know this well. Why have you gone out day and night to carry out their activities and to torture yourself ? Unfortunately, if you're killed in a bombing or shelling, I will have to bury you, This truly is an unhappy lot. According to the heavenly law, as our ancestors said, children should bury their parents. On the contrary, if parents have to bury their children, this will truly be the ruin of the family, and people will laugh. An old saying goes, "If a man has to bury his wife when he is young and to bury his children when he is old, this will be his greatest grief." If you're not killed by bombing or firing, but instead you continue to go out day and night to make contacts and attend meetings with those cadres, you might be led into a loose life. You might lose your virginity and get pregnant. In that case, I think that it would be better for me to kill myself than to endure shame when I face other people. Take pity on me, and remember all my efforts in bringing you up until you're now an adult girl. You'd better listen to me, and stay at home and care for this family, so that we are not so destitute. Otherwise, if you take your family so lightly and only think of your organization, do whatever you want. But don't tell your cadres to come here to warn or try to motivate me !
This lengthy harangue amounts to a catalogue of all the arguments women had to answer as they decided to become
activists. The speaker manages to mix threats, pathos and flattery, to suggest that his daughter is violating longstanding traditions, causing him great physical and spiritual anguish, is running the risk of losing her virginity, and will probablv get killed for her trouble.
The demands made on daughters of such parents were formidable. "I love my father more than anything else in this world," insisted the woman whose father we have just heard.
I love him more than I love my own life. But, at that time (1965-1966) 1 was very confident in the NLF. Therefore, I was very embarrassed and did not know how to act in that kind of situation, although my father repeatedly cried and pleaded with me very every night.
This and other anecdotes in the transcripts indicate that women often had to pay an emotional price for their political activity which men were spared.
Relatives were not the only ones to hold women back. Attitudes among the male cadres varied, Some described the advances of women without comment or with approval, while others were not sure how they felt. A POW remembered his own reaction when a regroupee showed off a picture of his wife (who still lived in North Vietnam) driving a tractor : "Looking at the photograph, I couldn't tell whether I liked or disliked the North." Some observers were decidedly hostile, like the POW who said:
The Front always speaks highly of the women's role in the war. Slogans such as 'Young men fight on the battlefield while women take charge of the rear area" are found everywhere. To encourage women, the Front's policy is to give 'equal rights to both men and women." Many women are now assuming important functions in various agencies of the Front. Personally, I have no idea about the ordinary women, but the women cadres whom I met on my various missions and those who worked
in the Province Medical Section seemed to have lost all the charm of the fair sex, In my opinion, women cadres have actually become masculine and ridiculous. They all liked to argue and use grandiloquent "revolutionary" words such as 'we must consolidate our spirit to overcome all kinds of hardships - we must strengthen our ideology and fight for the final victory, etc. " I never liked women cadres, so I had no girlfriends among them.
The Front called for respectful equality between the sexes, but from time to time we sense the persistence of more traditionally sexist bias, A typical example would be the double standard thinking evident in a passage already cited, where a defector observed that "anyone who is considered afraid of the Americans is regarded as an outcast, like a woman accused of illicit affairs."
The women villagers also had mixed feelings, According to a male POW, some, who "were still deeply influenced by the old-fashioned way of living," and who "were not used to collective living outside the family," did not react sympathetically to the changes they saw taking place. For example, an 86-year-old woman POW spoke harshly of the
female cadres who lead ridiculous ways of living, which are completely out of step with the traditional manner. They are educated by the Front and so they have that manly way of talking and behaving. They liked to use terms that I had no idea what they meant, lived with the male cadres, and don't care about cooking and housekeeping. As soon as they open their mouths, words such as - construction, criteria, struggle, etc ... come out.
In any case, what happened to women within the Front, where sexual equality was a highly charged political issue, sometimes tended to become detached from the situation throughout the countryside. "Most women in the village are still good housewives," argued a male defector. "Only a minority of them who are working for the Front are indoctrinated with new ideas." But, as other witnesses indicate, the ex-
ample of the cadres was not without its effects on the society around them. "Recently, when I attended a banquet," recalled a male defector,
I found that when the young men told the young women to wash the dishes or to take their meals in the secondary house and not in the main one of the host's family, they replied, "There is now equality between the two sexes. How dare you tell us to wash your dishes and to take our meals in the secondary house whereas, you sit in a large one? That's unfair! " In addition to these stories, the women now often take the equality of the two sexes slogan as their weapon to struggle against the men.
NLF agitation thus helped to spread about "the equality of the two sexes slogan," and as a result this new "weapon" with which "to struggle against the men" became accessible to all women.
Throughout the transcripts, we see female cadres working actively in the Front, in spite of the various obstacles they encountered, These women "live and behave like young men," commented one defector, 'They like to argue about everything and carry on their activities regardless of the late hours, and without minding public gossip." 'There are quite a number of female cadres in my village," noted another, They "talked politics all day long, Their talks are now sprinkled with political terms which are rather unfamiliar to the ears and, therefore, quite different to the traditional woman's nature." A third observer, a POW, recalled that
There were two female members in the (village) Party Committee.... Both of these female party members were local people, single, came from the poor class, joined the Revolution from the beginning, about 30 years old. These two female cadres were very enthusiastic in their activities ... The villagers liked and respected these two female cadres because of their comportment and their
virtues, but sometimes they ridiculed and mocked their manly way of living: they were away all night long, going here and there, talking to everyone without caution and care like the other women.
Women "without caution and care" had been with the Front from the beginning. They were among the "shadows" hovering outside the houses of frightened peasants in 1960, then standing up "majestuously and bravely" when the NLF came out in the open. We should count them in the ranks of the "fanatics with high morale and an everlasting endurance of hardship" who stayed by the NLF in spite of U. S. escalation. Like the other cadres, they fought to make the poor peasants "masters of the countryside," and to destroy a hated enemy. At the same time, the stakes in the war were even higher for these women since they were also fighting 09 to liberate themselves from the oppression of the men. " When we ask how the NLF kept itself together in spite of American efforts to destroy it, the special stubbornness of many women cadres must be considered an important part of the answer.
One of the best features of the RAND transcripts is that each interview gives us a picture of someone's life, an individual experience full of peculiar detail, an autobiography woven in and out of the greater flow of events, The stories provide a human dimension to the often impersonal history of the war which we get from other sources, Perhaps it would be helpful to review one life history, especially since this account, which is among the most satisfying in the "DT" series, sheds so much light on the role of women in the NLF. (22)
"She is a special case,' stated the interviewer of subject #213.
The subject's state of mind is a very complex one. Her belief in the Front's cause is so big that she can't distinguish what is wrong, At the same time, she is very naive, and constantly views all Front cadres as heroes, The image of a few hamlet cadres has impressed her that way although she
didn't know them well.
This 19-year-old woman had been taken prisoner in April 1967 in Chau Thanh District, Among the respondents in the Dinh Tuong series, she is indeed one of the few 'unspecial cases," a POW whose outspoken loyalty to the Front survived even the trauma of arrest, torture and imprisonment by the Saigon regime - not to speak of her encounter with an interviewer who did not understand her 'naive" dedication to the "wrong" cause.
Working as a seamstress and living in the home of her grandparents, the respondent's political commitment grew out of direct experience.
The sight of misfortunes which happened every day in my village shocked me a great deal. They made me feel that the cause of the Front is right while the GVN, despite its repeated statements of helping the people enjoy a good life, is simply doing harm to the people by setting houses on fire and extorting money by means of arbitrary arrests. The Front's cadres, on the contrary, worked without pay, without any advantages whatsoever, Many of their families didn't even have enough rice to eat, but still, they agreed to continue to work for the villagers in the hamlet, They are willing to accept any sacrifices required of themselves and of their relatives for the country. They helped the people in their work in the fields, they dug ditches to improve the villagers' crops, Since I witnessed the cadres' sacrifices, I paid much respect to the Front although I didn't know much of this organization or what it represented, T viewed the cadres as living embodiments of heroes of our legends; they are those who stand up to fight the evil in order to protect the people, That's why I respected the Front a great deal.
GVN atrocities prompted the respondent to take her first political initiative, A woman cadre asked her to attend the funeral of four men who had been killed by Saigon soldiers.
She "cried a lot because of these misdeeds" and, in spite of fears of GVN retaliation, agreed to participate in the memorial ceremony.
Along with some other young insurgents, this woman had to go against the wishes of her family in order to respond to the Front's appeals. Attending the funeral "was the first time I disobeyed my grandparents," she stated, "This was also the first time I took a resolution of myself. After I listened to the cadres' speech dealing with misdeeds perpetrated by GVN people, I felt most angry. That night, I couldn't sleep." But in spite of such strong feelings, the respondent was not yet ready to break completely with her grandparents. In the weeks that followed, a woman cadre patiently tried to recruit her, while GVN troops continued with their depravations -they even stole the clothing she was sewing for customers. The decisive moment came in September, 1965:
Another female cadre came to see me quite unexpectedly. She introduced herself as the Head of the Village Liberation Women's Committee. Her name is XXXXX. She asked to stay overnight in my house. When the night was far advanced, she asked me: "Are you ready to leave your family behind to join the Front now? Do you love your grandparents? " I replied that I had not arranged anything yet since I had lost all my savings in indemnifying the customers. "As for my grandparents, I love them very much. But why did you put this question to me? It sounds quite absurd." "If you do love them, you ought to think about how to secure them a good life," she went on. What do you mean about securing them a good life? I mean that if you do love them very much you ought to see to it that they could enjoy a good life in the years to come. A good life for them could be secured only if the Revolution becomes a success. It will be then that they could live with freedom and welfare. No one might oppress and exploit them, as the enemy is doing to the people at present.
'Her words, in fact, sounded right," commented the respondent, and she made up her mind to join the Front.
When the grandmother learned of this decision, she was deeply wounded:
"Oh! my granddaughter! How can you be so ungrateful to me! Your mother died when she gave birth to you and I have bred you ever since! And now, how can you be so awful towards me by leaving me alone! " After that, my grandparents left us behind and went outdoors, (The female cadre) and I stayed home until 4 PM before we set out. I didn't meet my grandparents anew because they didn't come back home, Either out of discouragement or out of anger at me, they stayed with neighbors seemingly to avoid us.
This painful episode did not shake her resolve.
I felt very sorry for them. They were very old and yet, they had to live under risks of being killed by bombs and bullets every day, But the deeper I felt sorry for them, the quicker I thought I had to join the Front. I believed that the Front's cause is right and therefore, I didn't have any fear of being killed.
Together the two women set out for an NLF base area. The cadre was not insensitive to what this new recruit was going through, and she tried to help the young woman deal with her apprehension and homesickness. "We talked abundantly," recalled the respondent, "I suppose to alleviate my pain and to build up my morale. She said: "You are a true daughter of the Revolution."'
The respondent's career in the Front was in many ways exemplary. From a poor peasant background, she acquired in less than two years a variety of technical skills. She served first as a liaison agent, then as a medic, and finally in a demolition unit. Her political understanding grew, and in the course of the interview, she had no trouble dealing with the feeble polemics which the interviewer initiated against the NLF. She sometimes quarreled with other ca-
dres and had her share of disappointments within the movement, but her revolutionary commitment did not waver.
Wherever I went, I could realize how terrific the destruction caused by bombings and shellings was, and the farther the liberated areas were, the more miserable the people's life was, orchards, paddie fields and houses, all of them are being abandoned. All these calamities had been caused by the GVN and the Americans, In point of these calamities, I felt heartbroken and therefore I was more decided to work for the Front so that the enemy would be driven away and freedom and happiness could be secured for everyone,
In her account, we see graphically the force of the 'repression-resistance spiral." The more 'calamities" she came across, the more determined she became 'to work for the Front so that the enemy would be driven away and freedom and happiness could be secured for everyone."
The interview itself helps us to measure this woman's revolutionary stand, Where many respondents, including some POWs, equivocated about the politics of the war, complained that the Front tricked them into serving its cause and repeated freshly learned slogans about 'communism" and the "free world," she refused to compromise. Will she agree to go home peacefully if the GVN wins the war?
In case the GVN freed me from jail and torture, I would be very grateful of it but it wouldn't certainly be for this reason that I would agree to stop fighting. As far as soldiers, exploitation, oppression would plague the countryside, I would continue to fight the GVN. If I am freed now, I will return to my grandparents to take care of them until their death. After that, I'll join the Revolution again.
"I'll join the Revolution again": this was no debater's point, but a matter of life and death. The respondent was a pris-
oner, already well acquainted with GVN police methods. Here is her account of events after being captured:
The district chief himself interrogated us. We told him the truth but he didn't want to believe it. He ordered five or six soldiers to kick us with their shoes on our faces, our thorax and our waists. They also forced us to lie down to the ground and with their feet they jumped over our thorax, When we fainted, they threw water on our faces, When we came back to life, they repeated the same torture. We were all covered with blood, which came out from our ears and mouths. We were beaten up this way for a day and after that they locked us up. I couldn't lie down or sit up without pain. I coughed out much blood which spread all around us. To relieve pain, I had to sit with the support of my arms leaning to the wall.
Capture and imprisonment thus represented in a somewhat more intense form the daily experience of villagers subjected to the violence of a ruthless and barbaric enemy. Even more than the bombing and shelling, the sweeps and crop destruction, these torture sessions were designed to break the will of the insurgents, force them to abandon their cause and beg for mercy.
The respondent was not swayed:
On the next morning, the district chief call us again up, and the same torture took place anew with more savagery, I couldn't stand it any longer and thought of ending my life, But before dying, I thought I had to show the district chief my hate and anger, So, I began to curse him and jumped up to strike his face. His spectacles were broken and his eyes were wounded. His anger burst out and he beat me till I fainted. When I came to life again, I saw myself lying in a cell, Pain everywhere in my body and blood was coagulated in puddles all around.
Eventually the prisoner tried unsuccessfully to commit suicide. She was taken to a hospital, then put in jail, where the RAND interviewer found her in July, 1967. If alive today, she is probably still interned along with 200,000 others in the prisons of the Thieu dictatorship.
This scene stays with me more than anything else in the transcripts, a woman answering torture with curses, then smashing the puppet official's glasses into his face. 'Heartbroken" at the invasion and destruction of her country, the respondent was not intimidated by the GVN and the Americans. Leaving home and family for the NLF, she developed into a fanatic cadre whose dedication held firm in spite of many "calamities." Seamstress and poor peasant, once in awe of the revolutionaries around her, she herself became one of those "living embodiments of heroes" who in Vietnamese legend "stand up to fight the evil in order to protect the people." We can make sense of the war only if we assume that hers is not at all a 'special case." Along with so many others, when faced with American aggression, she chose to live as "a true daughter of the Revolution."