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Women of Taiwan struggle past their society's repression

The embryonic women's movement in Taiwan has celebrated a small triumph: A woman recently won custody of her child in a divorce case after losing three earlier court hearings.

The case has made legal history here. In almost all prior cases, the man automatically has been awarded custody.

The case painfully showed up the inferior legal status of women, which jars with Taiwan's proud image as one of the fastest developing modern economies in the world.

Half of all married women work, and on the streets of the capital, Taipei, dressed in their sharp linen suits, they're indistinguishable from working women anywhere in the West.

There are now large numbers of women in higher education and the professions, and women are creeping into management positions as opportunities mushroom in Taiwan's industrial sector.

But while this small island's scramble for industrial development has made available to women all the trappings of modernity, it has left untouched both family legislation dating to the 1930s and social conventions that dictate the position of women.

The People's Republic of China instituted equal inheritance and women's right to divorce in 1950, while Taiwanese law allows neither. Indeed, women seem to have ended up with the worst of both worlds. They're stuck in the traditional second-rate status of women in Chinese society, while around them a modern industrial economy has developed that has drawn millions of women into low-paid employment.

The economic revolution has not been accompanied by legal reforms or any change in the entrenched machismo of Taiwanese culture. For the famously cheap "Made in Taiwan" label on the toys, clothing and shoes that Westerners buy, read "Made by Women."

The government declared "our living room is our factory" in 1980; it was women's piecework, in between the cooking and child care, that helped motor Taiwan to its current status as the 14th-greatest trading nation in the world. The wages are low, the job security minimal, the accidents frequent and the hours long.

The first feminist organization in Taiwan, Awakening, was set up in 1982 and has campaigned for legislative reform on two fronts: employment and family law.

Under Taiwanese law, women cannot divorce men. Even if a woman has been abandoned and lived alone for 10 years, she still cannot divorce. If a woman leaves her husband, he can file suit and force her to come back to what is her only recognized legal abode.

If a woman wants a divorce because her husband is beating her, she needs certificates from a hospital proving that she's been injured by him three times within three months.

Keeping the family together is the primary role of the woman; if it collapses, she's blamed. A male divorcee is pitied, while a woman divorcee is seen as morally reprobate.

The picture is bleak, but the tiny band of dedicated Taiwanese feminists remains determinedly optimistic. "The family law will change, not because of pressure from feminist groups, but because the Taiwanese don't want to be seen as behind the rest of the world," says Liu Chung-tung.