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Equality is a word

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Global processes have blurred borders in what it means to be female or male 'in Asia', even though the editor has squeezed in a footnote that tells us "The focus in this book is thus on Southeast Asia" (18). Nonetheless, one of the best chapters to illustrate the dynamics of thinking about being women and men as activated by world-wide socio-economic and cultural flows—the topical focus of the collection—is about women as symbols in Hindu nationalism. The nation is Mother Land, the nation is a mother, women are mothers, and they reproduce the nation and its primordial or essential identity. In brief, they evoke the nation's unassailability, they become a sanctified object, and so their gender is embedded in the nation as religion.

In the quest for 'identity', for a fixed point in a globalising, vague and threateningly cosmopolitan environment where individual people are supposed to happily enjoy their own agency, religion, tradition, and normative gender ideas have become the guardians of order, of knowing who 'we' are. The example of Hindu India highlights this reaction to economic liberalisation, capitalism, feminism, atheism and, of course, liberal ideas about sex.


In "Introduction", the editor tells us that "Equality in terms of recognition and social justice for both women and men is a key issue" (2) of the collection. Such recognition is a matter of self-realisation that is obstructed by gendered codes of 'normality'. Consequent misrecognition entails injustice and leads to the oppression that stunts freedom, self-expression, and the possibility to satisfy one's needs. Misrecognition privileges androcentrism, masculinism and machism, thus denigrating the feminine. As women, they suffer from sexual assault, domestic violence and stereotyping; they are excluded from public spheres and their full rights are denied. In brief, 'Asia' is full of gendered harm. With this panoply of ideas and the temerity of youth, eight Swedish lady-scholars plus one man set out on their mission to storm the world of gender 'in Asia'.

In this they are hardly restrained by the thoughtful problématique senior gender scholar Maila Stivens unfolds in her chapter on "Gendering Asia after Modernity". Her guard is relieved by diasporic Vietnamese Nguyen-vo Thu-huong who exposes—much as Helle Rydstrøm in her chapter on "Compromised Ideals"—the seesawing between official ideas and/or those of good old Confucius ('the True'), and the attractions of neo-liberal affluence ('the Real').

Upon this, we come to the exemplary theory-guided research of the only chapter situated outside Southeast Asia. Its quality is matched by Göranssons's chapter on modernity and the renegotiation of intergenerational expectations in Singapore. The remaining chapters, although ethnographically respectable, merely state the obvious. Under the influence of the global division of labour, lowly educated women crowd into the informal urban economy or find poor pay and poor conditions in manufacturing. World-wide, politics are a male preserve, and so they are in Thailand where the gate-keepers to elected positions are wont to keep it that way [despite the landslide victory of the country's first lady-Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra who, as a proxy of her reputed brother, is unlikely to make it as 'one of the boys' in the trail of Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meier, Indira Gandhi, Gloria Arroyo, and the like]. Chinese men validate themselves through hard work but also through proving their masculinity through gambling, drinking, and womanising. The members of the group under observation, however, apparently do not need to invigorate their yang through actually tanking up on young yin—'in Asia' is an amazing place, isn't it?

The fifth gender

The gendered women and men of the title appear to be heterosexual since the volume is silent bout the other sexualities, the gendering of which could have shed light on the ways heteronormativity operates[1]. Even so, one misrecognised category is included as 'women' which, in Buddhist parlance, they are not. Whereas nuns are sexually differentiated from monks and treated accordingly, both nuns and monks are world-renouncers, are beyond the cravings of the body, and belong to the samana gender, the gender of the clerics, which, in the Thai view also encompasses Roman Catholic priests and nuns.

In Cambodia, Buddhist nuns are referred to as don chee—which can be pronounced as such by English readers. Why the same chee are known as mae chii(s) in Thailand must be enigmatic to the same readers. Consistently following phonetic spelling, the latter should be maeae chii that should never be pluralized through adding 's', and if the plural is to be explicit, it should be done to the prefixed mae. Since most readers are unfamiliar with such conventions, the author (and editor!) had better had stuck to mae chee.

Helle Rydstrøm's straying among the trees of communist, official, and Confucian-familial ideals dearly misses out on the concrete experience of family life—ethnographically the hardest nut to crack. In demonstrating her distance from everyday life, she argues that in Vietnam's patrilineal kinship system, the failure of the wife/daughter-in-law to shape happy harmony may reasonably be punished by the husband who may abuse her due to masculine fantasies of power. This seems over-interpreted on basis of little substance. Domestic violence is a world-wide problem, and one would need to show that it is much more prevalent in Vietnam or other patrilineal societies than elsewhere before making any macho or culturalist claims[2]. Her assertion that "Confucian morality is held out as an ideal ... in many societies in the region of Southeast Asia" is untenable, and I am sure that my Javanese, Thai and Filipino associates—who hold roughly comparable ideas about the paramountcy of the family—would be taken aback when hearing that they are considered to be in Confucius' boat. It is true, though, that the present experience of life in the void of 'the global' evokes a backlash that calls for strengthening one's identity in the inner core.


With 'gendered inequalities in Asia' the book carries, as the Javanese would say, a 'heavy name'. Apart from Stivens' wide-ranging considerations and two pieces of theory-guided research, we have to do with four chapters on Vietnam, two on Buddhist nuns, and two on 'masculinities'. I doubt whether these will contribute to the high endeavour "to put an end to inequalities between women and men" (6). The obstacles to such noble intentions are, on the high end, with political opportunism and short-sightedness, and on the other, with poverty and ignorance. So, because of asking the wrong question and of ignoring more general ideas of personhood, affluent Nordic enthusiasm for 'equality' (whatever it is) is myopic rather than eye-opening. What we need is profound insight in how people locally live, experience, and conceive of themselves and others before we can say anything constructive about remaking their worlds.

Much as it is avowed that 'gender' is not a fixed notion and that the comprehension of it—if it can be rendered in translation at all—varies across societies, classes, levels of education, etc., so notions of self, self-realisation, and other big western words used in "Introduction" vary and have no universal content. My 'Asian' lady-friend provides a case in point on the ideas of 'self' and 'self-realisation'.

As psychologists have theorised, Filipino personality can only be understood in its relationship with relevant others that are part of one's identity experience. As such, they are described as 'lowly individuated', their ego is not prominent, while the deep, personal self is experienced as threatening or as disturbing at least[3].

Within these parameters and within a known society that is perceived as a moral hierarchy, said lady-friend considers herself emancipated and equal to anybody. As a senior professional, she is independent, proud to be a woman, and disdainful of spoiled brats' machismo and their dependence on mothers and wives. Even so, she feels comfortable within the bounds of Catholicism and, more importantly, of home and clan. To maintain harmony in the identity-bestowing inner core—however nagging the mother or oppressive the younger sister—is the supreme act of self-realisation while guaranteeing personal peace and the clan's reputation. Hence she feels ill-at-ease when seeing me at my home without a chaperone.

In this and related satisfactory ways of life, one is oneself in belonging to others—which may even extend to one's body, e.g. in the case of pregnancy. To be one's own boss, to be one's own keeper is contrary to 'nature' as it is perceived and experienced. And with this, I hope to have opened a box of questions that stand in need of thick description in order to be understood first before storming the universe of 'gendered inequalities in Asia'.

I hope that my observations are encouraging and will lead to deeper reflection. As a set of reworked conference papers, the book is premature. Whereas the short "Introduction" is courageous, it is awfully unsatisfactory as a guide to the 'equality' our ladies hope to achieve. The collection stands in need of a solid afterword that integrates leads, ties loose ends together, and identifies foci of further research. As it is now, the text does not build up; it is a scattering of qualitatively highly variable pieces that do not cohere or result in an image. Next to this, several contributions stand in need of text-editing, as they are full of inner repetition and/or reiterate the obvious. In the 17-page chapter on nuns in Thailand, the reader is assured some 60 times that the nuns are Thai and that the action is in Thailand. Such things are not necessary and vex the reader.



[1]  See for instance my review of Garcia as featured in "Peripheral Philippines". The Newsletter 58.

[2] According to Vu Manh Loi et al., Vietnamese women rank high in relation to men, while Vietnam would rank low on gender-based violence. Quoted in Wolf, Merrill et al. "Abortion in Vietnam". In Whittaker, Andrea (ed.). 2010. Abortion in Asia (p. 169).

[3] Mulder, Niels. 2011. "The Crux is the Skin: Reflections on Southeast Asian Personhood". Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs 1/2011: 95-116, or

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