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Women on the move

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In the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, NGOs poured into the Indonesian province of Aceh to assist in the recovery effort. The NGO that I worked for, like most others, imported a professional gender expert to ensure that gender issues were properly addressed in its aid programmes. She had never been to Aceh, or even Indonesia before. An Acehnese colleague, a Muslim feminist and social activist, unsurprisingly questioned the wisdom of spending a significant amount of our budget to fly in a foreign gender ‘expert’. Aceh’s history boasts a legacy of four queens, a female navy commander, and women warriors; in a more recent century, countless Indonesian women have campaigned for a more just and equal society. The hiring of gender experts, usually from Western countries, is common practice in the world of international aid. While they often offer networks and ideas, they tend to have little understanding of the local historical conditions in which gender relations have evolved, and the role that local women have played in changing them. In many ways they are hardly to blame. With the exception of India, there are few rigorous historical studies of the evolution of women’s movements in non-Western countries, particularly in Asia. The appearance of Women’s Movements in Asia, edited by Mina Roces and Louise Edwards, is thus a welcome overview for scholars as well as practitioners.

The book follows a previous collection from the editors, Women’s Suffrage in Asia (Routledge, 2004). They take their cue from Asian feminist scholar Kumari Jayawardene, whose path-breaking Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World (Zed, 1986) sought to decentre the international women’s movement from its supposed Western origins. In both volumes, the editors argue that Asian feminisms must be viewed on a different timeline and context than Western feminisms. While Western women were living in relatively democratic societies, Asian women had to overcome a different set of struggles, including colonialism, authoritarian rule, and a lack of educational opportunities. Asian suffrage campaigns, as the first volume shows, existed in tension with emerging nationalist movements, particularly as many early suffragettes were Western-educated, and the image of ‘modern women’ often ran counter to national projects to recover an authentic, pre-colonial past. These early activists reinvigorated national conceptions of the feminine, most visibly through dress and deportment. Their struggles were entwined in a transnational realm of activism, as they interacted with Western suffragettes and sometimes inspired each other’s national movements. This edited volume delves further into the second half of the twentieth century, with thirteen authors examining the emergence of Asian feminisms within particular national contexts. Most articles begin with the emergence of early women activists, many of them suffragettes, and track the evolution of women’s activism through the decades, up to the groundswell of NGOs emerging in Asia from the 1980s. In her introduction, Roces maps out some of the challenges the authors faced in writing their pieces, including accommodating the plurality of voices within each Asian country. The authors recognise that the issue of ‘Westernisation’ and cultural authenticity is one of the major tensions in women’s movements. The association of feminism with supposed ‘bra-burning’ and Western radicalism is something that many Asian women activists have often tried to distance themselves from, particularly in the face of male critics prone to dismissing feminism as a corrupting Western import. Lenore Lyons argues that Singapore’s AWARE has constantly battled stereotypes of feminists as ‘man-haters, lesbians’ and radicals taking on Western values. In Pakistan, Andrea Fleschenberg notes that women’s groups engaging in broad-based social work have been met with accusations of Westernisation, creating divides between Islamist women activists and secular feminists. Partly to evade charges of Westernisation, Asian women have drawn on the past to contribute to indigenous narratives of patriotism and female empowerment. As Edwards notes, early Chinese reformers drew inspiration from Mulan, who dressed as a man and became a Chinese general. Alessandra Chricosta argues that Au-co, the birdlike folk-heroine associated with the origins of the Vietnamese nation, has contributed to a ‘myth of uniqueness’ about the high status of Vietnamese women, while the Trung Sisters were repeatedly invoked as ‘patriotric women warriors’ in the socialist era. Roces observes that Philippine activists replaced images of dutiful, suffering women in their national epic, Noli Mi Tangere, with that of the babaylan, the pre-Hispanic priestess abolished under Spanish colonial rule. According to Trudy Jacobsen, Cambodian women activists today fight deep-seated perceptions of women as being inferior to men, and of politics being a ‘male domain’, with reference to the prominent role women played, both in the Angkor period and in rebuilding Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge era. Coalitions and Class In the last thirty years, the movement of gender and sex to the forefront of public discourse has created a wide agenda for women’s movements and the formation of coalitions across racial, ideological and class lines on specific issues, such as the mainstreaming of women in politics, reproductive health, domestic violence, LGBT rights, and prostitution. One of the most successful has been GABRIELA, an umbrella organisation formed in 1984 in the Philippines, which Roces sees as bringing diverse sectors of society together over a wide range of issues with a gender focus, making innovative use of radio, television, and print media. Monica Falk notes that EMPOWER, a Thai NGO, challenges long-standing notions of sex workers as ‘bad’ women in need of reform and instead advocates for their rights, providing them with language classes, health education, and career workshops. The issue of class is also addressed briefly in the introduction as an overall theme, and class divides are suggested in many of the contributions. Women’s organisations have often been constituted of elite and middle-class women, leading to problems in their claim to ‘speak for’ all women. The last article by Sumi Madhok, on ‘rights discourses’ in India, deals with these divides on a loose, theoretical level, but the article is not fully fleshed out in a wholly satisfying manner. What of the role of working-class women? Lyon points to precursors to working-class activism in the associations of female Chinese migrants who came to Singapore as domestic workers in the early 1900s, forming ‘anti-marriage sisterhoods’ with a focus on mutual aid, yet the role of working class women disappears in the rest of the article. Seung-Kyung Kim and Kyounghee Kim note the role that Korean women played in the labour movement during the 1970s, but their link with the national women’s movements isn’t evident. In other articles, the role of women in labour movements is ignored, although countries such as Indonesia have had their share of prominent female labour activists. Are these activists operating on parallel tracks? Though working-class women might identify more with labour movements than self-proclaimed ‘women’s movements’ dominated by elite and middle-class women, they are still campaigning for women’s rights in the workplace, and deserve a more prominent place in the story. The final two contributions on Cambodia and India suggest the need for closer ethnographic studies of the ways in which assumptions about ideal gender roles – by both foreign and local elite/middle class women – are constantly challenged by perceptions on the ground. Jacobson quotes an elite Cambodian sex worker who wonders why Western women want to give her help when she feels control over her own life, being able to enjoy sexual activity with partners she chooses. Madhok quotes a ‘grass-roots worker’ on a rally in which large groups of citizens mobilized and employed vernacular conceptions of the ‘right to work’, successfully calling for the government to guarantee employment in vulnerable rural districts. These vignettes, and the collection in general, provide examples of the ways in which the languages women activists employ refract at a number of different levels, from the rural village to the red-light district to the national media, and are harnessed for strategic social change that benefits women’s lives. Activism across borders One of the book’s major, stated contributions is that it moves beyond national frameworks to examine transnational networks and connections. While some articles mention early moments of organisation, specifically the Pan Pacific Women’s Conference in 1928 and the 1934 All Asian Women’s Conference in Lahore, the more recent examples are highlighted in the introduction. These include Sisters of Islam, founded in Malaysia in 1988, a highly successful transnational organisation that draws on a global community of Muslims to promote women’s rights within an Islamic framework, most notably through their re-interpretations of the Qu’ran on issues such as domestic violence and polygamy. Falk looks at campaigns by Buddhist nuns in Thailand, a country that bans their ordination into the sangha. A network of Buddhist nuns across Asia, and elsewhere, has played a major role in the movement for ordination as well as actually performing ordinations in Thailand, being outside the sangha’s control. This serves as an example of the way in which transnational activist networks provide new opportunities for women to fulfil their potential, while states can still continue to pose limitations that are impossible to evade without emigration. Some issues have had an implicit transnational dimension, requiring mobilisation across borders. The problem of female trafficking has resulted in the formation of regional coalitions, like the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women and the Development Action Women’s Network. The issue of Comfort Women during World War II has brought Korean and Filipino activists into conversation in demanding reparations from the Japanese government, while imploring Japanese women to re-examine the complicity of early Japanese feminists in failing to question their country’s aggressive military policies. Meanwhile, foreign domestic workers have lacked adequate representation in the countries they worked. Lyons explains that in Singapore, many middle-class/elite women activists employed foreign domestic workers themselves, but the issue is now being addressed by organisations such as Transient Workers Count Too, an organisation open to Singapore citizens and foreign domestic workers of all nationalities. Forgotten histories Although the focus on these more recent moments of transnational organisation are indeed an important contribution, the collection could have been strengthened by situating Asian women’s movements within broader historical processes and trends. This is difficult, given that the format of the collection privileges national feminist narratives. Yet one can discern distinct periods of vibrancy and stagnation in Asian women’s movements across the board. The 1920s and 1930s were moments of particular openness, in which women took part in national struggles and engaged with Western women, and with each other, on an unprecedented scale. The appearance of emancipated women in global popular culture, the access to new ideas through the press, the exposure of an albeit small number of women to educational opportunities, and the participation of women in anti-colonial struggles all helped to kick-start women’s movements in Asia. For many Asian nations, the 1950s was a decade of post-colonial solidarity and political experimentation. The 1955 Bandung conference, which doesn’t appear in the book, was an important moment of solidarity across Asian and African nations, to which women’s movements in the region appealed. In Indonesia, as Susan Blackburn notes, the 1950s saw the birth of socialist feminism under a period of parliamentary democracy. In Pakistan, women lobbied for legal reform over inheritance rights and the restriction of polygamy. While the 1960s and 1970s are decades most closely associated with the ‘second wave’ of feminism in the West, this was a period in which the Cold War cast its shadow across Asia, with many countries, particularly in Southeast Asia, falling under authoritarian rule. Roces recognises that these were ‘macho regimes’ by nature, that clamped down on women’s movements across the region. Barely any dynamic women’s groups appeared in this period, apart from pockets of student activism in the Philippines. The ousting of dictators coupled with the rise of Asia’s ‘tiger-economies’ in the 1980s was a turning point as a growing and newly confident middle-class stimulated the emergence of a vibrant civil society. It was from this period that women’s groups in Asia came into their own and began conversing with each other within and across national borders over a wide range of issues. Women’s movements in Asia have shared many of the same struggles over the past hundred years, and the ability of Asian women to connect with each other across borders has often stemmed from these shared historical experiences. Overall, the book provides a rich collection of dense, critical histories detailing the emergence of women’s movements in Asian countries and the particular challenges women activists have had to face. It is essential reading for anyone interested in gender issues in Asia, and, in the hopes of instilling a little humility in the face of a century of Asian women’s activism, it should be in the carry-on luggage of any visiting gender specialist to the region.

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