Women and Power in Southeast Asia
by Vago Damitio
Society is a complex organism that reflects the diverse use of power by the individuals and groups within it. Sometimes obvious and sometimes subtle, power is coveted, used, exploited, and always present in all groups of human beings. This is a constant. What is not constant, however, is the place where the power lies. Power in the societies of the United States and Europe generally sits within the grasp of men. The same can be said of paternal societies such as China and Japan. This is not the case throughout the entire world. Southeast Asia has within its myriad societies, a myriad number of power structures and conceptions of power. Some of the most complex structures that envelop these power structures, are those that involve women and power in Southeast Asia.
There is no doubt that women have power in all societies, the question is how much? In the societies of Europe and the America’s, women have a history of being oppressed and disempowered. In order to have influence, women have had to work invisibly behind the scenes, or more recently, demand their rights and privileges. In many of the societies of Southeast Asia, this is not the case. In Why Women Rule the Roost: Rethinking Javanese Ideologies of Gender and Self Control, Suzanne Brennar explains one aspect why this is so:
Women’s control over their own desires serve to compensate for men’s lack of control (as the alternative representation has it), and by so doing preserve the assets that should properly be used to ensure the family’s security. It is the wife’s responsibility to do her utmost to ensure that her husband’s desires do not drain the family resources, while also doing everything in her means to increase these resources…(Brenner 1995:35)
In this example from Java, one can begin to see why the conception of power in Southeast Asia is different from that of the ‘West’. At least in this regard, women have power in that they control the well being of the economic life of the family. It has been said that great power carries great responsibility. In this case, economic power carries the responsibility of keeping the free wheeling male spenders from putting the family into poverty with their carefree lifestyles.
In Laos, women also enjoy a measure of economic strength that increases their position of power within the family and within the community at large. Women in Laos produce and control goods, thus bringing them the power of cash. In addition, they also care for sick and aging family members and in the process take on control of whatever assets they control. Later, it is the women who inherit the property of those they cared for. While power is shared, it is the Lao women who control the purse strings. (Ireson 1996: 60-61)
Because of the power that women can hold over men, there are often beliefs associated with femininity and womanness that may seem irrational to the outside observer but that make perfect sense to those living in the societies thus affected. In Northern Thailand and Laos, one of the most feared supernatural creatures is the ‘Widow Ghost’. Villagers are frightened of the unrestrained power of these voracious spirits and protect themselves with huge wooden phalluses that the feared monsters of unrestrained female sexual energy can satisfy themselves and thus leave villagers in peace. (Mills 1995: 251).
Of course, women are not universally empowered in Southeast Asia. Religious, cultural, and government oppression have done their part to disempower women in all areas of the world. Southeast Asia is no exception. In Thailand, the practice of Therevada Buddhism makes a man’s wife a piece of property. The woman is expected to obey his every whim. This gives women a different sort of power than that described above. In this case, if a man commits adultery with another man’s wife, he will suffer in the life to come (Andaya 2006). Little consolation for the woman who is forced to feed grapes to a man who believes he owns her, but something.
One of the things that makes women so powerful in Southeast Asia is the work they do in developing land, farming, and maintaining family wealth (Karim 1995:39). It is women that create a huge amount of the wealth that sustains families in Southeast Asia and it is also women that provide the cohesive support that keeps communities alive in good times and bad. In Sumatra, it is the women who take care of the destitute and provide assistance to neighbors who are unable to work or care for themselves. (Blackwood 2000:129). Is it any wonder than, that women are thought of differently in these societies than they are in the societies of Europe and the Americas?
These examples are a good starting point for examining how conceptions of power are held in different societies and the root causes of the disempowerment and oppression of females in all societies throughout the world. While it would be simple to say that women in these societies have a higher status than in others, the truth is a much more complex situation.
Andaya, Barbara Watson. 2006. Women and Religious Change. In The Flaming Womb: Repositioning Women in Early Modern Southeast Asia. Honolulu. University of Hawaii Press.
Blackwood, Evelyn. 1999. Webs of Power: Women, Kin, and Community in a Sumatran Village. 2000. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers.
Brenner, Suzanne A. 1995. Why Women Rule the Roost: Rethinking Javanese Ideologies of Gender and Self Control. In Bewitching Women, Pious Men: Gender and Body Politics in Southeast Asia, edited by A. Ong and M.G. Peletz. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Ireson, Carol J. 1996. Traditional Sources of Power in Rural Women’s Lives. In Field, Forest, and Family: Women’s Work and Power in Rural Laos. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
Karim, Wazir Jahan. 1995. Bilateralism and Gender in Southeast Asia. In ‘Male’ and ‘Female’ in Developing Southeast Asia, edited by W.J. Karim. Oxford: Berg Publishers.
Mills, Mary Beth. 1995. Attack of the Widow Ghosts: Gender, Death, and Modernity in Norhteast Thailand. In Bewitching Women, Pious Men, Gender and Body Politics in Southeast Asia, edited by A. Ong and M.G. Peletz. Berkeley: University of California Press.