Gender politics in Asia - W. Burghoorn et al. (eds)
WIL BURGHOORN, KAZUKI IWANAGA, CECILIA MILWERTZ & QI WANG (eds)
Gender politics in Asia: women manoeuvring with dominant gender orders
Copenhagen: NIAS Press, 2008
235 pp. ISBN ISBN 978 87 7694 015 7
Reviewed by Colette Balmain
A series of case studies examining the mechanisms which women in the Philippines, Japan, Malaysia, China and Singapore, either confront and challenge or concede to the dominant patriarchal order on a micro-political level, Gender politics in Asia is a welcome addition to the fields of both gender studies and Asian studies.
Engaging in discourses around fashion and the female body, motherhood, religion, and consumerism, the case studies are careful to demonstrate the specific manner in which women engage with gender discriminatory practices – which in themselves are similar throughout Asia as women are still accorded an inferior status within society – as well as stressing the importance of historical and social context as determining the multiple ways in which women in Asia confront and contend with such practices. For example, Mikiko Eto’s analysis of community-based movements among mothers in Japan situates a very different female negotiation of prevailing values to that discussed by Cecilia Milwertz and Bu Wei in their chapter on female activism in China. While there are similarities between female activists in China and western feminist movements, the feminist movement in Japan has had much less success, and instead women in non-feminist grassroots and community-based movements are motivated by immediate problems that affect both theirs and their children’s lives.
Similarly while religious oppression unites the chapters by Mina Roces on costume and the politics of dress in 20th-century Philippines; Alexandra Kent’s insightful study of gender roles in the Sathya Sai Baba Movement in Malaysia and Monica Lindberg Falk’s analysis of the role of female monks and nuns in Thailand, the mechanisms by which women challenge dominant values around appropriate femininity differ significantly. While female communities with shared experiences construct a political challenge in Philippines and Thailand, Kent’s analysis of male and female healers in Malaysia demonstrate the challenge that an individual can pose to the prevailing order. Cecilia Milwertz and Bu Wei’s chapter on activism in China and Qi Wang’s analysis of the ‘Women Mayors’ Association’ in China highlight the difficulties that Chinese women continue to find in participating in politics in China constrained within traditional expectations of women as inferior to their male counterparts and their duties within the home. As a counterpart to narratives of empowerment whether determined by a feminist agenda or motivated by reformist concerns, Phyllis Ghim-Lian Chew examines the political role of women in contemporary Singapore in which the feminist agenda takes a second place ‘women’s preoccupation with security, wealth and job success’ (p.209).
While demonstrating the manner in which women in Asia negotiate gender roles within the hegemonic order, the contributors never fall into the trap of appropriating women’s experience in Asia through western [feminist] paradigms. Instead, as Qi Wang’s chapter on Women Mayors in China clearly foregrounds although western feminism has provided an alternative language for women in China to express their experiences, feminists in China have been careful to distance themselves from ‘foreign imperialists.’ (p. 129). Through the insistence on the local and the real personal experiences of woman in Asia – based upon empirical data – Gender politics in Asia illuminates the manifold ways in which women conquer and in some cases concede to the continuance of gender inequality in the countries discussed. The cases studies provide a timely testament to the fact that for women in Asia – as elsewhere – the struggle for gender equality continues and while in the west third wave or post-feminism seemingly prevails, it is necessary to be reminded that for other women the path to gender equality is still a challenge and may not happen quickly.
The book also and importantly demonstrates the different strategies that women take, some of which may be interpreted as feminist but others are motivated by concerns of where gender issues are incidental. The book demonstrates the problems inherent in the universalising of female experience by clearly showing the significance of the local and the national in the construction of cultural norms of gender as well as the manifold strategies that women employ in Asia to combat normative hegemonic patriarchy.
While the book covers over a range of Asian countries, allowing the reader to note continuities and contrasts in women’s confrontation of gender roles across Asia, it seems odd that there are two chapters on China, interesting as they both are. Another case study from a different country – for example South Korea or India – would have given the book more balance. A conclusion drawing together the arguments raised in the individual chapters would have been useful to bring a greater sense of coherence to the book as well as suggesting areas of further study. These are however minor criticisms in what is overall an excellent introduction to the subject written in a lively and interesting manner, accessible to a general as well as an academic readership. I would strongly recommend Gender politics in Asia as a key text for anyone interested in and/or studying gender roles in Asia.