Social Relationships in the Modern Age: Never-Married Women in Bangkok, Jakarta and Manila

Article excerpt


Southeast Asia has, in recent decades experienced unprecedented social change that has increasingly integrated this region into what Giddens (1990) refers to as a world economic system. One dimension of this transformation has been the rapid growth of large urban industrial centers that has taken place within the living memory of a considerable segment of its members. This, Giddens (1991:1) argues, "radically alters the nature of day-to-day social life and affects the most personal aspects of our experience" by transforming the nature of social institutions. The emergence of an identifiable group of never-married women can be seen as part of one of these fundamental changes in what are perceived to be long-standing social institutions such as the family. The task at hand is to understand how this transformation manifests itself, and how people who are living through this rapid change are coming to define new social relationships that are emerging.

For more than a decade the increasing proportion of women in the region who remain unmarried into their forties and beyond has received a fair amount of attention both in the media (e.g., Berfield, 1997; Daorueng, 1998; Lee, 2009) as well as from social scientists (e.g., Guest and Tan, 1994; Jones, 1997; Jones, 2005; Situmorang, 2007; Tan, 1996; Williams et al., 2006; Xenos and Gultiano, 1992). Even though the postponement of marriage by both men and women has been documented as a concomitant of economic development (Leete, 1994; Smith, 1980), the existence of a significant proportion of women remaining unmarried past the childbearing age goes against the pattern of universal marriage that has historically characterized marriage patterns in most of Asia.

This pattern does not appear to be an aberration although there are significant rural-urban differences (Jones, 2005; Williams et al., 2006). The proportion of never-married women in the 40-44 age group in Thailand increased from 3.9 percent in 1970 to 9.3 percent in 2000. The increase was much more modest in Indonesia and the Philippines with the proportion increasing from 1.2 percent in 1970 to 2.4 percent in 2000, and from 6.0 percent in 1970 to 7.1 percent in 2000, respectively (1) (Jones, 2005). Jones (2005) notes that both the Confucian and the Malay Muslim societies of East and Southeast Asia exhibit similar patterns. He argues that the increasing levels of education among women and the concomitant increase in job opportunities appear to be a major contributing factor. Attitudes towards marriage also seem to be changing in a number of countries. Among the urban middle-classes in Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines, for example, there was evidence of growing reservations about marriage as a social institution and also concern about marrying the wrong partner (Williams and Guest, 2005; Williams et al., 2006).

This paper seeks, in an exploratory manner, to understand how one sub-group of never-married women, i.e., those in professional occupations, are defining their own social situations by examining the nature of their social relationships. This group of women is selected because it is very likely that the consequences of rapid social change would be more apparent for this group. Thus, a comparative approach is taken in order to examine common patterns and arrangements in three key cities in Southeast Asia, namely Bangkok, Jakarta and Manila, which are the three largest urban industrial centers in Southeast Asia. (2)

Past studies of never-married women have overwhelmingly focused, in one way or another, on why these women have not married. (3) In doing so, the traditional (4) expectation that women marry is a given and never-married women continue to be regarded as an aberration rather than a significant change in how society is being organized. The persistence of these patterns of non-marriage in three different social settings (5) suggests that never-married women have emerged as a small but significant social group that is readily recognized by members of their community. …