New Voices from Southeast Asian Women: A Review Essay

By Andaya, Barbara Watson | Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, February 2013 | Go to article overview

New Voices from Southeast Asian Women: A Review Essay


Andaya, Barbara Watson, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies


Wives, slaves and concubines: A history of the female underclass in Dutch Asia ERIC JONES De Kalb, Ill.: Northern Illinois University Press, 2010. Pp. 186, Plates, Notes, Bibliography, Index.

Victorious wives: The disguised heroine in 19th-century Malay Syair MULAIKA HIJJAS Singapore/Kuala Lumpur: NUS Press/Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 2011. Pp. 324, Appendices, Notes, Bibliography, Index.

Realizing the dream of R.A. Kartini: Her sisters' letters from colonial Java Edited and translated by JOOST COTE Athens, OH/Leiden: Ohio University Press/KITLV Press, 2008. Pp. 396, Appendix, Plates, Notes, Glossary, Bibliography, Index.

Historians may have come late to the study of women and gender in Southeast Asia, but when these three books are placed along a historiographical spectrum one can only be impressed at how far the field has moved in approach and methodology. Exploiting previously untapped sources that emanate from very different sites--a Dutch East India Company courtroom, the women's quarters of a Malay palace, the privacy of a Javanese home--the authors open up new avenues by which to explore the complexity of Southeast Asia's gender history. Though the contexts are very different, the movement through time (Wives, slaves and concubines is set in the late eighteenth century, Victorious wives in the nineteenth, and Realizing the dream in the twentieth) provides an opportunity to gauge shifts in representations of 'femaleness', attitudes towards gender roles, and women's responses to change.

Given the often turbulent passage towards independence, it is natural that the evolution of modern nation-states has been a major theme in Southeast Asian historiography. Because the study of gender in Southeast Asia has evolved in tandem with prevailing academic preoccupations, it is also understandable that the first attempts to accord women a 'significant' history were concerned with their space in the national story. Encarnacion Alzona's The Filipino woman (1934) begins with the arrival of the Spanish in Cebu in 1565, but, as an educated activist, her main goal was to assert Filipina entitlement to the same voting rights as men. (1) A similar preoccupation with the state's gender regime is evident 25 years later in Cora Vreede-de Stuers' groundbreaking L'emancipation de la femme indonesienne. Emphasising that Indonesian women should become the 'partners' of men, Vreede-de Stuers took as her starting point the year 1900, which she believed inaugurated both nationalism and the women's movement. (2) Before that, apparently, women had no history.

While the history of nationhood in Southeast Asia still wields a heavy hand, a range of recent publications have helped to construct a more nuanced and female-conscious past. (3) Drawing on previously ignored or overlooked sources, they have identified new spaces in which the history of women and gender can be fruitfully explored. As Eric ]ones demonstrates in his study of late-eighteenth-century Batavia, one such space is the courtroom and its population of 'ordinary' people. As defendants, plaintiffs and witnesses in both civil and criminal cases, their recorded statements provide details of lives that rarely entered the purview of power-holders. Pioneers in the new 'social history' who opened up the possibilities of such documents--testimonies, affidavits, interrogations, confessions--also demonstrated the value they held for historicising gender relationships. Carlo Ginzburg's 1966 exploitation of material arising from the inquisition of alleged witches in northeastern Italy was the harbinger of an ever-expanding corpus of works on witchcraft trials in pre-twentieth-century Europe and America that use gender as their fulcrum. (4) Although women are often seen as victimised by legal procedures, scholars working in societies as far apart as Italy, France, China and Mexico have demonstrated that female defendants may have been disadvantaged by stereotypes and prejudices, but that many were able to use the law courts to their own advantage. …

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