Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Ideological Inequalities: Khmer Culture and Widows' Perception of Remarriage

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Ideological Inequalities: Khmer Culture and Widows' Perception of Remarriage

Article excerpt


To explain the enduring persistence of gender inequality, structural explanations alone are not sufficient. While economic and political inequalities play a significant role in the lives of women and girls, one must look at the realm of cultural ideas to understand the entrenched nature of female subordination. Cultural ideas are complex, dense, and powerful. They undergird gender relationships, perpetuate them into the future, and resist change. Such a complex of ideas supporting a power structure can be rightly viewed as an ideology. Ideological inequalities embedded in cultural beliefs and practices sustain and perpetuate structural inequalities. Ideological assumptions and beliefs are not as visible or as easily measured as numbers of women in political office, wage gaps, or high school completion rates. Yet they are critical components of societal expectations for women and girls and influence their lives in pervasive and often subconscious ways.

Ideas and Ideologies

Marx (1978) first raised the importance of ideas in maintaining systems of domination in his treatise The German Ideology, observing famously, "The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas" (p. 172). Marx saw ideologies as the means to reproduce social inequalities across generations in a circular fashion. Ideas about appropriate class relationships legitimate stratified social structures that then perpetuate ideas of domination and subordination.

Feminist sociologists have focused on ideologies in similar fashion as key to maintaining systems of social domination. As Lengermann and Niebrugge (1996) note, "Ideology is an intricate web of beliefs about reality and social life that is institutionalized as public knowledge and disseminated through society so effectively that it becomes taken-for-granted ... ideological control is the basic process in domination" (p. 340). Ideologies describing gender relationships legitimate unequal gender hierarchies. Lorber (1994) defines gender ideology as "the justification of gender statuses, particularly their differential evaluation" (p. 30). The ideology of male domination has staying power because it "tends to suppress criticism by making these evaluations seem natural" (Lorber, p. 30).

The power of ideologies on the perspectives and behavior of individuals can be understood broadly with concepts from Berger and Luckmann's (1966) theory of the social construction of reality (Berger, 1990). Human beings construct their social reality in a dialectical process in which a creative individual originates ideas and practices that become seemingly real, external objects over time. Individuals in turn internalize the ideas and practices into their subjective consciousness where they form their social identity (Wallace, 1998). In this dialectical cycle, Berger notes, humans create society and society in turn creates human beings (Berger, 1990). The social world created through this process--the nomos--has great power because individuals see it as a durable reality with "external, subjectively opaque and coercive facticity" (Berger, 1990, p. 11).

When initiated by a revered religious figure, the dialectical process gains even more power. Ideas first expressed by a religious innovator are externalized in religious doctrines and institutions that become sacred ideological objects, no longer subject to human revision, defying rational scrutiny or challenge. Gender ideas linked to religion have particular weight (Keyes, 1984). Religious beliefs about the value of men and women, for instance, become incorporated into individual men's and women's sense of place in the world and their proper relationship with one another. Men and women learn gender ideals through rituals such as religious instruction, ordination, and role models of religious officials. Religiously infused gender ideologies shape cultural practices, reinforce social institutions, and are internalized by men, women, and children, profoundly influencing their personal and household decisions. …

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