Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 18, October 2008
Saskia E. Wieringa, Evelyn Blackwood and Abha Bhaiya (eds)

Women's Sexualities and Masculinities in a Globalizing Asia

New York and London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007
ISBN:9781403977687, xvi, 279 pp, Price: US$69.85

reviewed by Tracy K. Lee

  1. Despite a sweeping title, the volume contains thirteen chapters on the historical legacies and current situations of female same-sex desire in some Asian countries, in particular, Japan and India. It is a timely contribution to the scholarly debate provoked by the concept of 'global queering,' as Denis Altman put it, and the burgeoning interest in same-sex and transgender identities in non-Western societies. Apart from its academic values, the book is also a welcome attempt to synthesise feminist scholarship with lesbian movements.
  2. In a theoretically sophisticated introductory chapter, the editors insightfully point out that 'some significant oversights persist within a global queer perspective' (p. 4). These include the problematic line cut between 'tradition' and modernity and the dichotomous thinking of Western/non-Western cultures as self/other. The 'Asian' identity, for instance, is itself a product of colonial, postcolonial and neocolonial structures of knowledge (p. 3). Another important theoretical issue raised by the editors is the problems associated with applying Western sexual categories to the lives of people elsewhere. As terms such as 'lesbian,' 'gay,' 'homosexual,' or 'transgendered' are culture-specific and prioritise sexuality as the defining aspect of identity, it would be misleading and inappropriate to use them cross-culturally to refer to same-sex desire in non-Western societies. This argument is consistent with findings in Chinese gender studies in recent years, which question the imposition of heterosexual/homosexual identities on pre-modern Chinese culture. Some scholars argue that even the male/female dichotomy of subjectivity is something appropriated from the West along with the Chinese intellectuals' pursuit of modernity. The increasing visibility of zishu nū ('women who dress their own hair'), a marginal women's community in some rural areas of Guangdong province, and the problematic labelling of them as lesbians serve as a good footnote to the importance of respecting difference in studying third-world sexualities and identities.
  3. The volume is ground-breaking in terms of its focus on working-class women and social groups that have been largely neglected in previous feminist and lesbian studies. As the editors state, 'this intervention is an attempt to integrate into global sexualities discourse not only the experiences and practices of urban, educated women, but also the experiences of working-class lesbians and transgendered females, whose voices are rarely heard' (p.2).
  4. The chapters in the book are written by both academics and activists. They are divided into four interlocking parts: Part One consists of two chapters on the historical legacies of androgyny and same-sex desire in Japanese and Indian cultures. Saskia E. Wieringa traces the history of same-sex practice and 'mascuilinised' behaviour of women in Japanese history and explores the impact of modernisation on sexual identity. Kanchana Natarajan offers an interesting reading of androgyny in the popular Tamil folk ballad Alliyarasanimalai.
  5. In the second part, discussions focus on naming and the construction of (modernist) subjectivities. According to the editors, 'two aspects of subjectivities are particularly clear in this section: the extreme difficulties of resisting dominant gender regimes and the pleasures of self-naming' (p. 13). Abha Bhaiya addresses an issue in Indian society, which bears some similarities with the above-mentioned situation in rural China, namely, that queer activist agendas create tensions for women whose own particular forms of friendship and bonding may never have been articulated as sexual—and in that way may have been tolerated. In the same light, Peichen Wu's chapter explores the marginalisation of non-normative gender behaviours in a modernising Japan. Shermal Wijewardene's chapter is an empirical study on the self-perceptions of two 'trans' persons in Sri Lanka and their resistance to dominant gender regimes.
  6. Part Three, 'female masculinities' consists of four chapters discussing the dialogue between 'local' and transnatioanl and/or state discourses on gender and sexuality. Megan Sinnott, for instance, discusses the identities of Dees and Toms in contemporary Thai society. Sharyn Graham Davies focuses on the calalai subjectivities in Indonesia. Franco Lai explores the identity of TB in Hong Kong as a product of negotiation between TBs, the lesbian community, and Hong Kong society. Evelyn Blackwood attempts to read the 'transnational' gay and lesbian discourse from the perspective of Indonesian working-class tombois. All the four chapters contribute to the deconstruction of the 'premodern/modern' dichotomy in gender and sexuality and argue that the 'local' or indigenous identities are reflective of broader globalising processes.
  7. The three chapters in the last part of the book are politically more radical discussions on the silencing and invisibility of women's genders and sexualities in Asia. Bhaiya talks about the conflicting voices surrounding the film Fire by Deepa Mehta and their significances. Jennifer Robertson investigates lesbian suicide and parasuicide in Japan and Maya Sharma argues that 'the mainstream insistence on slotting the marginalized as a problematic 'other' exemplified by the persistent political and sociocultural silence, invisibility, and absence conferred on lesbians in India' (p. 263).
  8. The book would be useful and interesting for students across a wide range of disciplines. It is a pity, however, that both mainland China and Taiwan have been left out in the study of 'Asian' women in this book. As a matter of fact, there are at least two potentially fascinating topics in the context of modern Chinese culture that invite analysis and that could fruitfully be explored from theoretically informed perspectives such as those in this book. They are female heroism in the Communist discourse and the image of sports women in the patriotic discourse.


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