Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 35, July 2014

Women who refuse to marry, polygyny,
extended families and other ‘anomalies’:

Alternative gendered visions of intimacy,
love, family and community in Asia and the Pacific

Amy Holmes-Tagchungdarpa

  1. Gilbert Herdt has recently written of the limitations of applying categories of sexual dimorphism from contemporary science and society backwards and universally in the study of human bodies and ontologies. The categorisation of gender and sexuality as based on biological function and ‘the reproductive paradigm,’ he argues, has been demonstrated to be inadequate for understanding the diversity of human societies and relationships.[1] This issue of Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific contributes to broader trends in the study of relationality, families, and communities through bringing together thought-provoking new research and case studies from across time, space and multiple disciplines in order to provide insight into the diversity of different forms of relationships and family composition throughout Asia and the Pacific. In these case studies, written by a group of international scholars and based on a variety of literary and ethnographic sources, heteronormative, monogamous relationships do not form the normative centre of nuclear family structures. Instead, we meet women who refuse to marry or who seek out alternative family affiliation; cultures where polygamy and concubinage may have been normative, but have been disrupted as forms of patriarchal oppression through individual agency; children who become children not through biological ties, but ritual and affective relationships; activists who seek to break down prejudice and imperialistic vocabularies and open up new spaces for acceptance and awareness. These case studies vivify Herdt’s assertion that the creation of sexual dimorphism as part of the ‘natural order of things’ was a product of the nineteenth century, post-evolutionary episteme,[2] and demonstrate the ability of individual agents and communities to assert agency in the creation of intentional family units for a wide variety of socio-cultural reasons across varied cultural-historical contexts.
  2. Historically, China was a society with great diversity in familial ties and relationships. Despite the widespread dominance of Confucian thought and attempts to regulate homosexuality during certain periods, records of male-male relationships appear in ancient historical records, and women, supposedly completely oppressed by Confucian patriarchal structures, could use those very structures to carve out moments of agency. As Wenjia Liu’s essay demonstrates, the late-Qing era literary work Feng shuangfei (A Pair of Male Phoenixes Flying Together) reveals how a female writer created in her writing a legitimated relationship between two female protagonists, Zhang Feixiang and Murong Zhu. This relationship becomes a site of freedom for both women. When the pair’s relationship is discovered by Zhu’s father, he forces them to marry, and Feixiang poses as a scholar husband to Zhu for five years, only to be separated from her by warfare. Liu points out that even had the women’s relationship been discovered, they may have become wife and concubine to a male husband. While the author was careful not to include any overt sexual activity in the work, Liu convincingly argues that the true nature of the pair’s relationship is clear, and creates agency for both women. She demonstrates the important role this work had in the development of ideas about female subjectivity and choice in marriage at the turn of the twentieth century, as well as acceptance for homosexuality in Republican China.
  3. While Liu’s work focused on literary relationships, Jennifer Ung Loh’s essay on Kinnar, or Hijra groups in Madhya Pradesh, India provides us with an understanding of how ritual relationships continue to manifest in contemporary society. While outlining the individual subjectivity of Kinnar, Loh’s essay also discusses family and community life in kinnar communities. While her ethnographic detail on kinnar households and hierarchies is important for understanding the structure of non-biological family relatedness, Loh most crucially focuses her discussion on children, an often-neglected subject in the study of hijra communities. Her research among family groups overturns popular, pejorative representations of hijra in contemporary India that suggest hijra forcibly steal children. Instead, she outlines how different children come to join the community after being born as a kinnar, or after being abandoned for other reasons. The care, attention and education these children receive in their kinnar families demonstrate the power of affective ties over biological ones.
  4. While Loh’s essay demonstrates the lasting influence of one form of historical type of family in South Asia, the current status of kinnar communities in Madya Pradesh are also vivid examples of the damage wrought upon diverse forms of relationality in Asia and the Pacific that were seen as deviant according to colonial state structures. In British colonies, divergence from the Victorian construction of a biological model of sexual dimorphism was penalised both legally and socially. As Lawrence W. Preston has argued, the construction of hijra in India as deviant and the reclassification of their communities as criminal under colonial legislation such as the Indian Penal Code (1860) were part of broader projects undertaken by the East India Company and later the British colonial state to consolidate their revenues. The hijra came to the attention of the Company before 1857 due to concerns about the granting of land and cash to hijra in return for their ritual prowess.[3]
  5. Tamara Loos has outlined how Thailand was also subject to state-driven, legislative projects that attempted to normalise heteronormative, monogamous relationships that mirrored Victorian ideas about sexual dismorphism in the nineteenth century, as part of broader state concerns to promote an image of the kingdom as modern, as part of the state’s quest to assert sovereignty.[4] As Pilapa Esara’s essay demonstrates, such projects continue to have a huge impact on the psyche of the nation, especially when it comes to gender roles in marriage. In the course of Esara’s in-depth fieldwork in urban communities in Bangkok during the 2000s, she came across a number of couples who had begun to share what had been seen as ‘women’s work’ in the domestic sphere of the home. The internalisation of such a category demonstrates how limited models of gender and sexuality in the regulation of the intimate lives of Thai citizens continue to manifest and act to control women’s agency, and how ambiguous state-level development discourse about women often leaves social equality out of its list of ideals. Esara argues for the limitations of state-driven gender equality projects, and the need for grassroots level movements to engage with continued gender inequality.
  6. Such grassroots movements are underway in many areas of the globe. Tui Clery’s article outlines methods used by the feminist organisation Women’s Action for Change to break down prejudice and marginalisation toward LGBT individuals in Fiji. Clery’s article is one of the few studies currently available regarding lesbians in the Pacific, and her study of the production of the play The F Word and its performance across Fiji in 2010 is a powerful exploration of how this feminist group has managed to skilfully engage broader community members with concepts of gender construction, and deconstruction, in different and often very challenging social and cultural contexts, thereby attempting to foster greater tolerance and awareness. Clery’s thoughtful discussion about terminology related to diverse gender and sexual identifications in cross-cultural settings ties back to the major themes of this issue in her acknowledgement of the inadequacy of limited vocabulary for relatedness and family composition beyond reproduction-driven justification.
  7. Options for individuals beyond reproduction and heterosexual, monogamous family life are also major themes in the final essay of this issue. Here, Fran Martin expands the boundaries of the communities discussed in the issue transnationally, through her focus on self-making for Chinese women students in Australia in the early 2010s. Martin’s ethnographic research reveals how the opportunity to study abroad has opened up new opportunities for women from a patriarchal society in terms of social mobility and exposure, and adds a crucial human element and understanding to the economic phenomenon of Chinese students pursuing education overseas. However, just as Esara discovered among the women she met in Bangkok, Martin’s interviewees often remained bound by gendered social conventions, and the opportunity they have for self-development is restricted by the internalisation of social expectations related to marriage and gendered professional opportunities. Such similarities demonstrate the limits of international and universalist feminist projects which outline only one type of women’s empowerment, and reiterate the need, outlined by Chandra Talpade Mohanty, for solidarity and awareness regarding women’s agency beyond national, class, racial and gendered borders.[5] This agency extends to the right to create intentional, non-biological families and relationships and suggests the continued influence of nineteenth-century models of opportunity on women in the creation of their relationships and social worlds.
  8. The studies in this issue seem all the more pertinent and timely when we consider current events. In view of contemporary political arguments over marriage and LGBT rights, studies provided by scholars such as the ones assembled here seem all the more important for destabilising limited and narrow claims to define the legitimacy of loving relationships and family composition. While we have been limited by the inclusion of studies of only a few communities, time periods, and countries, hopefully the essays gathered here will contribute to broader discussions about what creates community. In so doing, such work will help to advance theories of relationships and family creation that disrupt limited biological arguments and views of gendered and sexual relationships by acknowledging expansive views of relatedness and intentional families in both historical and contemporary settings.[6]


    [1] Gilbert Herdt, ‘Introduction: third sexes and third genders,’ in Third Sex, Third Gender: Beyond Sexual Dimorphism in Culture and History, ed. Gilbert Herdt, New York: Zone Books, 2006, pp. 21–84.

    [2] This construction is discussed in Herdt, ‘Introduction,’ pp. 25–33.

    [3] Lawrence W. Preston, ‘A right to exist: eunuchs and the state in nineteenth- century India,’ in Modern Asian Studies, vol. 21, no. 2 (1987): 371–87, p. 372.

    [4] Tamara Loos, Subject Siam: Family, Law and Colonial Modernity in Thailand, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006.

    [5] See Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Feminism without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicising Solidarity, Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.

    [6] I am grateful for Dr. Carolyn Brewer for providing me with the opportunity to edit this issue and for all of her support and advice along the way. I also thank all of the authors for their stimulating contributions and patience as this issue came together, as well as the peer reviewers for their incisive comments and time.


Published with the support of Gender and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
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Page constructed by Carolyn Brewer.
Last modified: 19 July 2014 0932