Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 8, October 2002
Susan Blackburn (editor)

Love, Sex and Power:
Women in Southeast Asia

Monash Asia Institute, Clayton, 2000,
144 pp, ISBN 1 876924 02 0

reading notes by Jocelyn Grace

  1. Love, sex and power—an exciting and promising title—edited by Susan Blackburn, brings together eight very different studies which focus on aspects of power and gender relations in Southeast Asia. However, beyond falling within these broad categories, there is little that ties all eight chapters together in any tangible, thematic or theoretical way. Four of the six chapters on Indonesia deal with religion and/or local culture and the role they play in some aspect of women's public or private lives. At the same time they are very different in their focus and approach. The remaining two chapters are centred on Singapore and Viet Nam respectively. As individual studies, most of these chapters offer some interesting insights into the construction of gender roles and/or the dynamics of gender relations in the specific contexts in which they were undertaken.
  2. This volume opens with a very interesting chapter by Rochayah Machali, entitled 'Women and the concept of power in Indonesia', in which the author writes about the debate within Java as to whether a woman could be President of Indonesia. In doing so, Machali outlines the main players in the debate and their central arguments, and then explores Islam and the concept of power in Javanese culture on the subject of whether a women can hold the most powerful political position in the nation. Written when Megawati Sukarnoputri was Vice-President, and Abdurrahnman Wahid President, this article remains very relevant.
  3. There is a stark juxtaposition between the latter and the fourth chapter by Nurul Ilmi Idrus on 'Marriage, sex and violence' in Bugis society. Herself a Bugis woman, the author writes about marital rape in South Sulewasi, based on extensive interviews with eight women. Idrus explains in the introduction that Indonesia has no law on marital rape, despite considerable debate between religious and legal experts on the subject. This is a very confronting piece, which gives voice to some of the least powerful women in Indonesian. There is nothing in this chapter to indicate whether marital rape is any more prevalent among the Bugis than any other ethnic groups in the archipelago.
  4. In 'Gender, Islam and culture in Indonesia', Kathryn Robinson offers a preliminary review of the impact of Islam on gender relations in Javenese, Achenese and Bugis society, as understood through the writings of various ethnographers of those ethnic groups. 'Domestic science and the modern Balinese woman' is the subject of Lyn Parker's chapter, in which she draws extensively from journals and newsletters of the 1920s and 30s to reveal the discourse of modernising Balinese women of that era. (Unfortunately, references for this chapter were not included in the volume's bibliography). Peter Hancock's chapter on 'Gender empowerment issues from West Java' deals with the impact of factory work on the status of young Sudanese women in Banjaran, a rapidly industrialising area of West Java. 'Dalangs and family planning propaganda in Indonesia' by Helen Pausacker, examines the role that shadow puppeteers in Java played in the promotion—or critiquing—of the national family planning program during the 1970s and 80s.
  5. 'Romantic love and gender hegemony in Vietnam' by Alexander Soucy is a very interesting exploration of gender inequality in the Soviet Republic of Viet Nam. The author observes that while having rejected the 'patriarchal, Confucian dictates' of the three submissions and four virtues of women, young Vietnamese women continue to be subservient to men. He argues that the ideal of romantic love, as disseminated through the popular media, is a new form reinforcing old structures of gender hegemony.
  6. The last chapter in this volume deals with the politics of representation and feminist research methods. In 'Re-telling "us": Researching the lives of Singaporean women', Lenore Lyons reflects on her position vis-à-vis her informants, members of a Singapore feminist organisation.
  7. Love, Sex and Power gives the reader a small sample of the kinds of research being carried out in Southeast Asia which focus on sexuality, the construction of gender identities and roles, the interplay between local cultures and religion, and power relations between women and men. The volume would have benefited from an overview which placed each of the eight studies in the context of other research of a similar nature or focus.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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