Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 8, October 2002

Louise Edwards and Mina Roces (eds)

Women in Asia:
Tradition, Modernity and Globalisation

St Leonards, Allen & Unwin, 2000
xiv + 327 pages, ISBN 1865083186

reviewed by Stephanie Lawson

  1. Women in Asia: Tradition, Modernity and Globalisation is a very impressive interdisciplinary collection of essays addressing 'the manner in which the "woman question" has interacted with the dominant national discourses of "development", "globalisation", and "modernisation" in the Asian region in a range of country case-studies' (p. 1). Focusing mainly on the last three decades, each of the authors shows how women in various spheres of life have experienced, negotiated, contributed to, and sometimes resisted the various processes associated with modernisation and development in the region. A theme that runs throughout the collection is how women have made their mark as active agents in the dynamic processes of change, and have not just been passive spectators (or victims) of development and modernization. Another is the diversity of women's experiences, not simply from one country to the next, but within each of the countries examined in this volume.
  2. There are thirteen case studies in all. Following the editors' introduction, Maila Stevens examines what 'becoming modern' in Malaysia means, ranging from topics concerning class, education and the family to politics, religion and nation. Jasmine S. Chan looks at the status of women in Singapore with a focus on the authoritarian/patriarchal character of the state and the extent to which the ruling party has created a political context within which feminist resistance is constrained. Louise Edwards focuses on new challenges to the grand gender narrative which emerged in China after 1949 and proclaimed the liberation of women from the shackles of Confucian tradition. Edwards argues that it has been gradually dismantled since 1970, although women's status vis-à-vis men generally remains low. Ruchira Ganguly-Scrase's chapter on India discusses the diversity of women's experiences which are mediated by ethnic, class and religious factors. Her analysis shows clearly that, as in the other cases in the book, no unitary categorisation of women is possible. Diversity is again a prominent theme in Mina Roces' analysis of Filipino women's experiences which looks especially at the use of political and moral power by women as well as the extent to which the labels 'victim' and 'agent' are often problematic in assessing the impact of the wider processes of modernisation and globalisation. Next, Kathryn Robinson looks at the consequences of New Order politics and policies for women in Indonesia. The days since the fall of Suharto have held out hope for the reform of gender relations but previous patterns are still entrenched, including institutionalised violence against women.
  3. South Korea, and is the subject of Sasha Hampton's contribution which examines the legacy of Confucianism, the impact of women's employment, social mobility and political participation as well as sexual and domestic violence against women. Despite strong patriarchal attitudes and continuing gender inequalities, Hampton asserts that there have been positive legal reforms and a discernable improvement in women's status. The chapter by C. Tang, W.T. Au, Y.P. Chung and H.Y. Ngo looks at trends in the major indicators of women's status in Hong Kong, assessing the extent to which the remnants of the 'patriarchal paradigm' continue to affect women's status and opportunities. Elise K. Tipton's analysis of women in Japan once again highlights the theme of diversity showing how class, age, geography, ethnicity and education all affect the way in which gender relations are experienced. Like most of the other countries studied, there have been improvements in women's status generally but these are often uneven and the character of society remains patriarchal. The chapter by Lan-hung Nora Chiang on Taiwan describes significant changes for women which have gone hand-in-hand with Taiwan's transformation from a relatively poor agricultural society to a wealthy industrialised one over the past thirty years or so. Interestingly, the notion of the 'new good man', who embodies the best of traditional values while accepting much wider responsibilities in an age where women work outside the home, has apparently been popularised. Bhassorn Limanonda also reports significant progress for women in Thailand over the same period. Starting from a base of relatively more equitable cultural traditions derived from Theravada Buddhism, she argues that Thailand's economic and social development has provided many opportunities. However, problems such as domestic violence against women, recruitment for the sex industry both at home and abroad and discrimination in areas such as family law show that the apparently more favourable cultural context does not guarantee equality. Comparatively favourable cultural factors are also identified by Janell Mills in her analysis of women's status in Burma, but these have not been reflected in the most powerful national institutions—the government and the Buddhist monkhood. Decades of repressive military government also mean that the dominance of a militaristic, masculine regime have undermined women's customary independence. Finally, Esta Ungar examines gender relations in Vietnam as the country has evolved 'from militant to market socialism'. From the earlier period of socialism where gender equality was declared to a subsequent 're-Confucianisation' of gender relations, Vietnam provides another fascinating study of complex social change as it has affected women, for better and for worse.
  4. The quality of the contributions is uniformly high and the range of countries covered by the contributors make this particular collection one of the most extensive on any topic in the Asian region. There are some interesting cases missing—Cambodia for example. Even so, the overall project has produced a very comprehensive picture of changing gender relations under the dynamic economic and social conditions that have characterised the region in the last thirty or so years. One point of criticism that could be raised, and which applies to many contemporary studies, is the implicit dichotomisation of 'the West'/non-West—the latter in this case being 'Asia'. While tribute is paid to the irreducible diversity of the Asian region, there is a tendency to speak of a 'traditional Asian gender discourse' (p. 4) as opposed to one derived from 'Western feminism'. At the same time, however, there is an awareness that this kind of dichotomisation has often been deployed by governments in the region to brand 'less compliant women' as traitorous sell-outs to the West (p. 5). Such contradictions are almost inescapable when one posits regional entities as frameworks for analysis. However, this is food for further thought rather than a serious criticism. Overall the book provides a very fine contribution to the contemporary study of gender issues not just in the Asian region, but more generally.


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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