The Newsletter 74 Summer 2016

Women living beyond the norms

Linda Rae Bennett

Reviewed publication: Wieringa, S., with A. Bhaiya & N. Katjasungkana. 2014. Heteronormativity, Passionate Aesthetics and Symbolic Subversion in Asia, Sussex Academic Press, ISBN 9781845195502

Heteronormativity, Passionate Aesthetics and Symbolic Subversion in Asia by Saskia Wieringa, with Abha Bhaiya and Nursyahbani Katjasungkana, offers a nuanced cross-cultural comparison of the lives of women from two of the world’s most populated countries, India and Indonesia. The book focuses on the identities and life trajectories of three different groups of women living beyond the norms of heteronormativity, these are: women who are divorced or widowed; women who engage in sex work; and lesbians living in urban environments. The cross-cultural comparisons developed in the book are particularly pleasing because they refuse the all too common pattern of comparison between western and non-western cultures. That is, this book takes women from lower income countries within Asia and compares their identities and experiences against one another, without assuming high income and western experiences to be the norm against which other women’s lives are compared. This is a reflection of reality, as women in lower income countries such as India and Indonesia constitute the world’s majority population.

One of the stellar contributions of this book is the way in which it clearly spells out the complex processes and politics embedded in conducting feminist research in cross-cultural contexts, which is the focus of Chapter 1. It is a fine example of how knowledge can be co-constructed by women of different cultures, class backgrounds and women working in different sectors. This example of collaborative knowledge construction will be of great use to students wishing to embark on politically sound cross-cultural research, as well as activists and staff of community based organizations wanting to engage with more rigorous research beyond the narrow paradigm of monitoring and evaluation.

Perhaps the most significant contribution of this outstanding book is the relevance of its theoretical insights and in particular it’s convincing critique of heteronormativity. In Chapter 2, Wieringa articulates the key concepts that drive the analysis of women’s lives in the following chapters. She writes: “as an ideology and practice, heteronormativity exceeds heterosexuality and permeates all social institutions, such as education, law, religion and the media. Those conforming to its hegemonic pattern are ‘normal’ human beings, while those who fall outside of, or who place themselves beyond its boundaries, are ‘abnormal’, ‘abjected’, and routinely denied rights and entitlements.” Further, she rightly describes heterosexuality as “a double-edged sword that not only marginalises those who fall outside of its norms but also patrols those within its constraints.” The usefulness of this theoretical construct is virtually boundless; already I have applied it in my own work pertaining to the positioning of infertile women in Indonesia, who like janda, sex workers and lesbians are failing in the successful performance of heteronormativity.

Of equal theoretical interest are the concepts of passionate aesthetics and symbolic subversion also developed in this book. Through the notion of passionate aesthetics Wieringa articulates the complexity and interconnected aspects that make up gendered and sexual identities, behaviours, and status in any given society. She defines passionate aesthetics as, “a mix of institutions, dynamics, motivations, codes of behaviour, (re) presentation, subjectivities, and identities that make up the complex structure of desires, erotic attractions, sexual relations, and kinship and partnership patterns that are salient in a given context.” Symbolic subversion is also used to refer to a sliding scale of resistance to heteronormativity, ranging from public advocacy for rights to self-defeating strategies and various forms of adaptation. This chapter also provides an analysis of sexual citizenship in India and Indonesia that is carefully embedded within historical context and the wider debates and struggles occurring around sexual citizenship and rights in both societies.

Chapter 3 of this book is where the reader is engaged in greater detail with the women who are the narrators or subjects of the study. It explores how these different groups of women negotiate their lives in the public arena and details the varied ways in which such women are denied their rights and/or are socially excluded. Additionally, the chapter spells out how women respond to discrimination and exclusion, the varied strategies and positions they take up to make sense of their own subjectivity and to reconcile their religious and sexual identities. Chapter 4 moves into the private realm and offers a compelling destabilization of the happy Asian family norm. It exposes how heteronormative families do not necessarily represent safe spaces for women, regardless of their sexual identification or marital status. It traces lives affected by early marriage, intimate partner violence, and the denial of sexual and reproductive autonomy in marriage. It also shows how suffering in women’s families of origin, most often heteronormative families, left them wanting but ill-prepared to negotiate family lives with any more equality than those they were raised in.

Chapters 5 and 6 are concerned with unpicking how particular forms of heterosexuality are represented as both ‘normal’ and as ‘abnormal’. It draws on women’s narratives to explore how normal sexuality in both India and Indonesia are produced and enforced through mechanisms ranging from formal legal and religious injunctions to more subtle forms of persuasion and subjugation. Wieringa reveals that while the narrators of the study are positioned on the margins of heteronormative society, this does not mean they are free from the values and demands of heteronormativity. The exploration of ‘abnormal’ or abjected lives and sexualities delves into women’s liminal experiences. It identifies stark contrasts between how society views women and how they view themselves, while at the same time revealing how women still seek out heteronormative respectability.

Chapter 7 examines the intimate sex lives and desires of the women narrators of the study. It shows how the sex lives of non-normative women are closely surveilled in both societies. It exposes the many barriers women face in achieving satisfying sexual partnerships and experiences including self-censorship, gossip, family violence and social isolation. At the same time it illuminates that humour, a supportive partner and good friendships all contribute to the attainment of satisfying sex lives. Chapter 8 further explores how these non-normative women understand their own subjectivities and the identities bestowed on them by the societies they live in. The common pattern between all groups of women in both cultures is that they construct their identity in relation to the heteronormative society in which they are embedded, but which also seeks to exclude them.

Chapters 9 and 10 theorize the nature of women’s symbolic subversion, as well as the explicit strategies for imagining their futures – futures in which they will most likely remain marginalized by heteronormative society – but may still construct alternative relations of belonging and acceptance. Chapter 11 concludes the volume by teasing out the usefulness of the conceptual complexities developed within academic, activist and policy circles.

This volume demonstrates the importance of research that incorporates women’s interpretations and experiences of their intimate lives and personal subjectivities, and the enmeshment of personal and private sexual politics. The book is of wide appeal, starting with those working within queer studies and sexuality studies more broadly, as well as anthropologists, Asian studies and cultural studies scholars. It should be essential reading for all people seeking to understand both normative and non-normative gender and sexuality regimes in India and Indonesia. The work also extends the scope of earlier landmark contributions on female same sex desire in Asia (Blackwood and Wieringa, 1999) because of its inclusion of several categories of women who are constructed as ‘other’, according to the boundaries of heterosexuality. The theoretical contributions of the volume also serve as an important correction to the imbalance of western-derived queer theory.