Pushing the Limits of Women’s History

Niels Mulder

One of the convincing reasons for embarking on her prodigious investigation is the conviction that the assessment of change in the contemporary world demands a much stronger historical base than currently exists. Besides, because of the colonial interlude, long-term developments and trends tend to be obfuscated as if change were an eminently European contribution to local history. As a consequence, a separation between the ‘modern' and ‘premodern' periods characterises much of the literature, and so we risk underestimating the ways in which earlier developments had already affected women's lives.

The study's title represents in outline the topics to be discussed, to wit, Southeast Asia, the early modern period, and women in that place and through time. Because area studies are inherently comparative, the author does not hesitate to widely cast her net and, most refreshing, to draw her data, as if she were an anthropologist, from a great variety of ‘unconventional' sources, such as performance and textiles, oral traditions and folklore.

What is Southeast Asia

Be this as it may, the first topic to be evaluated is whether there is any good reason to treat Southeast Asia as an area delineated by certain traits that set it apart from South and East Asia. One of the often reiterated characteristics would be the relative independence and favourable status of women if compared to their Indian and Chinese sisters. Whereas these independence and status have certainly much to do with the prevalence of bilateral descent in most of the area, we will, in the relevant chapters on women's experiences, also learn how independence and status have changed through time.

As a matter of fact, there is much more to say about Southeast Asia's traits than women's status and cognative descent. All the great religions that established themselves in the region came from the world outside, and most often rather late. Much of its littoral stretches along the mare nostrum of the South China cum Java Seas, thus allowing for trade and cultural contact. The ubiquitous outrigger boats-well nigh the safest in the world-enabled migration over the expanse between Madagascar, Hawai'i and Easter Island. Besides, there are cultural attributes, such as the inviolable position of the mother and the pervasive force of original animism, which set the region, in spite of its diversity, apart as a culture area (Mulder 2000, 2003). Apart from where it concerns the position of women, however, Watson Andaya shies away from cultural speculation while privileging the economics of agriculture and marketing, and, fairly original, geography. Because of the mountainous topography stretching between the Indian Subcontinent and most of South China, plus the sweep of Indian and Pacific Oceans, it is eminently plausible to speak of a Southeast Asian zone.


Early modernity

The second topic to be addressed is whether, historiographically, Early Modernity is a meaningful category, and if so, where and how to identify its sources, and whether these allow us to venture any generalisation about women's history. The answer is positive, as the introduction of new religions, the incorporation in the global trading system, the major economic shifts they triggered, and changing patterns of state control and elite lifestyles provide strong arguments to analyse the era between roughly 1500 and 1800 as a distinct period.



From then on, the focus is on the vicissitudes of being female while considering the impact on women's lives of the introduction of new religions, namely, the recent advance of Theravada Buddhism and the then current conversions to Islam and Catholicism. This is followed by a discussion of the impact of the penetration of the emerging global economy, then by the influence of the steadily expanding power of the centralising state. Whatever the impetus of change, all appear to conspire to diminish female independence and status: the great religions privilege the male and tend to concurrently detract from the ritual position of women; the evolving commercial networks become a male-to-male domain, yet leave an important part of the domestic economy to women; at the same time, the state's hold over its subjects increased, even as it had to ultimately rely on the cooperation of the family and the acceptance of a gender hierarchy controlled by men.

The chapter on ‘Women, Courts, and Class' relies on sources originating from the wealthy and the powerful, yet careful and creative analysis may lead to the conclusion that they constitute a fertile field for women's history, and if so, there still remains an abundance of texts to be exploited. Upon this, the last substantive chapter promises to consider ‘Being Female' in the period under discussion, and follows the characteristic stages of the female life cycle, such as from birth to menses, from menses to menopause, and then old age. Whereas these stages are universal, they are filled in with a wide scope of materials from Southeast Asia, and hopefully possess the potential to open wider ranging conversations that will shed light on being female through a variety of historical and cultural environments.



The author will be the first to admit that her impressive and highly original study is explorative. She uncovers an unusually wide gamut of source material from all over Southeast Asia, but remains highly conscious of its limitations, a quality that is reflected in the text. Whereas the first two chapters, on Southeast Asia and early modernity respectively, contain well-rounded arguments, the limitations of the reference material lead to an eclectic way of presentation in which we are confronted with snippets of information from all sorts of sources that sometimes prevent us from seeing the wood for the trees. This stratagem, however, opens up new venues for investigation while setting goal posts for ambitious others, because Watson Andaya has succeeded in convincing her readers, even on the basis of the provisional evidence she explored, that the historical base from which to judge the position of women in the present and the past can indeed be pushed back to the ‘premodern' period.




Mulder, Niels. 2000. Inside Southeast Asia: Religion. Everyday Life. Cultural Change. Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books.


-----. 2003. Southeast Asian Images: Towards Civil Society? Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books.


Niels Mulder


Retired independent researcher of Filipino, Javanese and Thai culture, currently working on his field biography, such as Doing Thailand; the anthropologist as a young dog in Bangkok in the 1960s. Bangkok: White Lotus 2008, and Doing Java; an anthropological detective story. Yogyakarta: Kanisius, 2006