Southeast Asian Politics
This module examines women’s attempts to negotiate political spaces in the realms of official and unofficial power in Southeast Asia in the 20th century. Southeast Asia is composed of 11 countries—Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Burma, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Brunei, and East Timor. In the early 20th century, Southeast Asian countries were still colonized (or semi-colonized) states. Hence, both Southeast Asian men and women were colonial subjects without political independence.
Nationalism and Feminism, 1920s-1970s
Western colonial rulers permitted Southeast Asian men a limited participation in the politics of the colonies, and by the 1920s the question of women’s suffrage had become an issue. The colonial situation introduced a tension between feminism and nationalism as budding feminists were pressured to prioritize national independence over women’s political agendas. While men campaigned for independence from colonial rule, women’s roles in that evolving nation were still contested. Women’s desire to be part of nation building and men’s reluctance to share that space equally raised dilemmas for the early feminists. For Southeast Asian men, supporting the nationalist project meant advocating immediate independence from Western colonial powers. For Southeast Asian women, supporting the nationalist project meant lobbying for a government that would disenfranchise them as women. Nonetheless, there was a lively suffrage movement in Southeast Asia with unique features that differed from Western first-wave feminism’s emphasis on formal political participation.
In the 1940s, the Japanese occupation of Southeast Asia introduced a new colonial ruler and a wartime situation. The women’s movement was temporarily put on hold because of wartime conditions, but women were active in the resistance movements against the Japanese. With the end of World War II, and the end of the revolutions against their colonizers, the newly independent nations of Southeast Asia experienced fragile democracies as governments oscillated between dictatorship and democracy. In Indonesia and the Philippines, the dictatorships in the 1970s laid the groundwork for a different type of feminist—the militant woman activist who fought dictators and demanded human rights. The tension between feminism and nationalism surfaced as women once again were asked to prioritize national liberation (the restoration of democratic institutions) over women’s rights (perceived as a “soft” issue).
Unofficial Power Versus Official Power
Western feminist theories cannot be easily applied to these societies, because Southeast Asia has different concepts of power and different prestige systems. Southeast Asian concepts of power see power held by the kinship group, and not just the person in office. This unique trait enables women to exercise political power outside the symbols of power/office through their kinship ties—as mothers, sisters, wives, daughters, and even mistresses of male politicians.
Because kinship politics (the use of political power to benefit the kinship group) is the dominant dynamic in Southeast Asian politics, women have been able to exercise quite an enormous amount of political power—albeit behind the scenes. Although unofficial power is the traditional way women exercise power (roughly 11% of Southeast Asia politicians are women), it is often women who first exercise unofficial power who become politicians. Connected to the kinship politics of their male relatives, these women are able to win election campaigns. In fact, the pattern is so prevalent that the Far Eastern Economic Review’s humor section advised women would-be politicians with the quip: “The avenues to political success are to choose one’s father carefully, or a husband likely to be assassinated.”1
While this power behind the scenes has been the traditional way for women to exercise power in the Southeast Asian context, feminists have lobbied and campaigned for women’s rights to exercise official power and to run for political office themselves. Interestingly, scholars have focused on official power and have not dealt with unofficial power (because it is seen to be undemocratic, illegitimate, and unaccountable), and have so far ignored the potential of unofficial power.
This module focuses on analyzing the contradictions in the traditional gendering of power, where women are given enormous power, albeit unofficial, as well as on women’s more recent efforts to attain official power.
1 Frank Ching, “Asia’s Women Leaders Depend on Parents’ or Husbands’ Fame”, Far Eastern Economic Review, August 19, 1993, 28.
Raden Ajeng Kartini is hailed in Indonesia as that country’s first feminist. She was born in April 21, 1879, in North Central Java, the daughter of a Javanese official serving the Dutch colonial government. During this time, women were secluded from the age of 14 until marriage. This did not stop Kartini from aspiring for higher education. She received a scholarship to study, but succumbed to family pressure not to continue her education. And despite her written pronouncements that she would never marry, she consented to be the consort (fourth wife) of a man 25 years her senior. A year after her marriage, shortly after the birth of her son, Kartini passed away at the age of 25. Prior to her marriage, Kartini founded a school for young girls.
Influenced by Dutch feminists, Kartini wrote passionately for the improvement of education, public health, economic welfare, and traditional arts in her country. The following source is an excerpt from a memorandum she wrote in January 1903 in response to a request from an official of the Dutch Ministry of Justice during a visit to Batavia. In it, Kartini makes two main points. First, Kartini argues that women should be educated because they are the mothers of the future nation’s leaders. She wanted Westernization and instruction in the Dutch language, something which in today’s parlance is seen as “un-nationalistic.” “Modernization” at that time, however, was associated with “Westernization.” Thus, the desire to modernize her country and access the language of knowledge could be interpreted as a “nationalist” move. Second, in Kartini’s view, given the resources and the Javanese population of 27 million, educational policy should first be directed to elite women who could then open schools for the rest of the “masses.” She did not believe grass cutters should be taught Dutch, but she did criticize the Javanese culture’s hierarchical nature, where younger siblings had to grovel to older ones and where norms dictated elaborate rituals of hierarchy. Overall, she wanted to alter relations between Indonesians and the Dutch a decade before the flowering of the nationalist movement.
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The primary sources in this module are designed to demonstrate the ways in which women have interacted with political power in Southeast Asia through the 20th century.
The first two sources—Nonfiction, Javanese Education and Nonfiction, Philippine Suffrage—essays written by elite women, are set in the colonial era of Indonesia and the Philippines. They demonstrate the tension between feminism and nationalism as well as dilemmas faced by the emerging women’s movement. In addition, they present the opportunity to create a definition of a “feminist” and are useful for establishing suffragists’ primary arguments for the franchise.
The next two sources—Court Records, Imelda Marcos and Newspaper, Unofficial Power—examine women in unofficial and official power. Unofficial power here is represented by former First Lady Imelda Marcos of the Philippines, who wielded enormous influence, and by a “scandal” involving the alleged former mistress of President Fidel Ramos, also of the Philippines.
The two women whose speeches are reproduced—Speech, Philippine State of The Nation and Speech, Burmese Democracy—are classic examples of the workings of kinship politics. The photographs of Imelda Marcos and Aung San Suu Kyi—Photograph, Philippine First Lady and Photograph, Burmese Activist—address the politics of dress, exploring how women have tapped into symbols of dress, particularly cultural constructions of the feminine as bearer and wearer of national tradition, to achieve their political agendas.
Finally, there are several documents about second-wave feminism in Southeast Asia—Song, Philippine Feminist Movement and Website, Sisters In Islam. Feminism is still a negative word in Southeast Asia. “Feminism” is seen as “Western” and associated with the radical feminism of the 1960s (particularly the “bra burners”). Most activists prefer the term “womanist.” These sources offer insight into how feminists “packaged” their ideas to promote the women’s movement.
They provide the opportunity to raise the issue of the “Orientalized” image of Filipinas worldwide as domestic helpers, “mail-order brides,” or prostitutes. The song Maria provides an opportunity to compare the tensions between feminism and nationalism over time. Although Kartini wrote her essay (Nonfiction, Javanese Education) and GABRIELA produced Maria in different countries and at different times, the tensions between feminism and nationalism are ever present. This theme cuts across countries (space) and across time (colonial and postcolonial eras).
Website, Sisters In Islam is an example of women who have confronted religious definitions of the feminine in a transnational context. This source can be the basis for a discussion on feminism and religion—in particular Islam. It is possible to discuss veiling (dress) as well since veiling is not traditional to Malaysia. If students are interested, the Resources section offers website addresses of two other transnational organizations—AWARE in Singapore and GABRIELA in the Philippines. Students can analyze the character of these organizations through their websites.
- Is Kartini a feminist or a nationalist or both? Was she an elitist? Why or why not?
- What are the differences between Filipino first-wave feminism and Western first-wave feminism?
- To what extent was the debate on Filipino suffrage a debate about how “the Filipino woman” was going to be defined in the early 20th century?
- Is unofficial power real power? Is it problematic that it is linked to the male? Should scholars ignore unofficial power and focus on women’s access to official power only?
- Are Imelda Marcos and Rosemarie Arenas feminists? Are they the embodiment of women’s empowerment?
- Do the speeches of Corazon Aquino and Aung San Suu Kyi reflect a feminist perspective?
- What are the similarities and differences between how Corazon Aquino and Aung San Suu Kyi represent themselves as moral guardians and as alter egos of men?
- How does Imelda Marcos and Aung San Suu Kyi's dress reflect their conscious self-representation? How do they want people to interpret their dress, and how might their audiences have interpreted it differently? For example, historian Emma Tarlo showed how Mahatma Gandhi wore the loincloth made of white Khadi (course, homespun cloth) to send the message that India’s poverty would be solved by hand-spinning and freedom from British rule. But for many Indian people, the loincloth sent a different message—that he was a holy man, a saint, an ascetic. (See Emma Tarlo, Clothing Matters Dress and Identity in India, (London: Hurst & Co, 1996), chapter 2.)
- What does the song Maria portray as the traditional definition of Filipina woman (a cook, beauty queen, or sex object; someone who accepts oppression or is resigned to it)? The song raises alternative models for women. What sort of alternative role models does the song suggest?
- How does Islam define the feminine in Malaysia? And then how does the Sisters In Islam group challenge or attempt to redefine the feminine?
Constructing Womanhood: Politics in 20th-Century Southeast Asia
Five 50-minute blocks and DBQ as an independent assignment.
After completing this lesson, students will be able to:
- analyze textual primary sources.
- analyze visual primary sources.
- recognize gender as a social construction.
- understand that those social constructions change over time.
- Sufficient copies of the Southeast Asian Politics Introduction
- Sufficient copies of the following sources, stapled together:
- Sufficient copies of Primary Source Analysis Worksheet: Images
- Sufficient copies of Primary Source Analysis Worksheet: Texts
- Write the word “feminine” on the board. Ask your students to write down the first three words that come to mind when they see that word.
- Write the word “masculine” on the board. Ask your students to write down the first three words that come to mind when they see that word.
- Ask your students to share their responses; as they say them, write their responses underneath of “feminine” and “masculine.”
- Discuss their responses. What generalizations can they make about their ideas of femininity and masculinity? Where do these ideas come from?
- Write the sentence “Gender is a social construction,” on the board, then explain that what they have been describing have been ways that our society constructs, or creates, gender. Other societies have different beliefs about what it means to be a man or a woman, and what roles men and women should play in a society. For the next week, the class will be examining how gender roles were constructed in Southeast Asia in the twentieth century.
Contextualizing the Sources:
- Direct students to read the Southeast Asian Politics Introduction.
- As they read, they should answer the following questions on a separate sheet of paper:
- What time period and area of the world is the subject of the introduction?
- Students should answer that it focuses on 20th-century Southeast Asia.
- Summarize how Southeast Asia’s relationship to the rest of the world changed between 1920 and 1970.
- Students should answer that most Southeast Asian countries went from being colonized by European nations, to being occupied by Japan, to being independent nations.
- Students should see that as new governments were created, different groups of people wanted different things out of that government. Some wanted democracy, while others wanted a strong central authority. Students may theorize that these struggles occurred because there was a power vacuum left by the European colonizers.
- Students should answer that women mostly played unofficial roles, meaning that they exercised power behind the scenes through their kinship groups. Some women campaigned for women to have official power as well.
Introduction to Primary Sources:
- Explain to students that they will be using primary sources to research social constructions of womanhood in 20th-century Southeast Asia. Introduce the idea of a primary source by explaining that they are sources created during the time period being studied.
- Pass out copies of Primary Source Analysis Worksheet: Images and Primary Source Analysis Worksheet: Texts
- Instruct students to examine Source 7: Painting, Philippine First Lady and fill out the worksheet for images.
- Instruct students to examine Source 1: Nonfiction, Javanese Education and fill out the worksheet for texts.
- Discuss their responses as a class, emphasizing the importance of primary sources in doing historical research.
Analyzing Social Constructions of Womanhood:
- Direct students to read all of the sources in their source packet. Remind them that they are reading with a purpose: to understand and analyze how ideas of womanhood were constructed in 20th-century Southeast Asia. If students have access to computers, also direct them to explore Source 10: Website, Sisters in Islam on the web.
- After students have completed an initial reading of the sources, direct them to work in partners to pull apart the sources. Ask them to:
- Pick out clues that indicate what it meant to be a woman in this time period, in this area of the world. Students should circle key words and sentences and make notes in the margins. Remind students to make a note of the date each document was created so that they are aware of change over time.
- Create a concept map to reflect the competing notions of womanhood they found in the documents. Students may create a map that shows two major trends: one of women as moral guardians and more traditionally feminine, and one of women as activists and more androgynous. Or, students may create a map that reconciles those competing notions by acknowledging that both recognize women’s power, just in different realms. Students may also create a map that reflects chronological changes in gender constructions. There is no “correct” concept map.
- Ask each group to share their map with the class and explain why they made the decisions they made about organizing their information.
- Guide students in a discussion around the following questions:
- What did it mean to be a woman in 20th-century Southeast Asia?
- Students should make generalizations based on their concept maps.
- How were notions of womanhood used by women to achieve political goals?
- Students should recognize that Southeast Asian women used womanhood as justification for achieving more rights. The most common argument was that women, as mothers and moral guardians, controlled the spiritual and political future of the nation and therefore should be given more education and entrusted with more political rights. Other arguments, later in the 20th century, focused more on women as men’s equals, and therefore deserving of equal rights.
- What generalizations can you make around how ideas of womanhood changed from the beginning of the twentieth century to the end? How can you account for these changes?
- Students should see that portrayals of women as traditionally feminine were used in the early 20th century; feminist descriptions of women as equals to men were used in the late 20th century. The main trend is a move away from emphasizing women’s differences from men and toward emphasizing women’s sameness with men. Students might theorize that these changes happened because of the influence of Western ideas of power—the unofficial power that women held in Southeast Asia was not recognized as “real” power in Western society. Students might also theorize that the rhetoric used to argue for Southeast Asian nations’ independence would have resonated with women, who also wanted freedom and justice.
Document-Based Essay Question:
- Distribute copies of the Document-Based Essay Question.
- Allow students time in class to brainstorm and outline their ideas.
- Instruct students to complete the essay for homework.
- Use a SMART Board to examine Source 10: Website, Sisters in Islam together. Discuss the language and the imagery chosen by the Sisters in Islam to convey their message. Click on the “Links” tab on the website to visit other, similar sites. Compare how those sites are constructed and which ones are the most effective at conveying their message. Note: The content of the sites may not be appropriate for all age groups.
- Ask students to use laptops to create the concept map under step number four, “Analyzing Social Constructions of Womanhood.” They may use SMART Ideas or Inspiration. Ask them to email the maps to you when they are done, then display the best one on the SMART Board and use it to guide your discussion.
- Accelerate the lesson by skipping step three, “Introduction to Primary Sources.”
- Instruct students to complete the Document-Based Essay at home; do not allow for extra in-class time to complete outlines and do brainstorming around the question.
Less Advanced Students:
Less Advanced Students:
- Give students extra time to complete the Document-Based Essay by adding an intermediate step of handing in their outlines for comments before writing the essay.
Document Based Question
Document Based Question (Suggested writing time: 40 minutes)
Directions: The following question is based on the documents included in this module. This question is designed to test your ability to work with and understand historical documents. Write an essay that:
- Has a relevant thesis and supports that thesis with evidence from the documents.
- Uses all or all but one of the documents.
- Analyzes the documents by grouping them in as many appropriate ways as possible. Does not simply summarize the documents individually.
- Takes into account both the sources of the documents and the authors' points of view.
You may refer to relevant historical information not mentioned in the documents.
Question: Analyze how the relationship between social constructions of womanhood and power changed during the 20th-century in Southeast Asia.
Be sure to analyze point of view in at least three documents or images.
What additional sources, types of documents, or information would you need to have a more complete view of this topic?
This is the first study documenting the concept of “unofficial power” in the Philippines and uses case studies of Mrs. Marcos and wives, sisters, mothers, daughters and mistresses of male politicians.
AWARE (Association of Women for Action and Research), http://www.aware.org.sg/
GABRIELA (General Assembly Binding Women for Reforms, Integrity, Equality, Leadership, and Action), http://www.gabnet.org
Grateful acknowledgement is made to the following institutions for primary sources:
University of Michigan, The United States and its Territories: the Age of Imperialism
About the Author
Mina Roces is Senior Lecturer at the University of New South Wales School of History in Sydney, Australia. She is author of Women, Power and Kinship Politics: Female Power in Post-War Philippines (1998) and Kinship Politics in Post-War Philippines: The Lopez Family, 1945-1999 (2001), and coeditor of the anthologies Women in Asia (2000) and Wife or Worker? Asian Women and Migration (2003). Her research interests include postwar Philippine politics, the politics of dress in the Philippines, and Filipino migrants in Australia.
About the Lesson Plan Author
Janelle Collett is a history teacher and faculty technology leader at Springside School in Philadelphia, PA.