Bewitching Women, Pious Men: Gender and Body Politics in Southeast Asia / Edition 1

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"This collection presents new ethnographic research, framed in terms of new theoretical developments, and contains fine scholarship and lively writing."-Janet Hoskins, University of Southern California

"This is a wonderful collection of essays. At one level they tell us about the transformation and often painful fragmentation of gendered selves in post-colonial states and a speeded-up transnational world. At another level they display the continuing power of ethnography to surprise and move us."-Sherry Ortner, University of California, Berkeley

Author Biography: Aihwa Ong is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of Spirits of Resistance and Capitalist Discipline (1987). Michael G. Peletz is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Colgate University and author of A Share of the Harvest (California, 1988).


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Editorial Reviews

Ten interdisciplinary contributions address topics including the writing of feminist Filipinas, Thai stories of widow ghosts, an eye-witness account of a beheading, narratives of bewitching genitals, and market women as femmes fatales. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520088610
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 9/7/1995
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 314
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.75 (d)

Meet the Author

Aihwa Ong is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of Spirits of Resistance and Capitalist Discipline (1987). Michael G. Peletz is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Colgate University and author of A Share of the Harvest (California, 1988).

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Read an Excerpt

Bewitching Women, Pious Men

Gender and Body Politics in Southeast Asia

By Aihwa Ong, Michael G. Peletz


Copyright © 1995 the Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-91534-3


Why Women Rule the Roost: Rethinking Javanese Ideologies of Gender and Self-Control

Suzanne A. Brenner

Suzanne Brenner's opening essay both draws upon and provides a vital, gendered critique of Benedict Anderson's pioneering (1972) work on Javanese notions of spiritual power or potency. Her main concern is to point up the limits and silences of the "official line" emphasized in the literature on Java—for example, that Javanese men tend to avoid trading in the marketplace and managing the domestic economy because of concerns that their involvement in such domains might undermine their spiritual potency or otherwise sully their status. Arguing that such explanations only go so far, Brenner delineates the alternative, largely counterhegemonic, view, heretofore given scant attention in the ethnographic literature, that men do not actively participate in such domains because they are, as Thomas Stamford Raffles put it early in the nineteenth century, "fools in money concerns" owing to their inability to control their passions or desires (nafsu) and thus act in accordance with their reason or rationality (akal). This alternative view holds that women, inherently more capable of controlling their base desires, are better suited than men to accumulating material and spiritual resources that can be invested in the production of the family's status in the wider society. It thus challenges the commonplace assumption that Javanese women are less concerned with matters of status. But what are the limits of women's self-control? As a domain long managed by women, the marketplace continues to be seen as a place where women cannot be controlled by men. Rumors of rampant sexuality among female traders point to the ambivalence with which women's self-control is viewed, further complicating the linkages that have been posited between self-control, status, and spiritual potency in Java.

Brenner's focus on contrasting representations of gender and shifting embodiments of power and status not only provides a vital corrective to the literature on Javanese ideologies of gender and self-control; it also contributes to our understanding of the contextually specific and highly variable and contingent ways in which masculinities and femininities are constructed, contested, and otherwise reworked in contemporary Islamic societies through discourses drawing on (more or less) pan-Islamic notions of "reason" and "passion." More fundamentally, it calls into question the value of totalizing models of power and prestige that take male dominance for granted without considering the multiple discourses and conflicting logics at play in any gendered field.

The ethnographic literature on Java has referred repeatedly over the years to a concept that can be glossed as "spiritual potency" (see Keeler 1987, 1990; C. Geertz 1960; Anderson 1972; Hatley 1990; S. Errington 1990). According to a number of ethnographic accounts, there is a common belief among Javanese people that individuals have the potential to develop a concentration of inner spiritual strength through the sustained practice of emotional and behavioral self-control. Individuals who have amassed this mystical power are said to be recognizable through their constantly calm demeanor, their refined speech styles and comportment, and their ability to elicit deferential behavior from others without apparent coercion or effort. Such individuals are lauded for achieving the goal of self-mastery, ultimately leading to the ability to master others (Anderson 1972; Keeler 1987).

Ideas about spiritual potency do seem to be widespread in Java. It is clear, however, that these ideas have been most highly elaborated and systematically perpetuated among the ranks of the traditional Javanese aristocratic-cum-bureaucratic elite, the priyayi (see C. Geertz 1960; J. Errington 1984, 1988; Sutherland 1979). The concept of spiritual potency and the practices associated with it reinforce the ethical codes, behavioral norms, and linguistic styles that uphold priyayi claims to high status and cultural superiority. This concept is thus part of a larger ideological system that legitimates the deeply entrenched social hierarchies of Javanese society, especially those that have developed in the environs of the courtly centers of Solo and Yogyakarta. The ideology of spiritual potency supports the notion that people of high social status are inherently deserving of that status, and deserving of the deferential behavior and language that high status commands, because of their superior spiritual strength and moral worth.

Although the elite priyayi class includes females as well as males, I suggest that these ideologies of spiritual potency reinforce the superiority of priyayi males in particular, while placing all females, regardless of social class, in a categorically inferior spiritual, moral, and social position. The assertion that males are spiritually stronger than females is used to justify priyayi declarations that women should defer to and faithfully serve men, whether their husbands, fathers, or rulers. Within this ideological framework, it is often said that men have greater self-control than women over their emotions and behavior, suggesting that men are "naturally" stronger than women in a spiritual sense, and that women should "naturally" defer to them as a result. The fact that these ideologies are not confined to the ranks of the priyayi alone, but are also commonly voiced among other elements of the Javanese population, indicates that their influence on gender relations and identities in Javanese society deserves some attention.

Several types of linguistic and behavioral "evidence" are used to support the idea that men have greater self-control, and therefore greater spiritual potency, than women. It is said, for example, that men have greater mastery over the hierarchical intricacies and etiquette of the Javanese language, thereby indicating their superior personal refinement; that men are more able and more inclined than women to perform various sorts of ascetic practices, which both reflect upon and augment their power and self-control; and that men's sexual prowess and potency is linked to a more spiritual kind of potency that women lack.

While Javanese women sometimes express their agreement with these assertions of male power and self-control, they frequently give accounts of male and female behavior that directly contradict the same notions. This paper will explore conflicting Javanese representations of gender, drawing into question the stereotyped, male-centered visions of male potency—inevitably suggesting female impotency—that pervade Javanese cultural representations, and which have in turn shaped ethnographic accounts of how gender "works" in Java. It will focus on ideas about human passions and the ability to control those passions, and how these ideas underlie the negotiation of male and female identities and statuses within the broader social order. The marketplace and the home—two places that are closely associated with women in Javanese thought—will be seen not only as sites of economic production and of social and biological reproduction, but also as sites where conflicting understandings of male and female nature are symbolically and ideologically negotiated.

Although many scholars have recognized the need to draw a distinction between ideologies of gender and the actual social practices that may belie those ideologies (e.g., Tsing 1990; Keeler 1990), there remains a persistent tendency for ethnographic accounts to privilege dominant or hegemonic representations of gender. By "dominant" or "hegemonic" representations or ideologies, I refer to those models that support the claims of a particular category of people to superior status and power, models which are most likely to be invoked in formal discourse and which are most often accorded a position of supremacy among other, potentially competing models. Ideologies, particularly the clearly articulated gender ideologies that many people seem to have ready at the tips of their tongues, tend to have a simplicity and even elegance to them that is difficult to resist. These dominant representations have a way of taking over studies of gender even when the writer is fully aware that they do not exhaust the full range of cultural discourses or social practices.

As a result, the ethnographic record presents a somewhat uneven picture of gender in Java—a topic that has been treated quite shallowly to date. It emphasizes certain prevalent, generally male-focused gender ideologies, while paying scant attention to less systematically articulated conceptions of gender, especially those that are voiced more often by women. In this paper I will point to an alternative, sometimes submerged view of male and female nature that presents a counterpoint to more conventional depictions of gender in Java. In the final analysis, however, no single configuration of gender relations can be considered absolutely "correct" or total, because constructions of gender invariably encode conflicting and ambivalent meanings that can never be fully reconciled (Ong 1987, 1990; Flax 1990).


At a certain point in many Javanese wedding ceremonies, the bride and groom approach each other. When a few paces still remain between them, each one takes up a small quantity of betel (sirih) and throws it at the other, the idea being that the one whose betel hits the other person first will be the dominant partner in the marriage. It is often said that the bride should make sure that she loses the contest, but apparently the outcome is not always predictable. In a tone of mild amusement, Augusta de Wit describes this nuptial ritual as she observed it early in this century:

With measured steps, the two advanced towards each other; and whilst yet at some distance paused. Two small bags of sirih-leaves containing chalk and betel-nuts were handed them; and with a quick movement each threw his at the other's head. The bride's little bag struck the groom full in the face. "It is she that will rule the roost," said one of the women, chuckling. And I fancied I saw a gleam of satisfaction pass over the bride's demure little face, half hidden though it was by the strings of beads and jessamine flowers dependent from her head dress. The next moment however, she had humbly knelt down on the floor. One of the bridesmaids handed her a basin full of water and a towel; and she proceeded to wash her husband's feet, in token of loyalty and loving submission (De Wit [1912] 1984:306–307).

This small ritual seems to epitomize the ambivalence with which the gendered division of domestic power is viewed in Java. On the one hand, the dominant ideology dictates that the wife should defer to her husband's greater prestige and authority as the nominal head of the household; thus, the bride is supposed to make sure that the groom wins the betel battle, and washes his foot "in token of loyalty and loving submission." On the other hand, the reality of the situation is that in many Javanese households, women enjoy a de facto power which far outweighs that of their husbands. Consequently, no one is too surprised if the bride's betel strikes the groom first.

The observations of a host of anthropologists confirm that in the majority of homes, the woman does indeed "rule the roost"; Robert Jay puts it quite bluntly when he writes that married men in rural Java are "probably among the most henpecked lot of husbands anywhere in the world" (Jay 1969:92). Scholars have remarked in particular on the prominent economic roles of women and their central position in the household (H. Geertz 1961; Jay 1969; Stoler 1977; Koentjaraningrat 1985; Siegel 1986; Papanek and Schwede 1988; Keeler 1987, 1990; Hatley 1990). The dominance of women in the household is almost invariably linked to their economic power, often both inside and outside the home. In The Javanese Family, for example, Hildred Geertz notes that within the domestic domain, "The wife makes most of the decisions; she controls all family finances, and although she gives her husband formal deference and consults with him on major matters, it is usually she who is dominant" (1961:46). Much earlier accounts of Javanese society reveal that women's economic clout is not a modern development; in 1817, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles wrote, "It is usual for the husband to entrust his pecuniary affairs entirely to his wife. The women alone attend the markets, and conduct all the business of buying and selling. It is proverbial to say that the Javanese men are fools in money concerns" ([1817] 1965:353).

In most Javanese families today, regardless of social class or occupation, the wife continues to manage household finances.4 Javanese women often voice the opinion that men are incompetent in managing money, and many men seem to agree (cf. H. Geertz 1961; Jay 1969). Husbands are expected to turn over most or all of their income to their wives, who in turn allocate it as they see fit for household expenditures, sometimes giving their husbands only pocket money with which to buy cigarettes or snacks. Although one hears complaints on both sides-the wife grumbling that her husband keeps more for himself than he should, while the husband feels that his wife demands too much from him-this financial arrangement is generally accepted as the proper one between husband and wife. At a wedding that I attended in a village in Central Java, the village headman delivered a typical lecture of fatherly advice to the bride and groom, amplified through the public address system for all the guests present to hear, during the course of which he drew attention to "the notion that we Javanese have of 'female money,'" (dhuwit wédok). "This means," he instructed the young couple, "that the husband should set aside a portion of his wage every month to turn over to his wife." However, many people—women in particular-would argue that a man should give his entire salary to his wife, not just a portion of it.

With regard to patterns of inheritance and property ownership, women also fare quite well relative to men. Both descent and inheritance are reckoned bilaterally in Java (as is true in many parts of Indonesia and in Southeast Asia more generally). Javanese custom prescribes that daughters and sons should inherit equal shares of property from their parents; this can include land, houses, jewelry, money, and other valuables. Women often own property separately from their husbands, particularly property that they have inherited from their own parents, and they may dispose of it as they please (H. Geertz 1961). Husbands have no claim over their wives' property and, in the event of divorce, a woman may take with her whatever she inherited or otherwise brought with her into the marriage. Property that has been owned jointly by a husband and wife is usually divided evenly between them if they are divorced.

Women not only manage their husbands' incomes and control their own inherited property; they are also very important economic contributors to their households in their own right. In many households women earn as much as or more than their husbands. In fact, they are often the main or even sole breadwinners for their families. This is certainly the case in households where men are absent (many households are headed by women alone, in part because of the high divorce rate in Java), but it is also true in some households where both husband and wife are present. Women's earnings through agricultural or other wage labor, craft manufacture, trade, or employment in the informal sector (for instance, as domestic servants or sidewalk food vendors) not infrequently exceed their husbands' economic contributions to the household. Many Javanese women also pursue careers as civil servants, teachers, doctors, and owners or employees of shops and other private businesses.

In the merchant community of Solo, the city in Central Java where I conducted research, women were quite commonly the major providers for their families as textile merchants or market traders, while their husbands took a back seat to them in running the family businesses and in managing household finances. What Raffles observed in the early nineteenth century continues to be true in Solo today: among the Javanese, women dominate the markets, from petty retail trade up to the lucrative large-scale wholesale trade in agricultural products, textiles, and other commodities. In the region of Central Java that includes the court cities of Solo and Yogyakarta, it is a commonplace that a market stall entrusted to a Javanese man is doomed to failure (cf. Atmowiloto 1986). The prevailing stereotype in Solo is that while the wife goes off each day to the market to earn a living for her family, her husband stays at home, amusing himself by whistling to his songbirds. In this sense, the relationship of men and women to money at the marketplace closely parallels the situation found in the home: just as men are deemed ill suited to handling household finances, they are also considered incapable of competently managing many kinds of businesses.


Excerpted from Bewitching Women, Pious Men by Aihwa Ong, Michael G. Peletz. Copyright © 1995 the Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Contributors
Introduction 1
1 Why Women Rule the Roost: Rethinking Javanese Ideologies of Gender and Self-Control 19
2 Narrating Herself: Power and Gender in a Minangkabau Woman's Tale of Conflict 51
3 Neither Reasonable nor Responsible: Contrasting Representations of Masculinity in a Malay Society 76
4 Senior Women, Model Mothers, and Dutiful Wives: Managing Gender Contradictions in a Minangkabau Village 124
5 State Versus Islam: Malay Families, Women's Bodies, and the Body Politic in Malaysia 159
6 State Fatherhood: The Politics of Nationalism, Sexuality, and Race in Singapore 195
7 Alternative Filipina Heroines: Contested Tropes in Leftist Feminisms 216
8 Attack of the Widow Ghosts: Gender, Death, and Modernity in Northeast Thailand 244
9 Narratives of Masculinity and Transnational Migration: Filipino Workers in the Middle East 274
Index 299
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