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Monday, July 30, 2012

Women in Pre-Colonial Southeast Asia (1/2)

"The relative autonomy enjoyed by women extended to sexual relations. Southeast Asian literature of the period leaves us in little doubt that women took a very active part in courtship and lovemaking, and demanded as much as they gave by way of sexual and emotional gratification. The literature describes the physical attractiveness of male heroes and their appeal to women as enthusiastically as it does the reverse.... “If Hang Tuah passed, married women tore them selves from the embraces of their husbands so that they could go out and see him.” Romantic tales of love were as prominent as in any other of the world’s literatures...

Even more characteristic of an essentially Southeast Asian genius were (and are) the earthy rhyming quatrains known as pantun in Malay and lam in many of the Tai languages. They do not always deal with matters of love, but their most characteristic spontaneous expression was as a dialogue between man and woman or the two parties to a marriage negotiation, taking the form of a battle of the sexes in which each tried to outdo the other in wit and suggestive allusion...

As usual, Chou Ta-kuan had a colourful way of describing the expectations the Cambodian women of his day [1297] had of their men. “If the husband is called away for more than ten days, the wife is apt to say, ‘I am not a spirit: how am I supposed to sleep alone?”... At Javanese marriages, according to Raffles, the groom was solemnly warned, “If you should happen to be absent from her for the space of seven months on shore, or one year at sea, without giving her any subsistence. . . your marriage shall be dissolved, if your wife desires it, without further form or process.”...

The most graphic demonstration of the strong position women enjoyed in sexual matters was the painful surgery men endured on their penis to increase the erotic pleasure of women. Once again, this is a phenomenon whose dispersion throughout Southeastern Asia is very striking.... A careful recent survey of the ethnographic evidence suggests that the phenomenon may best be understood as a symptom of the power and autonomy enjoyed by Southeast Asian women. The authors show ... that some women also undergo a clitoral circumcision kept secret from men and purported to enhance female sexual pleasure. The early Southeast Asian pattern appears to be the opposite of that in parts of Africa, where surgery was designed either to enhance sexual gratification in men or to decrease it in women.

The most draconian surgery was the insertion of a metal pin, complemented by a variety of wheels, spurs, or studs, in the central and southern Philippines and parts of Borneo. Pigafetta was the first of the astonished Europeans to describe [in 1524] the practice:

The males, large and small, have their penis pierced from one side to the other near the head with a gold or tin bolt as large as a goose quill. In both ends of the same bolt some have what resembles a spur, with points upon the ends; other are like the head of a cart nail. I very often asked many, both old and young, to see their penis because I could not credit it. In the middle of the bolt is a hole, through which they urinate. .. . They say their women wish it so, and that if they did otherwise they would not have communication with them. When men wish to have communication with their women, the latter themselves take the penis not in the regular way and commence very gently to introduce it, with the spur on top first, and then the other part. When it is inside it takes its regular position; and thus the penis always stays inside until it gets soft, for otherwise they could not pull it out....

The same result was obtained in other parts of Southeast Asia by the less painful but probably more delicate operation of inserting small balls or bells under the loose skin of the penis. The earliest report [1433] is from the Chinese Muslim Ma Huan. He reported in Siam,

when a man has attained his twentieth year, they take the skin which surrounds the membrum virile, and with a fine knife... they open it up and insert a dozen tin beads inside the skin; they close it up and protect it with medicinal herbs... The beads look like a cluster of grapes... If it is the king... or a great chief or a wealthy man, they use gold to make hollow beads, inside which a grain of sand is placed... They make a tinkling sound, and this is regarded as beautiful.

Numerous European writers note the same phenomenon in Pegu during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries... The primary purpose seems again the pleasure of the female. When the Dutch admiral Jacob van Neck asked in some astonishment what purpose was served by the sweet-sounding little golden bells the wealthy Thais of Patani carried in their penises, they replied that “the women obtain inexpressible pleasure from it.”"

--- Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce, 1450—1680, vol. 1, The Lands below the Winds / Anthony Reid.
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