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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

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

"Among the overwhelming majority of ordinary people, the pattern of monogamy was reinforced by the ease of divorce, the preferred means of ending an unsatisfactory union. In the Philippines, “marriages last only so long as harmony prevails, for at the slightest cause in the world they divorce one another.” In Siam, similarly, Husband and Wife may part again at pleasure, dealing their goods and children without further circumstance, and may re-marry if they think good, without fear of shame or punishment.”.... Throughout the island world the rule appeared to be that the wife (or her parents) kept the bride-wealth if the husband took the initiative to end the marriage, but had to repay it if she was primarily responsible. At least in the Philippines and Siam the children of a marriage were divided at divorce, the first going to the mother, the second to the father, and so on....

That the majority Muslim population of Indonesia and Malaysia had divorce rates in excess of 50 percent as late as the 1960s is sometimes attributed to the influence of Islam in sanctioning easy divorce for men. Much more important, however, was the pan-South east-Asian pattern of female autonomy, which meant that divorce did not markedly reduce a woman’s livelihood, status, or network of kin support. In noting the acceptance the Javanese gave to women of twenty-two or twenty-three living with their fourth or fifth husband, Earl [1837] attributed this attitude entirely to the freedom and economic independence enjoyed by women.

Christian Europe was until the eighteenth century a very “chaste” society in comparative terms, with an exceptionally late average age of marriage (in the twenties), with high proportions never marrying and with a low rate of extramarital conceptions by later standards. (In England this rate rose from only 12 percent of births in 1680 to 50 percent by 1800.) Southeast Asia was in many respects the complete antithesis of that chaste pattern, and it seemed to European observers of the time that its inhabitants were preoccupied with sex. The Portuguese liked to say that the Malays were “fond of music and given to love,” while Javanese, like Burmese, Thais, and Filipinos, were characterized as “very lasciviously given, both men and women.” What this meant was that pre-marital sexual relations were regarded indulgently, and virginity at marriage was not expected of either party. If pregnancy resulted from these pre-marital activities, the couple were expected to marry, and failing that, resort might be had to abortion or (at least in the Philippines) to infanticide.

Within marriage, on the other hand, the fidelity and devotedness of Southeast Asian couples appears to have surprised Europeans. The women of Banjarmasin, for example, were “very constant when married, but very loose when single.” In pre-Islamic South Sulawesi fornication with an unmarried woman was overlooked, but with a married (upper class?) woman was punished with death. Even Spanish chroniclers who took a dim view of the sexual morality of Filipinos sometimes conceded that “the men treat their wives well, and love them according to their habits..." The economic autonomy of women and their capacity to escape from unsatisfactory unions obliged husbands as well as wives to make some effort to keep the marriage intact. One example of how such a pattern operated to constrain foreign men accustomed to different patterns is given by Scott, who commented [in 1606] on a Chinese beating his Vietnamese wife in Banten that this could not have happened if the wife had been a local woman, “for the Javans will hardly suffer them to beat their women.”

Curiously, when female virginity is mentioned as a major factor in marnage, it is as an impediment rather than an asset. In pre-Spanish Philippines, according to Morga, there were (ritual?) specialists whose function was to deflower virgins, “it being thought an obstacle and impediment to marriage for a girl to be a virgin.”. . . The Western literature offers more titillation than explanation for such practices, generally suggesting that Southeast Asian men preferred their women experienced. It seems far more likely that the hymenal blood was considered dangerous or polluting to men, as is the case today with menstrual blood in many areas.

The pattern of premarital sexual activity and easy divorce, together with the commercial element potentially involved in the paying of bride-wealth, ensured that temporary marriage or concubinage rather than prostitution became the dominant means of coping with the vast annual influx of foreign traders to the major ports. The system in Patani was described as follows:

When foreigners come there from other lands to do their business... men come and ask them whether they do not desire a woman; these young women and girls themselves also come and present themselves, from whom they may choose the one most agreeable to them, provided they agree what he shall pay for certain months. Once they agree about the money (which does not amount to much for so great a convenience), she comes to his house, and serves him by day as his maidservant and by night as his wedded wife. He is then not able to consort with other women or he will be in grave trouble with his wife, while she is similarly wholly forbidden to converse with other men, but the marriage lasts as long as he keeps his residence there, in good peace and unity.

... In Bangkok at the time of the 1947 census, three times as many Thai women as men were registered as owners or managers of businesses. A famous Minangkabau poem first written down in the 1820s exhorted mothers to teach their daughters “to judge the rise and fall of prices.” Southeast Asian women are still expected to show more commercially shrewd and thrifty attitudes than men, and male Chinese and European traders are apt to be derided for having the mean spirit of a woman on such matters.

Although the casual visitor to Southeast Asia today might not be aware of the female trading role, which is now restricted to rural and small-scale markets, this has not always been the case. Early European and Chinese traders were constantly surprised to find themselves dealing with women...

The Dutch and English dealt with some formidable female traders. In Cochin-China [Vietnam] they haggled over pepper prices with “a great woman merchant (coopvrouw) of Sinoa [Hue]” who had made the journey to the capital of Cochin-China in order to check the market. She represented a firm comprising two sisters and a brother which could deliver much pepper, and although she travelled with a male companion, “the woman did the talking and the man listened and agreed.” A woman of Mon descent, Soet Pegu, used her position as sexual partner and commercial partner to successive Dutch factors in Ayutthaya to virtually monopolize Dutch-Thai trade in the 1640s and thereby also gain great influence at court....

From trade it was not a great step to diplomacy, especially for those who had been both commercial and sexual partners of foreign traders. Such women frequently became fluent in the languages needed in commerce."

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