Women and Power in Southeast Asia
by Vago Damitio
Society is a complex organism that reflects the diverse use of power by the individuals and groups within it. Sometimes obvious and sometimes subtle, power is coveted, used, exploited, and always present in all groups of human beings. This is a constant. What is not constant, however, is the place where the power lies. Power in the societies of the United States and Europe generally sits within the grasp of men. The same can be said of paternal societies such as China and Japan. This is not the case throughout the entire world. Southeast Asia has within its myriad societies, a myriad number of power structures and conceptions of power. Some of the most complex structures that envelop these power structures, are those that involve women and power in Southeast Asia.
There is no doubt that women have power in all societies, the question is how much? In the societies of Europe and the America’s, women have a history of being oppressed and disempowered. In order to have influence, women have had to work invisibly behind the scenes, or more recently, demand their rights and privileges. In many of the societies of Southeast Asia, this is not the case. In Why Women Rule the Roost: Rethinking Javanese Ideologies of Gender and Self Control, Suzanne Brennar explains one aspect why this is so:
Women’s control over their own desires serve to compensate for men’s lack of control (as the alternative representation has it), and by so doing preserve the assets that should properly be used to ensure the family’s security. It is the wife’s responsibility to do her utmost to ensure that her husband’s desires do not drain the family resources, while also doing everything in her means to increase these resources…(Brenner 1995:35)
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