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The Flaming Womb

The Flaming Womb: Repositioning Women in Early Modern Southeast Asia

Barbara Watson Andaya
Copyright Date: 2006
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    The Flaming Womb
    Book Description:

    "The Princess of the Flaming Womb," the Javanese legend that introduces this pioneering study, symbolizes the many ambiguities attached to femaleness in Southeast Asian societies. Yet despite these ambiguities, the relatively egalitarian nature of male–female relations in Southeast Asia is central to arguments claiming a coherent identity for the region. This challenging work by senior scholar Barbara Watson Andaya considers such contradictions while offering a thought-provoking view of Southeast Asian history that focuses on women’s roles and perceptions. Andaya explores the broad themes of the early modern era (1500–1800)—the introduction of new religions, major economic shifts, changing patterns of state control, the impact of elite lifestyles and behaviors—drawing on an extraordinary range of sources and citing numerous examples from Thai, Vietnamese, Burmese, Philippine, and Malay societies. In the process, she provides a timely and innovative model for putting women back into world history. Andaya approaches the problematic issue of "Southeast Asia" by considering ways in which topography helped describe a geo-cultural zone and contributed to regional distinctiveness in gender construction. She examines the degree to which world religions have been instrumental in (re)constructing conceptions of gender— an issue especially pertinent to Southeast Asian societies because of the leading role so often played by women in indigenous ritual. She also considers the effects of the expansion of long-distance trade, the incorporation of the region into a global trading network, the beginnings of cash-cropping and wage labor, and the increase in slavery on the position of women. Erudite, nuanced, and accessible, The Flaming Womb makes a major contribution to a Southeast Asia history that is both regional and global in content and perspective.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-6472-9
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Abbreviations
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-10)

    If Southeast Asian history were recast so that “women of prowess” received even a fraction of the attention accorded their male counterparts, the individual known as Ken Dedes would certainly assume greater prominence.¹ A shadowy figure in modern textbooks, she is endowed in the JavanesePararaton(Book of kings) with sexual powers that are both mysterious and formidable. ThePararatonrecounts an episode in Java’s legendary past when Ken Dedes, a local governor’s wife, is out riding in her carriage. As her sarong falls aside, a gleam of light is visible between her thighs. This catches the attention of a...

  6. CHAPTER 1 Women and “Southeast Asia”
    (pp. 11-41)

    In 1944, the same year in which George Coedès published his pioneering history of the Far East’s “Hinduized states,”¹ the National Geographic Society issued its first map of Southeast Asia as a guide to developments in the Pacific War. Nonetheless, despite the confident perimeters drawn by the society’s cartographers, the demarcation of postwar Southeast Asia remained a matter for scholarly debate. While some authorities preferred a broader “monsoon Asia” that would include Sri Lanka, southern India, and southern China, others favored a more restrictive approach. D. G. E. Hall, one of the founding fathers of Southeast Asian studies, even omitted...

  7. CHAPTER 2 Early Modernity, Sources, and Women’s History
    (pp. 42-69)

    If we agree that “Southeast Asia” is a region in which the history of women can legitimately be explored, the fifteenth century becomes the primary gateway because an increase in source material coincides with the periodization commonly adopted in Southeast Asian historiography. Though some historians are uneasy with the term “early modernity,” most would agree that from about 1400 the region witnessed a growing involvement in global trade, greater religious coherence, and increased political centralization. However, they would generally accept that this pattern is more evident in the mainland. During the course of this study, for example, frequent reference will...

  8. CHAPTER 3 Women and Religious Change
    (pp. 70-103)

    The advent of “early modernity” in Southeast Asia is usually linked to expanding international trade, but a more significant development for women was the arrival of Islam and Christianity, which joined the other state-supported philosophies of Buddhism and Confucianism in deeming females intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually inferior to males. Although it is possible to track a steady retreat (but not displacement) of the spirit propitiation where women were so often prominent, many areas distant from trade routes and far from royal capitals were barely touched by the currents redirecting religious beliefs in so much of the globe. More particularly, an...

  9. CHAPTER 4 Women and Economic Change
    (pp. 104-133)

    From the fifteenth century, widening networks of domestic trade and connections with international markets began to transform local economies in many Southeast Asian communities. These developments are most apparent in insular Southeast Asia, where Portugal’s conquest of Melaka in 1511 foreshadowed the arrival of other Europeans whose intrusion ultimately undermined indigenous commerce. Following the capture of Manila in 1570, Spanish colonization drained the vitality from the Philippine economy and developed landed estates that exploited peasant labor. Established in Batavia (present-day Jakarta) in 1619, the Dutch East India Company eventually became the dominant power in Java and imposed monopoly contracts throughout...

  10. CHAPTER 5 States, Subjects, and Households
    (pp. 134-164)

    There is no consensus regarding the historical definition of a “state” in Southeast Asia, but scholars generally agree that the early modern period witnessed the emergence of more centralized and administratively complex governments, with an enhanced capacity to marshal demographic resources, extract revenue, and promote distinctive ethnocultural identities. Whatever the rationale for their presence, and regardless of their modes of administration, Europeans were also attaching primary importance to the control of people and the resources they represented. Recognizing that governments evinced similar priorities is useful because it enables the historian to move across the otherwise distracting divide between “indigenous” and...

  11. CHAPTER 6 Women, Courts, and Class
    (pp. 165-196)

    The extent to which the sources privilege the rich and powerful has long been a cause of angst among scholars of premodern Southeast Asia, but it does mean that the experiences of upper-class women are more amenable to historical investigation. Even when the focus is on men’s affairs, there is a persistent female presence. Women emerge as progenitors of a prestigious dynasty, nubs of a diplomatic alliance, or catalysts for some great conflict, while objects associated with them have survived as symbols of personal status and residues of life histories. A queen or princess might have commissioned a Buddha image...

  12. CHAPTER 7 Being Female in “Early Modern” Southeast Asia
    (pp. 197-225)

    Though useful for general discussion, broad classifications like “Thai girls” or “Vietnamese women” obviously elide real differences in socioeconomic status and local identity. Nevertheless, while the particularities of context can never be overlooked, the fact that a princess was biologically closer to a peasant woman than to a man of her own cohort is hardly inconsequential. The assumption that all female bodies, regardless of status, shared the capacity to conceive and give birth was central to understandings of gender in Southeast Asian societies. As a Thai medical text has it, “women differ from men in two ways: they have a...

  13. Conclusion Repositioning Women in Southeast Asian History
    (pp. 226-232)

    Grounded in the assumption that regional studies are by their very nature comparative, the arguments I have presented in this book can be divided into three broad areas. From the outset a fundamental concern was the extent to which generalizations regarding the “female position” satisfactorily define a Southeast Asian culture area. A second issue was the nature of the relevant historical sources and whether a “history of women” is justifiable when so many aspects of the past are speculative or simply unknown. A third consideration, implicitly framing the entire project, is the degree to which notions of change embedded in...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 233-296)
  15. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 297-316)
  16. Index
    (pp. 317-336)
  17. Back Matter
    (pp. 337-340)