Skip to content

Panel 2. Gender and Sexualities in Contemporary Southeast Asia

Chair: Art Mitchells-Urwin (SOAS) au7@soas.ac.uk

Alongside the ubiquitous effects of the authoritarian neoliberal system, the intimate lives of citizens and consumers in Southeast Asia are facing intricate challenges to global socio-political thought. It is vis-à-vis the everyday sociality of production and consumption – cinema, music, literature and other social media – that American-European discourses become charged with an imperialist and hegemonic potentiality. Precisely because the appeal of advancing technologies and mixed transculturation has remained virile for the region, Southeast Asian societies have been subsumed under an elitist epistemology that pits individuals under the false categories of racial, gender, national and sexual differences. Over the past decade, scholars and activists working in the Global South in general and Southeast Asia in particular have been reviewing their strategic responses to these pertinent issues that have and will come to trouble Southeast Asian communities. Recent aspirations are directed towards a juxtaposition of Chen Kuan Hsing’s ‘Asia as Method’ and Walter Mignolo’s ‘Decolonial Option’. Perhaps only intersectional grassroots methodologies can realign the discursive borders of Southeast Asia.

The intention of this panel is to re-approach academic discussions of gender and sexualities in contemporary Southeast Asia, achieved by highlighting strands of thought and approaches that offer new insights into the region. The three papers, two on Thailand and one on Malaysia, approach their respective themes with questions of how both changing and static cultural paradigms impact upon the respective manifestations of “non-normative” identities and, furthermore, how such identities resist, re-establish and re-define themselves in light of such external pressures.

Paper 1: Queering the nation?: The ban of “Seksualiti Merdeka” in Malaysia

Yuenmei Wong (University of Maryland, USA) yuenmei@umd.edu

Since the 1990s, queer theorists contend that queer politics is beyond sexual identification, akin to Michael Warner’s position that queer is a “resistance to regimes of the normal”. In other words, queer epistemology confronts and critiques not only the regimes of heteronormativity, but also other kinds of hierarchies and normative regimes. In October 2011, the 4th annual “Seksualiti Merdeka” event in Malaysia with the theme “Queer Without Fear” was banned with religion as an excuse. Despite Seksualiti Merdeka’s critical political stance of celebrating the human rights of people of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities, this paper argues that it was due to its alliance with the oppositional politics prior to an upcoming general election that called for the ban. This paper examines how sexual and gender normativities translate as other forms of contestation of power. I would argue that sexuality and desire exist in a normative space not only as a sexual but as a racial, religious and political difference. Metaphorically, Seksualiti Merdeka signifies an expression of national belonging that contests the normative idea of a heterosexual nation-state. Intriguingly, given its public appearance and critical political stance, this annual event has been going on for three consecutive years without any political interference from either the religious authority or the incumbent conservative political parties. This paper hence identifies the specific situational factors that contribute to the ban, and argues that by situating sexuality and desire within the normativities of religious and political difference, queer politics is intrinsically implicated in oppositional politics in Malaysia. Nonetheless, this paper also shows that temporality is crucial in unleashing the potentiality of queerness as a subversive form of resistance. Here, I argue that the ban of Seksualiti Merdeka resonates Judith Halberstam’s idea of “queerness as an outcome of strange temporalities” for assessing political change

Paper 2: Bhikkhuni: Alternative Genders in Thai Theravada Buddhist Sankha

Atit Pongpanit (Naresuan University, Thailand) 221001@soas.ac.uk

Bhikkhuni is a thought provoking new short film by Tanwarin Sukhapisit. It addresses and problematises a sensitive issue in Thai society, this being the Theravada Buddhist sangkha being asked to share a space with other gendered identities beyond men (i.e. women and transsexual people) within the same hierarchical community. The film straightforwardly demands an explanation as to why women and male-to-female transsexuals are not allowed to be ordained as Bhikkhuni. The film also reveals that whilst there is a channel for women to become a Bhikkhuni — although they won’t be officially accounted as a Theravada Bhikkhuni by the Thai society — Thai transsexuals who want to pursue the same spiritual quest are placed at the lowest stratum; they are refused any possibilities to join the Thai Theravada Buddhist sangkha.

Accordingly, the film provides its own solution by showing the transsexual main character ignoring the sankha community, abandoning the worldly world behind her, establishing her own spiritual path and wearing a purple robe. This scene might seem to bear some resemblance to the Buddha’s action when he left everything behind him to pursue his spiritual quest. Nevertheless, what needs to be further discussed is the issue of practicality; whether a transsexual person could actually follow the same/similar determination. After all, in the time of the Buddha, it was not new for men to give up their worldly lives and ordain or cerebrate. More importantly, they could get support from lay people to survive and work their way to their spiritual destination. Nevertheless, it is doubtful that in contemporary Thai society a transsexual monk would be supported enough to survive when negative attitudes towards transsexuals still exist in Thai society.

Paper 3: Empowering women through theater in Indonesia

Marianna Lis (Polish Academy of Sciences) marianna_l@gazeta.pl

In the post-colonial Indonesia the most spread construction of women is a woman as guard and “transmitter” of “indigenous tradition” that would stay despite change. New Order described women as devoted support for husband and family and took away from her any social and/or economic roles she could take on. The world of theater, literature, art in general is dominated by male artists and critics; women can create popular romantic fiction at most, but that what is really “serious” is coded as male.

Although the dominant gender ideology seems to have negative impact on women performers they start to introduce changes. Theater, the traditional and the contemporary one, creates the opportunities that were impossible not long time ago, when women on the stage had morally tarnished reputation.

Wayang, one of the oldest theatrical tradition of the world, modern Indonesian theater, derived from the model of Western drama and contemporary puppet theater are the areas for the research for this paper. Three kinds of theater are represented by three women: dalang Kenik Asmorowati, director Citra Pratiwi and director and puppeteer Maria Tri Sulistyani. A woman-dalang has to “prove” the audience and the critics that she can be as good dalang as the men are (even if she comes from the dalang family and inherited this profession as her grandfather and father were dalangs), so Asmorowati’s performances are very traditional and she does not have space for the experiment. A theater director (and previous actress) Citra Pratiwi translating classics of world drama into the Indonesian realities uses theater as a place for the discussion about social and cultural condition of women. Maria Tri Sulistyani founded her own puppet theater for adults, where she talks about history and the fate of people involved in the history.

Theater is the place these three women get power to show their new role and growing importance of women in the society.