Skip to main content

New voices from Southeast Asian women: A review essay

  • Barbara Watson Andaya

Historians may have come late to the study of women and gender in Southeast Asia, but when these three books are placed along a historiographical spectrum one can only be impressed at how far the field has moved in approach and methodology. Exploiting previously untapped sources that emanate from very different sites — a Dutch East India Company courtroom, the women's quarters of a Malay palace, the privacy of a Javanese home — the authors open up new avenues by which to explore the complexity of Southeast Asia's gender history. Though the contexts are very different, the movement through time (Wives, slaves and concubines is set in the late eighteenth century, Victorious wives in the nineteenth, and Realizing the dream in the twentieth) provides an opportunity to gauge shifts in representations of ‘femaleness’, attitudes towards gender roles, and women's responses to change.

Corresponding author
Correspondence in connection with this paper should be addressed to:
Hide All

1 Alzona, Encarnación, The Filipino woman: Her social, economic, and political status, 1565–1933 (Manila: University of the Philippines Press, 1934).

2 Vreede-de Stuers, Cora, L'emancipation de la femme indonésienne (Paris: Mouton, 1959); published in English as The Indonesian woman: Struggles and achievements (Paris/The Hague: Mouton, 1960), p. 16.

3 See, for example, Jacobsen, Trudy, Lost goddesses: The denial of female power in Cambodian history (Copenhagen: NIAS Press, 2008); Lanzona, Vina, Amazons of the Huk rebellion: Gender, sex and revolution in the Philippines (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2009); Ikeya, Chie, Refiguring women, colonialism, and modernity in Burma (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2011); Harriden, Jessica, The authority of influence: Women and power in Burmese history (Copenhagen: NIAS Press, 2012); Roces, Mina, Women's movements and the Filipina, 1986–2008 (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2012).

4 Ginzburg, Carlo, I benandanti: Stregoneria e culti agrari tra cinquecento e seicento (Turin: Einaudi, 1972), published in English as The Night battles: Witchcraft and agrarian cults in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, trans. Tedeschi, John and Tedeschi, Anne (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1983). See also The witchcraft reader, ed. Oldridge, Darren (London: Routledge, 2002), especially sections five, seven and eight.

5 Davis, Natalie Zemon, Fiction in the archives: Pardon tales and their tellers in sixteenth-century France (Stanford, NJ: Stanford University Press, 1987), pp. 77110; Cohen, Elizabeth S., ‘No longer virgins: Self-representation by young women in late Renaissance Rome’, in Refiguring woman: Perspectives on gender and the Italian Renaissance, ed. Migiel, Marilyn and Schiesari, Juliana (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991), pp. 169–91; Susan Kellogg, ‘From parallel and equivalent to separate but unequal: Tenocha Mexica women, 1500–1700’ and Mary Sousa, Lisa, ‘Women and crime in colonial Oaxaca: Evidence of complementary gender roles in Mixtec and Zapotec societies’, in Indian women of early Mexico, ed. Schroeder, Susan, Wood, Stephanie and Haskett, Robert (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999), pp. 123–44, 199217; Theiss, Janet M., Disgraceful matters: The politics of chastity in eighteenth-century China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004).

6 For example, Lustéguy, Pierre, La femme annamite du Tonkin dans l'institution des biens culturels (Huong-hoa): Étude sur une enquête récente (Paris: Librarie Nizet et Bastard, 1935), pp. 7394.

7 Nguyen Ngoc Huy and Ta Van Tai, with the cooperation of Liem, Tran Van, The Lê code: Law in traditional Vietnam. A comparative Sino-Vietnamese legal study with historical juridical analysis and annotations, 3 vols (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1987); Huxley, Andrew, ‘The importance of the Dhammathats in Burmese law and culture’, Journal of Burma Studies, 1, 1 (1997): 3.

8 Loos, Tamara L., Subject Siam: Family, law and colonial modernity in Thailand (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006), p. 25. See also Syed Muhd Khairudin, ‘Bringing the accused back in: Court records as sources for Southeast Asian history’, forthcoming.

9 Musa, Mahani, ‘Official state records: A minefield for studying pre-1957 Malay women’, Sari: Jurnal Alam dan Tamadun Melayu, 26 (2008): 171–88; Mahani Musa, ‘Johor Malay women and social issues, 1930s–1950s’, paper presented to the 22nd International Association of Historians of Asia conference, Solo, Indonesia, July 2012; Aljunied, Syed Muhd Khairudin, ‘Micro-history and the study of minorities: Working-class Sikhs in Singapore and Malaya’, Social History, 36: 1 (2011): 2235.

10 Hoadley, Mason C., Selective judicial competence: The Cirebon-Priangan legal administration, 1680–1792 (Ithaca, NY: Southeast Asia Program, Cornell University, 1994), p. 98.

11 Niemeijer, Hendrik E., Batavia: een koloniale samenleving in de zeventiende eeuw (Amsterdam: Balans, 2005).

12 Fernando, Radin, Murder most foul: A panorama of social life in Melaka from the 1780s to the 1820s (Kuala Lumpur: MBRAS, 2006), p. xxv.

13 I earlier reviewed this book in International Journal of Asian Studies, 8, 2 (2011): 233–6.

14 Pieter Spierenburg, with a preface by Lissenberg, Elisabeth, The prison experience: Disciplinary institutions and their inmates in early modern Europe (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2007).

15 Worden, Nigel, Slavery in Dutch South Africa (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p. 106.

16 See Ward, Kerry, ‘Slavery in Southeast Asia, 1420–1804’, in The Cambridge world history of slavery: Vol. 3, AD 1420–AD 1804, ed. Eltis, David, Bradley, Keith, Cartledge, Paul and Engerman, Stanley L. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), pp. 163–85.

17 Andaya, Barbara Watson, ‘From temporary wife to prostitute: Sexuality and economic change in early modern Southeast Asia’, Journal of Women's History, 9, 4 (Feb. 1998): 1134.

18 Loos, Subject Siam, p. 26.

19 Blussé, Leonard and Chen, Menghong, The archives of the Kong Koan of Batavia (Leiden: Brill, 2003).

20 Muir, Edward and Ruggiero, Guido, ‘Introduction: The crime of history’, History from crime: Selections from Quaderni Storici, ed. Muir, Edward and Ruggiero, Guido, trans. Curry, Corrada Biazzo, Gallucci, Margaret A. and Gallucci, Mary M. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994), pp. ix, xiv. See also Goldberg, Steven H. and McCormack, Tracy Walters, The first trial: Where do I sit? What do I say? In a nutshell, 2nd ed. (St. Paul, MN: West, 2009).

21 Mary Kilcline Cody, ‘The trial of Mrs. Proudlock: Law, government and society in British Malaya, 1911’, Ph.D. diss., Australian National University, Canberra, 2012.

22 See, for example, ter Haar, Barend J., ‘Rethinking “violence” in Chinese culture’, in Meanings of violence: A cross cultural perspective, ed. Aijmer, Göran and Abbink, Jon (Oxford: Berg, 2000), pp. 123–40.

23 Cited in Hijjas, Mulaika, ‘The nursemaid's tale: Representations of the inang in Syair Sultan Mahmud and Syair Siti Zuhrah’, Indonesia and the Malay World, 33, 97 (2005): 266.

24 Al-Attas, Syed Mohamad Naguib, The origin of the Malay sha'ir (Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, 1968); Teeuw, A., ‘The Malay shair: Problems of origin and tradition’, Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, 122, 4 (1966): 429–46; Sweeney, Amin, ‘Some observations on the Malay sha'ir’, Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 4, 1 (1971): 5270. On the oral-aural heritage, see particularly Koster, G.L., Roaming through seductive gardens: Readings in Malay narrative (Leiden: Koninklijk Instituut voor Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde Press [KITLV], 1997), pp. 1523.

25 For an overview, see Salleh, Siti Hawa Hj., Malay literature of the 19th century (Kuala Lumpur: Institut Terjemahan Negara Malaysia, 2010). Originally published as Kesusasteraan Melayu abad kesembilan belas (Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, 1997).

26 Putten, Jan van der, ‘Printing in Riau: Two steps toward modernity’, Bijdragen tot de Taal-Land- en Volkenkunde, 153, 4 (1997): 717–36; Proudfoot, Ian, ‘A nineteenth-century Malay bookseller's catalogue’, Kekal Abadi [Kuala Lumpur], 6, 4 (1987): 111.

27 Proudfoot, Ian, Early Malay printed books (Kuala Lumpur: Universiti Malaya, 1993), p. 29.

28 Wilkinson, R.J., ‘The poetry of the Malays’, in Noctes orientales, being a selection of essays read before the Straits Philosophical Society between the years 1893 and 1910, ed. Ridley, H.N. (Singapore: Kelly and Walsh, 1913), p. 87.

29 Blagden, O., ‘Criticism’, in Noctes orientales, pp. 98101.

30 Amin, Entji’, Sjair Perang Mengkasar: The rhymed chronicle of the Macassar War, ed. and trans. by Skinner, C. (The Hague: Nijhoff, 1963). Favoured for historical consideration are other syair that deal with warfare because these are datable and can often be correlated with European accounts. For instance, The Battle for Junk Ceylon: The Syair Sultan Maulana. Text, translation and notes, ed. Skinner, C. (Dordrecht: Foris, for the KITLV, 1985); Syair Perang Siak: A court poem presenting the state policy of a Minangkabau Malay royal family in exile, ed. Goudie, Donald J., Thomas, Philip Lee and Effendy, Tenas (Kuala Lumpur: Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1989); Sunardjo, Nikmah A., Sulistiati and Yeni, Mulyani S., Analisis struktur dan nilai budaya syair bertema sejarah: Syair Sultan Mahmud di Lingga, Syair Perang Banjarmasin, dan Syair Raja Siak (Jakarta: Department of National Education, 2001); Murtagh, Ben, ‘Syair Perang Inggeris di Betawi: A Malay account of the British invasion of Java of 1811’, Indonesia and the Malay World, 30, 86 (2002): 2736.

31 Overbeck, H.O., ‘Malay animal and flower shaers’, Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 12, 2 (1934): 108–48.

32 Koster, G.L., ‘Stranded in a foreign land: Sultan Mahmud Badaruddin's Syair Nuri, Indonesia Circle, 24, 68 (1996): 26; Maier, H.M.J and Koster, G.L., ‘A fishy story: Exercises in reading the Syair ikan terubuk’, in Cultural contact and textual interpretation: Papers from the Fourth European Colloquium on Malay and Indonesian Studies, held in Leiden in 1983, ed. Grijns, C.D. and Robson, S.O. (Dordrecht: Foris, 1986), pp. 204–18.

33 Koster, G.L., ‘A nineteenth-century political lampoon: The poem of the Cobra-King and the Frog-King’, in New perspectives in Malaysian studies, ed. Shah, Mohd. Hazim, K.S., Jomo and Lit, Phua Kai (Bangi: Malaysian Social Science Association, 2002), pp. 3253.

34 Maier, H.M.J., In the center of authority: The Malay Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa (Ithaca: Southeast Asia Program, Cornell University, 1988), 21ff.

35 Studies by Virginia Matheson Hooker and Jan van der Putten are particularly important. See, for instance, Hooker, Virginia Matheson, ‘Questions arising from a nineteenth-century Riau syair’, RIMA: Review of Indonesian and Malaysian Affairs, 17 (1983): 161 and Strategies of Survival: The Malay royal court of Lingga-Riau’, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 17, 1 (1986): 638; Putten, Jan van der, His word is the truth: Haji Ibrahim's letters and other writings (Leiden: CNWS, 2001); Di dalam berkekalan persahabatan. ‘In everlasting friendship’: Letters from Raja Ali Haji, ed. Putten, Jan van der and Azhar, Al (Leiden: Dept. of Languages and Cultures of Southeast Asia and Oceania, University of Leiden, 1995); ‘Printing in Riau’: 717–36.

36 Creese, Helen, Women of the kakawin world: Marriage and sexuality in the Indic courts of Java and Bali (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2004), p. 39.

37 See, for example, Pierce, Leslie P., The imperial harem: Women and sovereignty in the Ottoman empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 141; Lal, Ruby, Domesticity and power in the early Mughal world (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), pp. 45, 126–7.

38 Paravicini, Johannes Andries, ‘‘Eerbiedigst rapport […] over de zaken en belangen van Timor, Rotty, Solor, Sacoe, Sumba en Borneo’, Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, 8 (1862): 229–39.

39 Cambridge guide to theatre, ed. Banham, Martin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 1076.

40 Andaya, Barbara Watson, ‘Adapting to political and economic change: Palembang in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries’, in The last stand of Asian autonomies: Responses to modernity in the diverse states of Southeast Asia and Korea, 1750–1900, ed. Reid, Anthony (Macmillan: London and Basingstoke, 1997), p. 204; Carey, Peter, The power of prophecy: Prince Dipanagara and the end of an old order in Java, 1785–1855 (Leiden: KITLV Press, 2007), p. 629.

41 Millie, Julian, Bidasari: Jewel of Malay Muslim culture (Leiden: KITV Press, 2004), p. 238.

42 Van der Putten and Al Azhar, Di dalam berkekalan persahabatan, p. 39.

43 Hikayat Hang Tuah, ed. Ahmad, Kassim (Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, 1971), pp. 291–2; Maier, Henk, We are playing relatives: A survey of Malay writing (Leiden: KITLV Press, 2004), p. 35.

44 See further Woolf, D.R., ‘Speech, text and time: The sense of hearing and the sense of the past in Renaissance England’, Albion, 18, 2 (1986): 159–93.

45 Davis, Natalie Zemon, Society and culture in early modern France: Eight essays (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1975), pp. 189226; Cressy, David, Literacy and the social order: Reading and writing in Tudor and Stuart England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), pp. 1421, 51.

46 Koster, ‘Stranded in a foreign land’, p. 26.

47 Van der Putten and Al Azhar, Di dalam berkekalan persahabatan, pp. 76–7, 180.

48 Creese, Women of the kakawin world, pp. 175–6, 186–7; Vickers, Adrian, Journeys of desire: A study of the Balinese text Malat (Leiden: KITLV Press, 2005), pp. 161–3.

49 Kumar, Ann, ‘Imagining women in Javanese religion: Goddesses, ascetes, queens, consorts, wives’, in Other pasts: Women, gender and history in early modern Southeast Asia, ed. Andaya, Barbara Watson (Honolulu: Center for Southeast Asian Studies, University of Hawai‘i, 2001), pp. 87104.

50 Hijjas, Victorious wives, pp. 175–6.

51 Shakila Abdul Manan, ‘Flirting with romance: The production and consumption of Malay chick lit in majority-Muslim Malaysia’, presented at the Euroseas Conference, School of Global Studies, Gothenburg, Sweden, 26–28 Aug. 2010; Ismah, Nor, ‘The new generation of women writers from the pesantren tradition in Indonesia’, Explorations: A Graduate Student Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 11, 1 (2011): 105–18.

52 Letters from Kartini: An Indonesian feminist, 1900–1904, ed. and trans. Coté, Joost (Melbourne: Hyland House and Monash Asia Institute, 1992); On feminism and nationalism: Kartini's letters to Stella Zeehandelaar (Clayton: Monash Asia Institute, 2005).

53 Coté, Letters from Kartini, p. 81.

54 Hadler, Jeffrey, Muslims and matriarchs: Cultural resilience in Indonesia through jihad and colonialism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2008), p. 160; Parker, Lyn, ‘Domestic science and the modern Balinese woman’, in Love, sex and power: Women in Southeast Asia, ed. Blackburn, Sue (Clayton: Monash Asia Institute, 2001), pp. 5774.

55 Coté, Letters from Kartini, p. 60.

56 Vreede-de Stuers, The Indonesian woman, p. 15; Vreede-de Stuers, Cora, Parda: A study of Muslim women's life in northern India (Van Gorcum: Assen, 1968).

57 O'Brien, Patrick, ‘Historiographical traditions and modern imperatives for the restoration of global history’, Journal of Global History, 1 (2006): 339; Sutherland, Heather, ‘The problematic authority of (world) history’, Journal of World History, 18, 4 (2007): 491522.

58 Wiesner, Merry E., ‘World history and the history of women, gender and sexuality’, Journal of World History, 18, 1 (2007): 5367.

59 Knaap, Gerrit J., ‘Slavery and the Dutch in Southeast Asia’, in Fifty years later: Antislavery, capitalism and modernity in the Dutch orbit, ed. Oostindie, Gert (Leiden: KITLV Press, 1995), pp. 193206.

60 Singh, Anjana, Fort Cochin in Kerala, 1750–1830: The social condition of a Dutch community in an Indian milieu (Leiden: Brill, 2010), pp. 132–6.

61 Worden, Slavery in Dutch South Africa, p. 133.

62 Jones, Realizing the dream, p. 143.

63 Worden, Slavery in Dutch South Africa, p. 106; Ross, Robert, Cape of torments: Slavery and resistance in South Africa (London: Routledge, 1983), pp. 34–5.

64 Coté, Realizing the dream, p. 245.

65 Death and disease in Southeast Asia: Explorations in social, medical and demographic history, ed. Owen, Norman G. (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1987); Monnais, Laurence and Cook, Harold J., Global movements, local concerns: Medicine and health in Southeast Asia (Singapore: NUS Press, 2012).

66 Hopkins, Donald R., The greatest killer: Smallpox in history (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002); Echenburg, Myron J., Africa in the time of cholera: A history of pandemics from 1817 to the present (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

67 Burns, Robert, ‘Address to the toothache’, in The poems and songs of Robert Burns (Cosimo: New York, 2009), pp. 251–2; Coté, Realizing the dream, p. 242.

68 Coté, Realizing the dream, p. 301; Jones, Wives, slaves and concubines, p. 100.

69 Hijjas, Victorious wives, p. 192; Coté, Letters from Kartini, p. 171.

70 Purchas his pilgrimes, vol. 2, ed. Purchas, Samuel (Glasgow: James Maclehose and Sons, 1905 [1625]), p. 471; Blussé and Chen, The archives of the Kong Koan, p. 34.

71 For instance, in 1671 the VOC factor in Palembang reported a case where the widow of a Chinese man, a former slave originally from Batavia, had been tortured in order to compel her to disclose the location of her husband's wealth. Her hands had been thrust into boiling oil, he said, and her head was squeezed between two planks, so that with horribly swollen features and protruding eyes she no longer appeared human. Andaya, ‘From temporary wife to prostitute’: 11.

72 Syair Siti Zubaidah perang China: Perspectif sejarah [Sitti Zubaidah and the Chinese war: A historical perspective], ed. al-Ahmadi, Abdul Rahman (Kuala Lumpur: Perpustakaan Negara Malaysia, 1994), pp. 8191.

73 Zaini-Lajoubert, Monique, ‘Le Syair Cerita Siti Akbari de Lie Kim Hok (1884), un avatar du Syair Abdul Muluk (1846)’, Archipel, 48 (1994): 118–19; Koster, G. L., ‘Making it new in 1884: Lie Kim Hok's Syair Siti Akbari’, Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, 154, 1 (1998): 95115; Salmon, Claudine, ‘Chinese women writers in Indonesia and their views of female emancipation’, in Women and literature in China, ed. Gerstlacher, Anna et al. (Bochum: Studienverlag Brockmeyer, 1985), pp. 479–81.

74 Proudfoot, Early Malay printed books, p. 22.

75 Hijjas, Victorious wives, p. 117.

76 Coté, Realizing the dream, p. 268.

77 Ibid., p. 193.

78 Gosch, Stephen S. and Stearns, Peter N., Premodern travel in world history (London: Routledge, 2008), pp. 3, 161ff; Lal, Domesticity and power, pp. 210–12.

79 Warren, James Francis, Iranun and Balangingi: Globalization, maritime raiding and the birth of ethnicity (Singapore: NUS Press, 2002), pp. 40, 307, 341.

80 Coté, Realizing the dream, pp. 114.

81 Coté, Letters from Kartini, pp. 31, 431; Coté, Realizing the dream, pp. 114, 119, 228, 248.

82 Coté, Realizing the dream, p. 255.

83 Rosenwein, Barbara H., ‘Problems and methods in the history of emotions’, Passions in Context, 1, 1 (2010): 133,; Burke, Peter, ‘Is there a cultural history of the emotions?’, in Representing emotions: New connections in the histories of art, music and medicine, ed. Gouk, Penelope and Hills, Helen (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005), pp. 3547.

84 Jones, Wives, slaves and concubines, pp. 102, 104, 107, 132, 133, 135; Hellwig, Tineke, Women and Malay voices: Undercurrent murmurings in Indonesia's colonial past (New York: Peter Lang, 2012), p. 184.

85 Rosenwein, ‘Problems and methods’, p. 18; Djamour, Judith, Malay kingship and marriage in Singapore (London: Athlone Press, 1965), p. 74; Coté, Letters from Kartini, pp. 31, 249; Coté, Realizing the dream, p. 119.

86 Ahmed, Sara, The cultural politics of emotion (New York: Routledge, 2004), pp. 1214.

87 Smith, Mark M., Sensing the past: Seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching in history (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2008).

88 Coté, Realizing the dream, p. 111.

89 Hijjas, Victorious wives, p. 240.

90 Koster, G.L., ‘The soothing works of the seducer and their dubious fruits: Interpreting the Syair Buah-Buahan’, in A man of Indonesian letters: Essays in honour of Professor A. Teeuw, ed. Hellwig, C.M.S. and Robson, S.O. (Dordrecht: Foris, 1986), p. 81; Coté, Realizing the dream, pp. 110, 114.

91 On this connection, see further Blauvelt, Martha Tomhave, The work of the heart: Young women and emotion, 1780–1830 (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2007), pp. 23.

92 Hijjas, Victorious wives, p. 250.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Journal of Southeast Asian Studies
  • ISSN: 0022-4634
  • EISSN: 1474-0680
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-southeast-asian-studies
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed