Representations of Gender in a Malay Society Michael G. Peletz

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Reason and Passion

Representations of Gender in a Malay Society

Michael  G. Peletz

Berkeley · Los Angeles · Oxford
© 1996 The Regents of the University of California


This book examines constructions of gender in the Malay world, with particular reference to the "matrilineal" Malay Muslims of Negeri Sembilan, a state in West Malaysia. The specific goals of the book are three. First, to document and analyze cultural constructions of gender, paying close attention to contrasting representations of masculinity and femininity and the different social and cultural contexts with which they are associated. Second, to elucidate the historical, social structural, and other dynamics that help reproduce, challenge, and subvert these representations. And third, to specify the political and other implications of these variegated representations of gender as they are realized in different social and cultural contexts. The broader objectives are to examine the Negeri Sembilan case in comparative perspective, and to address an important set of issues and debates in the theoretical literature concerning systems of exchange and prestige, the loci of male dominance, the relationship between gender and kinship, and the social sources of ambivalence.[1] More generally, the study is meant to enhance our understanding of the political economy of contested symbols and meanings (the ways in which the contestations over symbols and meanings in different societies are informed by, and in turn inform, patterns of political and economic relations among the various groups and classes comprising such societies); the role of ideology in everyday life; and the relationship between ideology and practice—all of which are central concerns in anthropology and in many other areas of the social sciences and the humanities.

My analysis of constructions of gender in Negeri Sembilan has broad significance despite the unique features of the Negeri Sembilan case. Negeri Sembilan is one of many societies in Southeast Asia characterized by the "relatively high status of women" (see Van Esterik 1982; Ong 1989; Atkinson and Errington 1990; cf. Reid 1988). A comparative analysis of Negeri Sembilan material will thus shed light on an important range of Southeast Asian societies and will also help us better understand some of the contrasts between Southeast Asian societies on the one hand, and soci-

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eties in other parts of Asia as well as Oceania, Africa, and the Americas, on the other. Moreover, the system of marriage and affinity in nineteenth-century Negeri Sembilan centered on the de facto "exchange of men" (transactions over men's labor power and productivity), rather than the "exchange of women," and thus represents a critically important exception to the seminal theories of Claude Lévi-Strauss (see Peletz 1987b). Lévi-Strauss (1949) maintains that the exchange of women occurs in all systems of affinal alliance; that it was necessarily entailed in the initial institutionalization of incest taboos that gave rise to (human) kinship and marriage; and that it simultaneously constituted the earliest act of social exchange. Data from Negeri Sembilan illustrate the necessity and value of critically reassessing key features of Lévi-Strauss's arguments (cf. Rubin 1975), central elements of which have been incorporated into standard anthropological accounts of kinship (e.g., Leach 1961; Fox 1967; cf. Goody 1990), have informed recent anthropological studies of the bases of gender and other types of social inequality (e.g., Collier and Rosaldo 1981; Collier 1988), and have been highly influential beyond the discipline as well. These same data (along with data from other societies I discuss) indicate not only that there are some societies in which women exercise far more autonomy and social control than the earlier literature on kinship and social structure would have us believe; but also that gender inequalities in such societies do not derive from institutions of kinship and marriage (e.g., the exchange of women) but are rooted instead in broadly based, cosmologically grounded systems of prestige and virtue that accord greater spiritual power or potency, along with more "reason" and less "passion," to men.

Although men in nineteenth-century Negeri Sembilan were being exchanged by groups of women (not by other men), there is no evidence of an explicit cultural or ideological elaboration of these features of the system. In fact, these elements of the system were culturally distorted or denied, partly through "official" ideologies and Islamic rituals (see Bourdieu 1977:34–38) that portrayed the system of marriage and affinity as focusing on transfers of rights over women. More generally, although women continue to predominate in various contexts of exchange (feasting cycles, agricultural production, etc.), they are effectively denied access to most political offices and various other public arenas for gaining prestige, and are, in addition, more constrained in their everyday movements and activities than men.

The constraints imposed on Negeri Sembilan women (and men) are keyed to a largely implicit ideology of gender. Like gender ideologies in

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many other parts of Southeast Asia and Oceania (see Van Esterik 1982; Ong 1989; Atkinson and Errington 1990; Strathern 1987), Negeri Sembilan's gender ideology tends, overall, to deemphasize gender and sexuality, and to highlight sameness, equality, and complementarity between the sexes. Such ideologies pose a formidable challenge to analysts, for as Jane Atkinson (1982:257) has pointed out, it is generally much harder to study societies where gender and sexuality are (relatively) muted than "cases where clitoridectomy, foot binding, and homosexual fellatio fairly scream out for ethnographic investigation."

Despite the overall deemphasis of gender and gender differences in Negeri Sembilan, there are certain areas in this society in which gender distinctions are culturally elaborated; for example, women are invariably portrayed as the "spiritually weaker" of the two sexes. Interestingly, key features of Negeri Sembilan's gender ideology also depict women as more deserving and more in need of subsistence guarantees than men, and have long played a significant role in promoting women's effective monopoly in the proprietorship and inheritance of houses and land. This in turn has provided women with an important material base from which to maintain their autonomy and social control in relation to husbands, brothers, and men in other social roles. The social reproduction of this ideology has helped women retain many of their precolonial prerogatives, despite profound changes in Negeri Sembilan society and culture engendered by British colonialism (1874–1957), modern market forces, postcolonial nation-state building, and diverse currents of Islamic nationalism and reform. This situation encourages a critical reassessment of widely held assumptions, underlying the work of Ester Boserup (1970), among others, that economic development and heightened integration into the global economy necessarily entail significant losses for rural women (Peletz 1987a, 1988b; cf. Stoler 1977; Stivens 1985).

My analysis of gender in Negeri Sembilan focuses largely on inconsistencies, contradictions, and paradoxes in the ideology of gender. Inter alia, I explore the symbols and meanings of local concepts such as akal and nafsu , which denote "reason" ("rationality," "intelligence") and "passion" ("desire," "animality"), respectively. These are key symbols in many domains of Malay culture (and in many domains of other Islamic cultures, e.g., Acehnese, Minangkabau, Javanese, Moroccan, Bedouin) that are frequently invoked in discussions of the similarities and differences between males and females. Villagers in Negeri Sembilan point out that "passion" is present among all of God's creatures, humans and animals alike, and that "reason" is what distinguishes humans from the rest of the

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animal world. They also contend that "passion" and "reason" are present to one degree or another in all humans, but that "passion" is present in greater concentrations (more pronounced) among women, whereas "reason" is less so. (This, in any case, is the official line.) These are curious, seemingly paradoxical, contentions insofar as villagers also maintain that women are ultimately more responsible and more trustworthy than men, especially in safeguarding and managing cash and other household resources, and in honoring kinship and other social obligations.

Analysis of this apparent paradox reveals that there are contrasting constructions of gender that are associated with different social and cultural contexts. One such context-specific construction promotes an "official" (and "more Islamic") view of men and women which is "explicitly codified in ... quasi-juridical formalism" (Bourdieu 1977:34) and which serves a number of broadly legitimizing functions. This view, which is keyed to local understandings of biology, sexuality, and reproduction, turns on the idea that, compared to men, women are more lustful and insatiable in sexual matters, and simply more "animalistic." Other context-specific constructions of gender promote a view of men and women which I refer to as "practical" (because it is more thoroughly grounded in the everyday practical situations in which people find themselves and is more explicitly oriented to the practical realities of "getting things done"), focusing on the culturally elaborated belief that men are less responsible and less trustworthy than women, both with regard to managing household resources, and in terms of honoring basic social obligations associated with marriage and kinship as a whole. Central objectives of the book are to explore the contextually variable articulation of these (and other) contrasting representations of gender; to delineate the structural factors that motivate, challenge, and subvert their existence and social reproduction both historically and at present; and more generally, to contribute to the literature bearing on hegemony, which Antonio Gramsci (1971) defines as "the permeation throughout civil society ... of an entire system of values, attitudes, beliefs, morality, etc. that is in one way or the other supportive of the established order and the class interests that dominate it" (Boggs 1976:39).[2]

I am especially interested in practical views concerning gender, and males in particular. One reason for this focus is that these views are relatively uncommon in the ethnographic literature, though the larger issue is that constructions of masculinity (which should not be confused with masculine or masculinist perspectives) continue to suffer from the "taken-for-granted" syndrome (see Shapiro 1979; Gilmore 1990:1–2).[3] Another

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reason for this focus has to do with the theoretical implications of such views, especially the implications of their links to the social organization of production, exchange, and prestige. Suffice it to say that in Negeri Sembilan the behavior of married men in relation to their wives is judged largely in terms of the standards that pertain to elder brothers' treatment (nurturance, protection, etc.) of their younger sisters, and that many married men fall short of the "elder brother" ideal due to their inability to produce sufficient wealth and prestige for their wives and their wives' kin. Married men who find that they cannot live up to the expectations of, or otherwise cope with pressures from, their wives and affines frequently abandon (or divorce) their wives, along with any children they might have. This course of action not only feeds into local perceptions that husbands and fathers are unreliable and untrustworthy; it also colors practical views of maleness as a whole. These practical views serve, in turn, to counter and moderate the official view of males, just as they effectively elevate practical views of females.

Negeri Sembilan masculinity, far from being a singular, unitary, or otherwise seamless cultural phenomenon, is thus composed of a number of contradictory representations, many of which are "inveigled in" and therefore best understood as dialectically related to constructions of adult men's kinship roles. In point of fact, the category "male" does not have all that much cultural salience (the same is true of the category "female"), though categories such as "brother," "husband," and "father" (and "sister," "wife," and "mother") clearly do. More broadly, cases such as Negeri Sembilan (and Aceh, which I also discuss) provide an important corrective to the views of Ortner (1981), Ortner and Whitehead (1981a), Chodorow (1978, 1989), and others whose approaches presuppose a rigid dichotomy between structural definitions of males and females. Ortner and Whitehead (1981a:21), for example, point out that, cross-culturally, one or another different female "relational" role—for example, mother, sister, or wife—"tend[s] to dominate the category of 'female' and to color the meanings of all other female relational roles." Ortner and Whitehead go on to claim that there are no corresponding patterns in the case of males—in their words, "analogous distinctions among men are not critical for masculinity" (Ortner and Whitehead 1981a:21; emphasis added)—because men, unlike women, tend to be defined in terms of "positional" (ostensibly nonrelational) statuses, such as "hunter," "warrior," "chief" and so on.[4] Such claims merit reassessment in light of data from Negeri Sembilan (and Aceh), which indicate that in the practice of everyday life certain male relational roles—for example, elder brother, husband/fa-

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ther—may well dominate the category of "male," and may also inform the meanings of all other male relational (and "positional") roles. These same data illustrate that it is not merely the meanings of "female," or the social position of women, that may be dragged down by the cultural elaboration of relational roles and their relative significance in ideologies of gender. This can also occur with respect to the meanings of "male" and the social position of men, even though males still come out "on top"—at least in official discourses on kinship and gender, and as regards the overall distribution of power and prestige.

In sum, I contend that Negeri Sembilan masculinity is best understood if it is "deconstructed"[5] and analyzed in terms of its constituent elements and their interrelations (the same applies to femininity); and that the deconstruction of Negeri Sembilan masculinity calls for a jettisoning of the "arelational" notion of masculinity enshrined in the comparative and theoretical literature on gender. I also show that practical representations of masculinity simultaneously encode and mask local perspectives on class that are otherwise typically unmarked in discourse concerning gender and social relations; and that the articulation of variables of gender and class has long been informed by state policies as well as nationalist and transnationalist discourse bearing on the Malay social body and the Malaysian body politic.

Analytic concerns with maleness are thus of value not simply because they yield interesting ethnographic data on the contingent, internally dissonant, and ambivalence-laden construction of masculinity while clearly enhancing our understanding of the dialectically related domain of femininity (a central concern of this study as well). These analytic concerns also reveal that Islamic manhood is by no means always shaped by rigid, patriarchal discourses, and that Islam has long allowed a kind of flexibility and precariousness in the construction of masculinity (and femininity), although these features—along with the contradictory imperatives and indeterminances of Islamic masculinities—have not received sufficient attention in Southeast Asia or elsewhere (Ong and Peletz 1995a). More importantly, such concerns help bring into especially sharp focus the merits-indeed, the necessity—of describing and analyzing gender in relation to other forms of difference and inequality (class, race, etc.) which are in a very basic sense both constituting and constitutive of masculinity and femininity alike. One important corollary of this argument is that the compartmentalization of gender as a subject of study "in its own terms" is untenable. The strong version of this position is that gender "in its own terms" is ultimately a "nonsubject" in much the same sense that Schnei-

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der (1984) has argued with respect to conventional studies of kinship as an isolable, analytically discrete domain (see also Collier and Yanagisako 1987; Kelly 1993).

Data from Negeri Sembilan are thus highly conducive to a critical evaluation of theoretical debates concerning systems of exchange and prestige, conventional analytic distinctions between kinship and gender, the loci of male dominance, and myriad other issues in the study of gender identities and gender ideologies. These same data afford us an excellent opportunity to examine the political economy of contested symbols and meanings, the scope and force of ambivalence and the contradictory entailments of ideology in everyday life, and the relationship between ideology and practice—all of which, as noted earlier, are central issues not only in anthropology but also in the social sciences and humanities as a whole (see Bourdieu 1977; Foucault 1977; Giddens 1979; Williams 1977; Barnett and Silverman 1979; Taussig 1980; de Certeau 1984; Ortner 1984; Scott 1985, 1990; Dirks, Eley, and Ortner 1994).

As for the organization of this work, the book is composed of seven chapters. Chapter 1 focuses on the ethnographic context of my fieldwork and deals primarily with the research on which the book is based ("how I know what I know"), especially the field research I conducted in Negeri Sembilan from 1978 to 1980 and 1987 to 1988 (though it also presents some basic ethnographic background—on history, economy, polity, etc.—the details of which are fleshed out in subsequent chapters). The main concerns of the chapter are strategies, methods, and dilemmas in fieldwork, my adoption into one of the dominant lineages, and the ways in which changes in my life cycle—moving from bachelor to newlywed status, and ultimately to fatherhood—shaped my social experiences in the field as well as the collection and interpretation of data. I should emphasize, however, that this chapter is not the sole context in which I address fieldwork experiences or issues bearing on the collection or interpretation of data. Rather, I deal with such matters throughout the book; in this and other ways I hope to provide an engaging, reflexive, and humanistic account of the anthropological enterprise.

Chapter 2 is the first of two historical chapters. Here I provide an overview of the systems of prestige, kinship/gender, and political organization in the nineteenth century (especially the period 1830–90), with an eye toward showing how these systems articulated both with one another and with the system of marriage and affinal relations. This is followed by a discussion of the contrasting (indeed, contradictory) representations of marriage and affinal exchange entailed in wedding and funerary rituals,

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which I analyze by employing a modified version of Pierre Bourdieu's (1977) distinction between "official" and "practical" kinship. This is also the context in which I develop the argument that both in everyday practice and in terms of what I refer to as "practical" representations—though not in official ideology—the system of marriage and affinal relations focused on the "exchange of men." Some of the comparative and theoretical implications of this argument are sketched out toward the end of the chapter; others are dealt with further along.

Chapter 3 concerns themes of continuity and change in kinship, gender, and sexuality from the nineteenth century to the present. The discussion is set in the context of shifts in political, religious, and economic organization, including those induced (directly or otherwise) by British colonialism and Malaysia's postcolonial government. In this and subsequent chapters I draw both on my earlier work (Peletz 1987a, 1987b, 1988b) and on my most recent (1987–88) field research to explain how structural transformations and reproduction in the social organization of production, exchange, and prestige have brought about changes in understandings and attitudes bearing on (hetero)sexual impropriety, but have yet to effect a significant reassessment of traditionally accommodating views on pondan or gender crossers (the majority of whom are men)—even though there are strong signals of such in the air. The second half of the chapter is devoted to a description and analysis of a social drama in the form of a shotgun wedding, which provides poignant testimony to themes of continuity and change, especially the allocation of prestige and stigma in contemporary settings.

Beginning with chapter 4, I focus primarily on the present, although all of the data and analyses here and in subsequent chapters are informed by historical perspectives. The main concerns of this chapter—knowledge, power, and personal misfortune—are broached through a discussion of ilmu , which refers to mystical knowledge/power, and which, while concentrated among (male) ritual specialists, is also broadly distributed throughout local society, particularly among men. The larger issues here include the gendered dimensions of ilmu , the relationship in local culture between knowledge and power, and how knowledge and power figure into accounts of personal misfortune. Also of concern are long-term historical shifts entailing the progressive constriction of women's ritual roles and dealings with the sacred, as well as recent changes in the sources and meanings of marginality, uncertainty, and danger, especially as they relate to gender. Drawing partly on detailed case studies, I argue that it is important to examine poisoning, sorcery, and all major varieties of mysti-

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cal attack, not simply those involving women who are possessed by spirits that take control of their hosts in highly dramatic, sometimes violent episodes of hysteria. This broader perspective allows for a more complete picture of Malay understandings and representations of gender, and of marginality, uncertainty, and danger—one that differs in significant ways from those in the relevant literature on Malaysia. The case studies presented in the latter sections of the chapter also help substantiate my general arguments that femininity and masculinity can only be understood if they are viewed in relation to one another; that cultural knowledge is contextually grounded and deeply perspectival; and that our ethnographic descriptions and interpretations must therefore attend both to polyvocality (the existence of multiple voices) and to the political economy of contested symbols and meanings. They also make clear that ambivalence, which I define (following Weigert [1991]) as "the experience of commingled contradictory emotions," permeates the local system of social relations and, as such, clearly merits serious analytic attention.

Chapter 5 deals with cultural constructions of the person and the body, with particular reference to the symbols and meanings of "reason," "passion," and "shame," which are core (or key) symbols in many domains of Malay society and culture. The first section of the chapter provides an (ungendered) introduction to local understandings of the person and the body, and examines both the relational nature of personhood (or self) characteristic of Malay culture, as well as the relational views that inform understandings and representations of the body and its most significant constituent elements. The second section of the chapter pursues these issues in the course of a gendered discussion that focuses on conception, pregnancy, and childbirth. The third and fourth sections of the chapter expand the analysis to encompass a broader set of concerns. This involves, on the one hand, describing and analyzing the contextually variable symbols and meanings of "reason," "passion," and "shame," and, on the other, assessing the implications of these data for Sherry Ortner's now classic (1974) argument that women in all societies are held to be "closer to nature" and "further from culture" than men. In my reassessment and reworking of key features of this incisive and controversial argument, I maintain that while it makes insufficient provision for contrasting representations of gender and has various other shortcomings, its central logic helps elucidate important features of Malay society and culture, and of Malay gender in particular.

Chapter 6 builds directly on and is in many respects an extension of chapter 5 in the sense that it too focuses on concepts of "reason," "pas-

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sion," and "shame," and on the ways they figure into official or hegemonic discourse on gender. Unlike chapter 5, however, the main concern here is the ways in which these symbols and their meanings are invoked in contrasting and at times thoroughly contradictory ways. The bulk of the chapter is composed of (edited) material obtained from twenty interviews conducted in 1988. The first section of the chapter presents data collected from ten men I interviewed; the second presents material obtained from ten women. The third section of the chapter analyzes some of the similarities and differences between men's and women's perspectives on gender, with particular reference to the scope and force of practical, largely counter-hegemonic representations of masculinity on the one hand, and to the various structural and historical factors that have motivated their (re)production on the other. Among other things, the material presented here indicates that on a great many issues men and women are in basic agreement as to the fundamental similarities and differences between males and females. One important corollary of this is that women accept much of the official/hegemonic view of gender, including many features of the hegemony that portray women (and females generally) in predominantly negative terms. We will also see that many men (and women) espouse various practical, largely counter-hegemonic views that portray them (men) in highly negative terms, and that these latter views simultaneously encode and mask local perspectives on class that are otherwise generally unmarked in discourse concerning gender and social relations. The final section of the chapter deals in more general terms with some of the variables that serve to constrain the elaboration of oppositional discourses and strategies of resistance.

Chapter 7 provides comparative and theoretical perspectives on Negeri Sembilan. After a brief overview of the more important ethnographic findings discussed in earlier chapters, I turn to a comparative analysis of Negeri Sembilan and Aceh which serves to further substantiate my argument that we need to rethink the "arelational" notion of masculinity enshrined in the comparative and theoretical literature on gender. Inter alia, I show that the "positional," ostensibly "arelational" notion of masculinity said to prevail in all societies has little relevance in these two societies and, in any case, derives from a dichotomization of Western folkloric notions of masculinity which reflects certain state and other elite biases. Data from these two societies also illustrate that there is profound ambivalence about official ideologies of gender, and that this ambivalence fuels the highly elaborated counter-hegemonic discourses found in these societies. Issues bearing on counter-hegemonies and ambivalence are also

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taken up in the second section of the chapter, which deals with transformations on Malay-Indonesian and Islamic themes by examining the ways in which "reason" and "passion" figure into contrasting discourses on masculinity among Minangkabau and Javanese, as well as the (Mzeini) Bedouin who inhabit the South Sinai Peninsula (Egypt). The final section of the chapter speaks to more general issues and debates in the literature on ideology, experience, and ambivalence.

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