Gendered Entanglements: Revisiting Gender in Rapidly Changing Asia

Ragnhild Lund, Philippe Doneys, and Bernadette P. Resurreccion, eds

Copenhagen: Nordic Institute of Asia Studies Press, 2015, 336 pp.

Reviewed by Alex Jong-Seok Lee

The result of a study funded by the Research Council of Norway, Gendered Entanglements Revisiting Gender in Rapidly Changing Asia, aims to “revisit gender as a concept that can engage simultaneously with change and continuity in today’s Asia” (vii). As an edited volume, the book features a total of nineteen contributors from diverse disciplines, including government science, anthropology, and Asian studies. In addition, many of its contributors either are or have been involved with activism outside the academy.

Editors Ragnhild Lund, Philippe Doneys, and Bernadette P. Resurreccion consider gender a “type of ontological social difference based on cultural notions of femininity and masculinity, and that by signifying such a difference, power is concurrently produced [unequally] between women and men” (1). They argue that this assumption, however, is in need of greater interrogation. Specifically, gender and its accompanying subjectivities must be reevaluated as complex phenomena, intersecting with other forms of subjectivities, and informed by processes of changing conditions of time and space, the editors insist. Hence, the monograph’s title: gender understood as “in motion and entangled with multiple processes of producing identities, power and inequalities” (1).

The edited volume is structured into four thematic parts, Lund, Doneys, and Resurreccion explain: “gender over time”; “power, policy and practices”; “environment and resources”; and “gender justice and rights.” The volume’s gender over time contributors employ an approach that, quite literally, looks at changing notions of gender over time. It does so by “revisiting gender” via longitudinal studies of industrial communities in Malaysia and marriage practices in West Malaysian villages, respectively. Both pieces follow a feminist concern for methodology and authorship by employing the “‘outsider-insider’ gaze” (62) of both “foreign” and “native” researchers.

The contributors for the book’s power, policy and practices section explore the ways in which gender and gender relations respond to and are reconfigured by power (and discourses of “empowerment” (69)) within development institutions and commercial enterprises. For example, Kyoko Kusakabe’s and Prak Sereyvath’s chapter on female Cambodian fish border traders applies intersectionality to challenge Eurocentric “myths that all women traders would benefit from organizing and mutual help” (142). Instead, both Southeast Asia-based researchers argue that the “rigid framework of a cooperative, savings group, or even a union” would be less effective in supporting [female Cambodian fish border] traders than simply a safe space for them to conduct business and watch over their children” (ibid).

The authors who write about environment and resources in the book examine how novel environment-market relations have strengthened and reconfigured extant gender inequalities in complex ways. Shanthi Thambiah’s ethnography of internal diversity (both women and men) among ethnic hunter-gatherers of the Bhuket in Sarawak, for instance, demonstrates how “gender cannot pre-exist context, for context and gender constitute one another mutually” (235).

Finally, the volume’s gender justice and rights section writers outline how the development of normative interpretations of legal rights and responsibilities based on gendered perspectives translate into “real consequences” on how justice is prescribed and administered (10). For example, Julaikha B. Hossain’s investigation of how the legal status of Muslim women as defined by the “religious” principles of Sharia through “Muslim Personal Law,” and the legal status of Hindu women as defined by “Hindu Personal Law,” oftentimes are at odds with the “secular” general law of the Bangladeshi state (294).

Despite its undeniable importance, however, Gendered Entanglements occasionally falls short of achieving its goal to “attend to and underscore the neutralization and simplifications associated with gender and ‘women’ within the field of gender” (320). Chiefly, only a few chapters include men within its empirical analyses. This risks further conflating the gender analytic as pertinent primarily to women while also diminishing the constitutive role of men, masculinities, and male-female relations within gender construction(s). Another drawback includes a reliance on ill-defined terms like Asia, which in this volume includes only South and Southeast Asia (not East or West Asia), as well as potentially essentializing binaries like “insider/outsider” and “foreigner/indigenous” (44). Nevertheless, the greatest strength of Gendered Entanglements is its collaborative, empirically-rich approach (most chapters are co-authored) to reconceptualizing the familiar analytic of gender within a region undergoing continual social, economic, and political change. Consequently, this book will be of value to feminist scholars, educators, and practitioners interested in gender formations across cultures, activist-oriented scholarship, and development policies in modern Asia.

Alex Jong-Seok Lee is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His research explores how different regimes of truth and techniques of governance structure human experience under contemporary global capitalism. He focuses on the related domains of labor migration, mobility, technology and transportation, and gender and racial formation.

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