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Refiguring Women, Colonialism, and Modernity in Burma

Chie Ikeya

Publication Year: 2011

Refiguring Women, Colonialism, and Modernity in Burma presents the first study of one of the most prevalent and critical topics of public discourse in colonial Burma: the woman of the khit kala—"the woman of the times"—who burst onto the covers and pages of novels, newspapers, and advertisements in the 1920s. Educated and politicized, earner and consumer, "Burmese" and "Westernized," she embodied the possibilities and challenges of the modern era, as well as the hopes and fears it evoked. In Refiguring Women, Chie Ikeya interrogates what these shifting and competing images of the feminine reveal about the experience of modernity in colonial Burma. She marshals a wide range of hitherto unexamined Burmese language sources to analyze both the discursive figurations of the woman of the khit kala and the choices and actions of actual women who—whether pursuing higher education, becoming political, or adopting new clothes and hairstyles—unsettled existing norms and contributed to making the woman of the khit kala the privileged idiom for debating colonialism, modernization, and nationalism.

The first book-length social history of Burma to utilize gender as a category of sustained analysis, Refiguring Women challenges the reigning nationalist and anticolonial historical narratives of a conceptually and institutionally monolithic colonial modernity that made inevitable the rise of ethnonationalism and xenophobia in Burma. The study demonstrates the irreducible heterogeneity of the colonial encounter and draws attention to the conjoined development of cosmopolitanism and nationalism. Ikeya illuminates the important roles that Burmese men and women played as cultural brokers and agents of modernity. She shows how their complex engagements with social reform, feminism, anticolonialism, media, and consumerism rearticulated the boundaries of belonging and foreignness in religious, racial, and ethnic terms.

Refiguring Women adds significantly to examinations of gender and race relations, modernization, and nationalism in colonized regions. It will be of interest to a broad audience—not least those working in the fields of Southeast Asian studies, colonial and postcolonial studies, cultural studies, and women’s and gender studies.

26 illus.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press

Series: Southeast Asia: Politics, Meaning, and Memory

Title Page

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pp. ix-xii

When I started my research in 2002, I had intended to focus on the Japanese occupation of Burma during the Second World War and the varied ways in which it was understood locally and within a broader context of Japan's rise as a non-European, modern, and imperial power. As is often the case with researchers, I left...


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pp. xiii

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pp. 1-13

The Burmese novel Mon ywe mahu (Not out of hate), written by Ma Ma Lay in 1955, tells of a tragic romance between Way Way, a young woman from an ordinary Burmese Buddhist family, and U Saw Han, an older and thoroughly Anglicized and impious Burmese man working for a British firm. Set in British Burma...

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Chapter 1. The Colonial Setting

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pp. 14-45

The British colonization of Burma was piecemeal. It began in 1826 with the defeat of the Konbaung dynasty (1752-1885) in the First Anglo-Burmese War (1824-1826) and the loss of the provinces of Arakan and Tenasserim to the British goverment (see map 1.1). When the governor-general of the East India Company declared war on the...

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Chapter 2. Women on the Rise Education and the Popular Press

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pp. 46-74

Since Anthony Reid reinforced the argument by George Coedès that women in Southeast Asia were conferred important roles by the culture of the region, the notion of the "traditional" high status of women in Southeast Asia has been foundational to paradigmatic understandings of the region as a distinct geopolitical...

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Chapter 3. Between Patriotism and Feminism: Politicized and Organized Women

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pp. 75-95

Following on the heels of yuwadi columns were articles and featured columns that focused less on the emergent class of educated young women and were written by and for women in general (amyothami).1 A growing number of articles for and about women were published as regular features of newspapers...

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Chapter 4. Modern Woman as Consumer: Fashion, Domesticity, and the Marketplace

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pp. 96-119

The educated, patriotic, and politicized women were joined by another incarnation of the modern woman who was less of an icon of social and political reform than were the other archetypes: the consumerist woman. The epitome of the khit hmi thu as consumer was the fashionista. Referred to most often as khit hsan thu...

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Chapter 5. Mixing Religion and Race: Intermarriage, Miscegenation, and the Wives and Mistresses of Foreign Men

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pp. 120-142

The rapid growth in kabya (mixed) population was an inevitable outcome of colonization.1 In Burma, relationships between foreign men and native women persisted, and the kabya population continued to expand throughout policies of racial segregation.2 Yet the same period also...

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Chapter 6. The Self-Indulgent Khit hsan thu: Culture, Nation, and Masculinity on Trial

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pp. 143-162

Wives and mistresses of foreigners were not the only unpatriotic women to appear in colonial-period Burmese discourses. The khit hsan thu and other variants of the fashionable female (discussed in chapter 4) also became the target of censorious and often misogynistic representations of Burmese women in the media...

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pp. 163-170

In 1973, eighteen years after the publication of her celebrated Mon ywe mahu (Not out of hate), Ma Ma Lay published Thway (Blood).1 This less well-known novel revisits the theme of the encounter between different cultures but takes a stance decidedly at odds with her earlier position...


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pp. 171-199

Glossary of Frequently Used Burmese Terms

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pp. 201-203


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pp. 205-228


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pp. 229-239

E-ISBN-13: 9780824861063
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824834616

Publication Year: 2011

Series Title: Southeast Asia: Politics, Meaning, and Memory