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  • The Flaming Womb: Repositioning Women in Early Modern Southeast Asia
  • Barbara N. Ramusack
The Flaming Womb: Repositioning Women in Early Modern Southeast Asia. By Barbara Watson Andaya. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2006. 352 pp. $59.00 (cloth); $21.00 (paper).

If Southeast Asia is a distinctive region, if area studies are a credible scholarly endeavor, if the early modern period is a valid historical entity, and if women's history can recover the lives of nonelite women are topics that have provoked continuing scholarly debate. Barbara Watson Andaya, who has done much to nurture historical study of women in Southeast Asia, addresses these issues in this superb synthetic analysis. Consideration of these questions in the first two chapters of this book provides the context for her wide-ranging and balanced examination of Southeast Asian women's lives from around 1400 to the early 1800s, a crucial period of transition.

Arguing that Southeast Asia constitutes a discernible region based on human interaction and cultural patterns such as the use of Tai and Austronesian languages, the practice of Buddhism, and the presence of common foods, especially rice, Andaya convincingly extends the geographical boundaries of Southeast Asia from northeastern India, particularly areas such as Assam and Nagaland, and Sri Lanka westward to remote Indonesian islands, the Philippines, and Taiwan. She effectively challenges earlier boundaries based on colonial empires and modern nation-states. Simultaneously she recognizes some differences between the cultures of mainland Southeast Asia—mainly northeast India, Burma, Malaya, Siam, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam—and the islands of Sri Lanka, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Taiwan, such as the more dramatic impact of global trade on the islands than on the mainland. A second underlying thesis reaffirms that women in Southeast Asia were historically "'less inferior'" than women in East and [End Page 279] South Asia but with crucial spatial and temporal qualifications. For example, Confucian injunctions tended to restrict the autonomy of women in Vietnam more than Dutch control did in Indonesia. Factors that enabled greater autonomy for women in Southeast Asia are kinship that is traced through males and females, the possibility that daughters could inherit, matrilocal residence in some areas, low populations and hence a need for labor, bridewealth, and women's commercial activities in the production of commodities and in marketing. Finally, while recognizing that historians will likely provide a more limited view of women, both elite and especially nonelite, than of men, Andaya asserts that sufficient sources exist for a history of women. Indigenous sources include material objects such as archaeological remains, ceramics, textiles, and Thai mural paintings as well as more traditional ones such as court chronicles, oral and written poetry, myths, folk tales, and proverbs. These local sources are read dialectically with Indian, Chinese, and European sources that range from travelers' accounts, commercial records, and government documents of the Chinese and especially the Dutch East India Company.

Acknowledging the paucity of texts and material remains prior to 1300, Andaya delineates continuities and changes for women in indigenous states in the early modern period that witnessed the arrival of the world religions Islam and Christianity, incorporation into global trade increasingly dominated by the Portuguese and then the Dutch and the British, and internally the growth of centralized states that sought greater control over subjects and resources. Thematic chapters analyze the situation of women in relation to religion, the economy, the state, the courts of rulers, and their life cycles from the fifteenth to the early nineteenth centuries.

Because of the complex diversity within Southeast Asia and the depth of Andaya's research in primary and secondary sources, it is not possible to give adequate attention to the breadth and balance of her narrative. The chapter on economic change that carefully delineates the positive and negative consequences for women of the integration of Southeast Asia into a global trading network must serve as one example. Even though European powers favored male rights to property, women in Southeast Asia retained some control over agricultural land possibly because men were absent for extended periods on the sea as fishermen, sailors, and traders or on land as monks, soldiers, and hunters. Women's role in rice cultivation remained...


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