- Gender Pluralism: Southeast Asia since Early Modern Times
In the last decade, a substantial increase has taken place in the number of publications in English on gender and sexual diversity in Southeast Asia. Peletz’s book adds to this corpus of literature and provides readers with information about the cultural and historical contexts of such diversity. This ambitious text draws on material spanning roughly six centuries and pays particular attention to gender pluralism in Malaysia, Burma, Thailand, and Indonesia. The book has four substantive chapters: “Gender Pluralism and Transgender Practices in Early Modern Times”; “Temporary Marriage, Connubial Commerce, and Colonial Body Politics”; “Transgender Practices, Same-Sex Relations, and Gender Pluralism since the 1960s”; and “Gender, Sexuality, and Body Politics at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century.” The last chapter is by far the lengthiest, spanning almost one hundred pages.
The book opens with a fascinating question concerning why difference is embraced in some cultural and historical situations, while in others, difference is stigmatized, and homogenizing efforts are enacted. Peletz specifically frames this question around gender (including sexual) pluralism [End Page 568] and asks why at particular times and places transgendered shamans, for instance, are accorded great prestige and status, but at other times they are demonized and outcast. Peletz’s answer is that many kinds of difference were celebrated throughout Southeast Asia up until early modern times. From around the fifteenth to sixteenth centuries, however, processes of delegitimization and stigmatization of gender pluralism began. For example, Peletz presents evidence to suggest that until the sixteenth century women played significant political roles but that formalization and segregation of gender roles over the following centuries distanced women from loci of power and prestige (5). Peletz posits multiple reasons for the constriction of pluralistic sensibilities, including the rising influence of world religions, colonialism, political centralization, the development of nationalist and modernist discourses, capitalism, and processes of urbanization and industrialization. Interestingly, Peletz argues that Burma’s global isolation has meant that pluralistic gender arrangements are still evident there (130).
Peletz’s thesis is contingent on his definition of gender pluralism. For Peletz, this term refers to pluralism in gendered fields or domains and denotes pluralistic sensibilities and dispositions regarding bodily practices, embodied desires, social roles, and sexual relationships (10). Gender pluralism must be accorded legitimacy; without legitimacy there is diversity, not pluralism (5). Legitimacy occurs when a particular phenomenon accords with the general values, norms, and beliefs of the wider society (1–2). It is possible, then, that in contemporary Southeast Asia there is more gender diversity than ever before. At the same time, Peletz argues that such diversity is not granted legitimacy, and as such it does not constitute pluralism. Indeed, greater diversity may be perceived as a threat to governing bodies and thus contribute to a constriction of gender pluralism, as is arguably happening in Malaysia (265).
Peletz’s book makes for fascinating reading. A staggering amount of material has been consulted, ranging from the original reports of missionaries and colonialists up to contemporary texts on queer theory. As can be expected of such an ambitious work, there are anomalies, as Peletz points out. Written evidence of early modern times in Southeast Asia is scarce and often skewed toward the reporter’s viewpoint. Making generalizations about how widespread gender pluralism was or affirming that there has been consistent constriction across Southeast Asia is therefore impossible. Indeed, there are many cases where gender pluralism has actually increased over time (for example, in transgender fashion parades, gay and lesbian relationships, or women assuming new roles). As such, Peletz asks the question, “Why is gender pluralism still relatively robust in many Southeast Asian societies, despite the cultural, political, and historical forces long arrayed against it?” (179). Indeed, in places like Malaysia, the government is frequently more punitive toward antigovernment rhetoric than it is toward transgender (253). As such, the thesis that gender pluralism in Southeast Asia has constricted since early modern times needs constant qualification. [End Page 569]
Peletz presents an interesting discussion of the...