- The Authority of Influence: Women and Power in Burmese History by Jessica Harriden
Copenhagen: NIAS Press, 2012, xiii+370 pp.
In the preface, Harriden has explained her objective for the book as providing ‘a “long view” of gender-power relations in Burmese history’, ‘to examine women’s access to social, economic and political power over an extended historical period’ (p. vii). Harriden argues that, despite social disruptions and political upheavals brought about by British colonialism and their purported ‘civilising mission’, there is still much continuity with the pre-colonial period in terms of the nature, scope and limitations of female power and influence in Burmese society. Contributing to the vastly varied conditions of women during the different political eras she examined, continuity notwithstanding, were the socio-economic and political situations which either empowered or frustrated the agency of women in their access to power, resources and socio-political mobility. Understandably, the women did not all have a homogeneous background, which was illustrated in their differentiated access to power and prestige within each era.
Refuting the widely held notion that Burmese women have enjoyed gender equality ‘since time immemorial’, throughout her book the author recounts in detail evidence which indicates otherwise. Central to her framework of interpretation is what she sees as the Burmese worldview which constructs what is considered appropriate gender roles and gender relations through the localization of Buddhist values and practices. Burmese Buddhists generally regard all men as possessing [End Page 152] hpoun (‘glory’) or innate spiritual superiority, presumably due to accumulated merit in their previous lives. This reasoning is used to justify male prerogative to assume positions of formal political authority (ana). Women, on the other hand, are presumed to have accumulated bad karma in past lives such that they have to endure the ‘five forms of female suffering’ – menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth, separation from parents and service to one’s husband. This concept of their gender role posed considerable obstacles to female actors aspiring for political influence, prestige and power.
Conceptualising power as the ‘capacity to bring about intended consequences in the behaviour of others’ (p. 18), Harriden highlights another indigenous concept of power, awza (‘influence’), which derives its legitimacy from leaders’ personal qualities and influence even without access to ana or formal office of authority. Attributing personalised awza to someone, who could be a man or a woman, is a positive recognition of the person as possessing charisma, wisdom and high morality.
Harriden rejects the simplistic dichotomy of male superiority versus female inferiority which to her is inadequate for explaining the ‘varieties’ of male–female relationships. Contending that male–female relationships, like all other power relationships, have to be negotiated and ‘negotiation is never one way’, she argues that such bilateral nature of social relationships ‘diffused gender hierarchies’ (p. 22), and ‘the family as a social system’ operated based on ‘gendered, rather than patriarchal, relations of power’ (p. 40). The economic independence of women in pre-colonial Burmese society and the venerated position of mother in a family complicated the operationalization of the notion of male prerogative for formal authority in this bilateral negotiation process. The author adopts the concept of ‘kinship politics’ which proposes that, traditionally, power lies collectively in the ‘kinship alliance group’, and ‘women with kinship or marriage ties to men in power viewed themselves as sharing in that power’ (p. 40). In this context, female power was exercised most effectively and actively through kinship networks. Hence women ‘took a keen interest in official matters, but preferred to exercise influence through their husbands’ names so as not to threaten men’s authority’ (p. 41).
By broadening the concept of political power to one that is inclusive of informal and personalised influence exercised by women with kinship or familial connection to powerful men, the author is able to demonstrate the agency of women in extending their influence well into the formal political arena. Pre-colonial Burmese political organization is regarded as being developed as a form of extended family network. Elite women with connections to male rulers were able to exert significant political influence through the...