Skip navigation and go to main content

Warriors and Rulers: the roles of Asian women in Asian society

Orientalist stereotypes of sexist Asian men dominating their women prevail in the western imagination. That is why enlightened European men need to rescue Asian women from their oppression by offering them the chance to join liberated European/Euro-American society as the sex mates of white men.

Many European/European American whites, both men and women, believe in the need to rescue women of color from their societies of origin, and particularly from men of color. This gives rise to some white people's attitudes of smiling benignly on unions between white men and women of color while frowning on unions between white women and men of color.

No where is this attitude more obvious than when it comes to the Asian women-white men syndrome. Western fiction such as "Around the World in 80 Days" and "The Far Pavilions" tell tales of the white hero rescuing an oppressed Asian woman from the clutches of Asian men. White-male-produced entertainment depicting Asian-female-white-male couples abound. Sayonara, Miss Saigon, Madame Butterfly are prime examples. There are far fewer films depicting white-woman-Asian-male couples.

What Westerners typically fail to mention is that, in Asia, as in Europe and Africa, there is a diverse range of cultures and peoples, and a wide range of attitudes towards women and any other topic for that matter. To think there is a single Asian (or African or European) attitude against women is a gross oversimplification at best. Asian women in many cultures were accorded a status that Western critics do no expect/do not want to acknowledge. In fact, there were many instances of Asian women enjoying liberties that were not available to their European contemporaries.

Most Dravidian (the pre-Indo-European peoples of India, now existing as Tamilians, Telugus, Malayali and other South Indian groups) cultures of India worship pantheons which are almost all female. In the Telugu districts, the few male deities are subordinate attendants upon female divinities which hold the supreme power.1 The Nairs, a large, powerful warrior caste of Kerala, practises matrilineal descent and lived in households headed by a woman.2 Men belong solely to their mother's family. Real estate is passed from mothers to daughters, and women are allowed to have multiple sex partners.3 E, a Hindi woman from the North who married into a family in the South, avers, "There is definitely more respect for women in southern India than in northern India. I observe it in everyday situations such as people's behavior on public transportation." The northern cultures of India are Indo-European-derived.

Among the Ainu people (living mostly in Japan, with some living in China), women "dictate to their husbands and make them fetch and carry".4 The Mingangkabau of Indonesia are a matriarchal culture in which property is passed matrilineally, and both genders have an equal share of power.5 In Malaysia, the women of Negri Sembilan had exclusive inheritance rights to ancestral rice fields.6 The matrilineal culture of Negri Sembilan gave women a scope of influence comparable to that of men.

Are the lives of Asian women really that much worse off than the lives of white women that Asian women need a great white male savior to deliver them from their misery? The following articles provide an overview of the reality of Asian women's roles in Asian societies:

Warriors: Asian women in Asian society

Leaders and Rulers: the roles of Asian women in Asian society

The European/Euro-American "Rescue" Mentality and the Harms Toward Asian Women

Maybe European/European American men ought to do more rescuing and liberating of European women at home. From historical precedent, Asian women seem perfectly capable of doing it for themselves. This white Western attitude of "Asian women are better off with us" is an ethnocentric assumption that is insulting to Asian men as well as Asian women.

On the contrary, the white man's stereotypes of Asian womanhood and the accompanying assumption that he is the best choice for Asian women has proven disastrous for Asian women living in the United States. More than half of respondents in a Playboy survey listed the race of their preferred sex partner as "Oriental." Many Asian women relate incidents of sexual harassment and even sexual violence which were explicitly race-related:

  1. White serial rapist targets Asian women in Seattle

  2. Hispanic serial rapist targets Asian women in New York

  3. White serial rapist targets Asian women in California

  4. Hispanic serial rapist targets Asian women in St Louis

  5. Black serial molester targets Asian women in Seattle

Asian American groups have voiced concern over media stereotypes of Asian femininity fueling sexual assaults against Asian women by non-Asian men. Unfortunately, their views do not get the hearing they deserve.

Some Asian women should take responsibility for playing up to the expectations and myths of Europeans/European Americans. Asian women are over-represented in the US porn industry due to the demand of white men's fantasies. Many Asian women have found it advantageous financially or career-wise to gain the favor of white men. Racism accounts for the lack of equal opportunity in Western society and may explain why some people of color might use such tactics to succeed. But making excuses for Asian women now may be less helpful than pointing out the fact that Asian women were, and are perfectly capable of taking care of themselves and their nations without a male rescuer, white or otherwise.

  1. Runoko Rashidi, "Africans in Early Asian Civilizations: A Historical Overview", African Presence in Early Asia, ed. Runoko Rashidi, p. 48
  2. Conrad Kottak, Cultural Anthropology (10th Edition), p. 257
  3. Interview with S. Bala, an Indian national of Nair matrilineal descent, 2003
  4. James Brunson, "The African Presence in Early China", African Presence in Early Asia, ed. Runoko Rashidi, p. 124
  5. Pam Kosty, "Indonesia's Matriarchal Minangkabau Offer an Alternative Social System", EurekaAlert News Brief, May 9 2002
  6. Kottak, p. 320