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Unexpected Portraits from Asia

An Asian American woman K spoke fervently of her belief in the superiority of Western cultures to non-Western cultures. She specifically mentioned Afghanistan under Taliban rule as an example of a typical unWesternized Asian society with its attendent evils of sexism and religious fundamentalism. K then mentioned Hong Kong (her own place of origin) as an example of how life gets better when Asian people 'Westernize'. Women there wear Western dress and work outside the home, unlike the women of Afghanistan, or so she says. Never mind that Afghani women worked outside the home before the Taliban era. An associate brought up the point, but K ignored it. She only wanted to talk about the Taliban's oppressive dress-code as the symbol of the traditional oppression of all Asian women. K adamantly insisted that women in Western dress is a sign of social progress, and that non-Westerners cannot modernize without adopting Western dress.

In K's world view, the level of 'social progress' and personal satisfaction in a non-Western society is directly proportional to the degree to which that society accepted 'Western influence', which K defines as dress code and technology. Now I do agree that the West has much to share with the rest of the world in terms of technological advances, but I wasn't sure if other people have to change their clothes in order to accept our technology. I mentioned that to K, and she ranted on and on about Afghan women wearing the oppressive veil under the Taliban. "Just how does someone get any work done in that kind of dress?" I was puzzled - in the majority of Asian cultures women don't dress like Afghan women under the Taliban, and Afghanis didn't dress like that before the Taliban. It seems to me like people would be able to get 'modern' work done in most traditional Asian dresses. I work in a software firm with many South Asians and West Asians, both male and female. Many come to work in traditional garb, and don't seem to do any worse for it.

Are all traditional Asian societies sexist and unprogressive, as K believes? Do women/gays who enjoy equal rights in Asian societies owe their place to Western influence alone? I do not think this is the case. Here is a sampling of 'unexpected' portraits of traditional lifestyles in different parts of Asia. Imagine what the headlines will look like if we generalize Asians by these social practices rather than the usual Western media fare that patronizingly assunes that non-European societies have to become Westernized in order to progress socially:

Asian men demand equal property rights for men in traditionally matriarchal society

In Meghalaya, which is in Northeastern India, men have to campaign for equal rights in a society where women traditionally hold power:

Some agitated men in ... Meghalaya, upset with the "fact of female domination" have started an organisation, Symbai Rymbai Tymbai (SRT).

SRT's president Ableman Swer says they are demanding new legislation ensuring equal property rights for men. Now women get all ancestral property in Meghalaya -- the youngest daughter gets the lion's share. But that is unlikely to change in a region where women have traditionally been the heads of households.1

Women's groups of northeastern India are social and political forces to be reckoned with. Groups of women punish wayward men such as drunkards and drug addicts by beating them with sticks. Women's organizations socially excommunicate men for daring to demand more than two children from their wives.2

Women make the marriage proposals in traditionally matrilineal societies in Vietnam

The Ede and Jarai ethnic groups in Vietnam's Central highlands are matrilineal societies in which women propose marriage to men. The groom moves into his wife's home after marriage, and the children take their mother's family name.3

Voyeuristic East Asian women enjoy homoerotic displays from men

Ancient and medieval writings recorded a large number of instances in which Chinese and Japanese women either spied on, or publicly enjoyed homoerotic performances from men, and also enjoyed men as sexual entertainment in other ways.4 These stories flies in the face of Western cliches of oppressed Oriental women, whose sexuality is controlled by men.

In modern-day Japan, the main market for gay romance/pornography comic books is heterosexual women! This phenomenon, known as yaoi, is also popular in the Chinese world and has only recently started catching on in the West relatively. East Asian female sexuality has existed INDEPENDENTLY of pleasing men for thousands of years. Yet this idea is never represented in Western popular media.

Many Westerners have the idea that East Asian women are conditioned to take care of others and put the needs of their men before their own. In American films, sexism and racism combine to create a fantasy world in which yellow women exist to serve the pleasures of white men. Whenever you see a yellow woman on American TV or the big screen, she is almost always the love interest of a white man, there to serve as eye-candy and fodder for erotic fantasies about a mysterious Other. It is a wonder then, that after all this media conditioning, many males of European descent confessed their fantasies about indulging in one man-multiple woman group sex with multiple Asian women? There are many white boys who think only of how Asian women can serve them, but not how *they* can serve Asian women. (Now doesn't that make men of European descent just as oppressive as the East Asian men they stereotype as sexist exploiters of Asian women?)

Matriarchal Muslim society with low incidence of rape

Stereotypes of sexist, patriarchal Muslims who reject modernity have been in circulation long before 9/11, leading many non-Muslims to conclude that there is something inherently wrong with Islam. The religion has come to be associated with polygamy, terrorism, extremism, sexism etc. Enter the Minangkabau of Indonesia, who are the world's largest matrilineal group, and also Muslim.5 In Minangkabau society, the man traditionally marries into his wife's household, and the women inherit the family home. Men and women share power instead of trying to dominate each other.

The Muslim Minangkabau are welcoming of modern influences, but their respect for women is not a Western import, but an ancient, pre-Islamic tradition. Dr Peggy Reeves Sanday, an anthropologist who lived among the Minangkabau, found that there was virtually no incidence of rape among them.6 In contrast, a 'feminist', Western society like the USA is considered a "high rape" society.

Same-sex marriage in pre-modern China

In Guangdong province of China, a marriage tradition existed in the Golden Orchid Sisterhoods, which were traditional social organizations for women. Two women go through a ceremony that looks suspiciously like a heterosexual marriage ceremony, witnessed by other society members. These married couples could then adopt female children, who had inheritance rights from the couple's parents.7

In the neighboring province of Fujian, same-sex marriages between males involved an oath of "brotherhood". The younger man moved into the older man's household, and sometimes the couple adopted and raised children.8 A similar practice of"sworn brotherhood" established committed relationships between men in Japan.

Westerners are not the first to discover "same sex marriage". Traditions of marriage between two people of the same biological sex appear in African societies and among indigenous peoples in the Americas.

Asian women rule in marriage-less society

A friend from China visited the Moso, a matrilineal, women-centered ethnic group in Southwestern China. They have no custom of marriage. Women take as many lovers as they please. The family is ruled by matriarchs, and men help raise their sisters' children. Efforts by the Chinese government to 'reform' their sexual freedom have failed.9 So much for Western stereotypes of cloistered Asian wives and shy Oriental virgin maidens whose sexuality is controlled solely by men. The Moso have been described as "a society where girls are favored over boys".

Women had multiple sex partners in matrilineal Indian culture

The Nairs are a large matrilineal warrior caste of Kerala State in India.10 Traditional Nair families are headed by a woman, with whom lives her siblings, sisters' children and other matrilineal relatives.11 In Nair tradition, a man moves back to his mother's residence shortly after his wedding ceremony and children belong to their mother's lineage. 12 It was not uncommon for women to have multiple sex partners. Historically, the Nair men went on long military expeditions, and during their absence their wives could have liaisons with other men, typically men of the Brahmin caste. 13

Traditions of polyandry are unique to Asia

All the cultures that traditionally allowed one woman to have more than one officially wedded husbands concurrently are in South Asia: Nepal, Sri Lanka, India and Tibet.14 A well-known example is the Pahari of India, who live in the lower ranges of the Himalayas. They practice both polygynous and polyandrous marriage.15 Their flexible marriage tradition also accepted divorce and remarriage for women. In contrast, divorce and re-marriage were not considered 'respectable' choices for women in some Western cultures until fairly recent times. Many Westerners love to harp on traditional Asian polygyny as a symptom of the alleged Asian oppression of women, but they invariably forget to mention traditional Asian polyandry.

Same-sex partnerships in Thailand

Prior to the 1960s, same-sex cross-gender domestic partnership between a cisgendered woman and a transgender man were a visible part of Thai rural life.16 These masculine-identified biological females lived as social men. In modern urban Thailand, the traditional pairing of a transgender man and a cisgender feminine woman continues as "tom" (tomboy) and "dee" (lady) relationships. Researcher Megan Sinnott found that "parents were indifferent to their daughters' relatinships with toms or dees, or activley supported them as a good alternative to hterosexuality."17

Summing up

If anything can be gleaned from these examples, it is that Westerners do not have a monopoly on creating societies where women and sexual/gender minorities are accepted or even privileged. Contrary to what our Asian American friend K believes, Asians and other non-Europeans are capable of respecting women and honoring same-sex unions without the enlightenment of European influence.

K's approach of looking at the world involves very broad generalizations. There is an assumption of Asian uniformity and European/Euro-Am uniformity. She generalizes all of Asia to a brutal, extremist regime in one country, and she generalizes all of the West to the best the West has to offer. While there are some sexist Asian societies and some not-so-sexist European societies, the converse is also true. Attitudes towards women vary widely in Europe, or even within a single country such as the US. The same is true for attitudes towards women, or anything for that matter, in Asia, which is larger and culturally more diverse than Europe.

To prove her point about Asian sexism and Western enlightenment, K only chose to mention sexist Hong Kong movies in contrast to European/American movies with strong female characters. She neglected to mention the very many Hong Kong martial arts movies with strong female protagonists that have been made since the earliest days of Hong Kong film making, and the large numbers of US-made movies that perpetuate stereotypes of the airhead and the bimbo. This typical approach of comparing our best against their worst to make us look better is nothing short of dishonest, though I do not believe that K consciously intended to be dishonest.

While I agree with K that the modern age has been a time of the technological ascendency of the West, I am equally certain that this ascendency will not last forever. K's view of history is at best myopic. Oceania, Africa and Asia had, each in their turn, hosted the most advanced human societies in the world at specific times in the past. But peoples and nations rise and fall, if the past is anything to learn from.


  1. Subir Bhaumik, RIGHTS-INDIA: Women Crusade for Peace in Northeast
  2. Subir Bhaumik, RIGHTS-INDIA: Women Crusade for Peace in Northeast
  3. Gia Linh Travel - Vietnam, the Hidden Charm: Ethnic Groups in Central Highlands
  4. Bret Hinsch, Passions of the Cut Sleeve: The Male Homosexual Tradition in China, p. 69
    Gary Leupp, Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan, pp. 172-175
  5. Dien Rice, Minangkabau Life and Culture
  6. Esaúl Sánchez, Peggy Reeves Sanday Takes a Historic Look at Rape and Accountability
  7. Bret Hinsch, Passions of the Cut Sleeve: The Male Homosexual Tradition in China, p. 178
  8. Bret Hinsch, Passions of the Cut Sleeve: The Male Homosexual Tradition in China, p. 132
  9. Nervy Girl - China's Na Women
  10. Interview with S.B., an Indian national of Nair matrilineal descent
  11. Conrad Kottak, Cultural Anthropology (10th edition), p. 257
  12. Conrad Kottak, Cultural Anthropology (10th edition), p. 257
  13. Interview with S.B., an Indian national of Nair matrilineal descent
  14. Conrad Kottak, Cultural Anthropology (10th edition), p. 301
  15. Conrad Kottak, Cultural Anthropology (10th edition), pp. 302-303
  16. Sinnott, Megan, "The Romance of the Queer", AsiaPacifiQueer: Rethinking Genders and Sexualities, ed. Martin, Fran; Jacksn, A. Peter; McLelland, Mark; Yue, Audrey, p. 315
  17. Sinnott, Megan, "The Romance of the Queer", AsiaPacifiQueer: Rethinking Genders and Sexualities, ed. Martin, Fran; Jacksn, A. Peter; McLelland, Mark; Yue, Audrey, p. 316