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Full Access Urban Respectability and the Maleness of (Southeast) Asian Modernity

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Urban Respectability and the Maleness of (Southeast) Asian Modernity

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The urban modernity that became an irresistible model for elites in Asia in the decades before and after 1900 was far from being gender-neutral. It represented an exceptional peak of patriarchy in its exclusion of respectable middle class women from the work force, from ownership and control of property and from politics. Marriage was indissoluble and the wife’s role in the male-headed nuclear family was to care for and educate the abundant children she produced. Puritan religious values underlined the perils for women of falling outside this pattern of dependence on the male. Though upheld as modern and civilized, this ideal was in particularly striking contrast with the pre-colonial Southeast Asian pattern of economic autonomy and balance between women and men, and the relative ease of femaleinitiated divorce. Although attractive to many western-educated Southeast Asian men, including religious reformers determined to ‘save’ and domesticate women, urban respectability of this type was a poor fit for women accustomed to dominant roles in commerce and marketing, and at least equal ones in production. Southeast Asian relative failure in the high colonial era to adapt to the modern market economy may also have a gendered explanation. We should not be surprised that patriarchy and puritanism became more important in Southeast Asia as it urbanized in the late 20th Century, since this was echoing the European experience a century earlier. The question remains how far Southeast Asia could retain its relatively balanced gender pattern in face of its eventual rapid urbanization and commercial development.

Affiliations: 1: Australian National University


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