Women and Choice

In Everyday Life in SEA, the chapter Javanese Women and the Veil, we are presented with a new middle age class of young Muslim Javanese women, mainly as a part of the female student body, and their ambiguous effort to reconcile the opportunities for autonomy and choice offered by modern education with a heightened commitment to Islam(Hefner 2011, 155). There are changing gender roles. According to Valerie Hull, Javanese women owned farmland, operated small businesses and had the right to initiate divorce. When mass education first became broadly available, there were relatively few cultural impediments to women’s participation in schooling. Hefner mentions that a substantial movement of women has accompanied educational development into professions such as the civil service, and these women are graduates of compulsory religious courses. Islamic resurgence has offered these Islamic women a powerful alternative to both the neo-Priyayi[1] and earlier Modernization models of gender.

The phenomenon of veiling is indicative of this religious insurgence. Before 1991, the government prohibited veiling. Women who veiled in opposition to the state’s policy faced discrimination and derision of their fellow students and faced the possibility of expulsion or losing their jobs. Parents feared that veiling would mark their daughters as being non-conformist and hinder their chances of employment and make it difficult to attract a marriage partner. As times changed, many started to view veiling as a positive phenomenon, expressive of a young woman’s deeper understanding of the requirements of her faith, making the decision to veil a religious and personal one.

Here, not only do we see that women have more opportunities now with regards to education, but because of this education, we now have this idea of choice. These women are empowered with fact that they are able to take their lives in their own lives, making decisions for themselves and not just conforming to gender expectations that are placed on them. This group of women is no longer subservient like their elite counterparts who have to remain at home and at the mercy of their parents. Beyond veiling, the expectations of the Javanese women are also changing as their parents are placing more importance on their daughters in supporting them without being too dependent on their husbands. This points to the fact that women are becoming more empowered with the importance that is placed upon them and the ability to make their own choices.

Apart from this ethnography, the film Gender Tango (Fraticelli , Pool and Kalina 1997) also touches on this idea of choice. It has been mentioned in the beginning of the film that gender roles are changing. Women are now joining men at work, closing up the gender gap, making references to the tango where the steps between both genders are changing. French philosopher, Elizabeth Badinter, talks about the major upheaval between men and women. In the past, the notion of shaping girls into real women are “taught to repress everything within her that could be masculine, aggressive…” However, this notion was being challenged by Dorothy Tipton a.k.a. Billy Tipton where she worked around the system to be able to do what a woman was not able to before. “Playing jazz was not acceptable for a good girl from a good family.” This did not stop her. She entered the world of jazz, which was then deemed as a men’s world, after taking the identity of a man. This identity stuck with her for life. In the film, it is mentioned that dressing up as a man shows the confidence she has in herself. The idea of choice comes in here where she chooses to go against conventional social norms, insert herself into a world that she would not have been accepted as her original gender identity. Billy Tipton made the choice to start a family as well, and decided that that was the kind of life she wanted to have until she died.

Apart from the material from the course, one such film that also analyses how women make their choices is the local Jack Neo film, Ah Long Pte Ltd. (Neo 2008) This film portrays the role reversal of gender between Mark Lee and Fann Wong. Mark Lee is an effeminate aerobics instructor and Fann Wong is a secret society chief, also a tomboy at heart. The two of them end up getting married. Wong’s reel mother pressurizes her to get married and even forces her daughter to go on arranged dates with potential suitors. Even after Wong’s half-hearted decision to get married just to please her mother, she is still be nagged at to give birth and start a family. Her choice to get married is to conform to her mother’s, by extension society’s, expectation of a woman. However, she still maintains her own identity by remaining loyal to her society and being herself, without letting marriage change who she is.

The above scenarios of women point to the fact that they each have a choice to make. Whether it is conforming to society’s expectations, or choosing to change one’s appearance to follow one’s desires, these women have a choice. There is power play here where women think for themselves, they make a stand and decide what they want to do. This ability to make choices closes up the gender gap, and is steering women away from the past, where they could only repress what they felt and accept their fate.
Fraticelli , Rina, Léa Pool, and John Kalina. The Gender Tango. Directed by Léa Pool. Produced by Don Haig, Lise Payette, Huguette Marcotte, Jean-François Mercier and Raymond Gauthier. 1997.

Hefner, Nancy Smith. "Javanese Women and the Veil." In Everyday Life in Southeast Asia, edited by Kathleen M. Adams and Kathleen A. Gillogly, 154-64. Indiana university Press, 2011.

Neo, Jack. Ah Long Pte Ltd. Directed by Jack Neo. Performed by Fann Wong and Mark Lee. Sony Pictures Releasing International, 2008.

[1] The Priyayi is an elite Java class where women remain secluded in their homes and not be exposed to the status-demeaning bustle of the public world. They received only limited education and forced at a young age to marry a man chosen by their parents. They are also characterized by their general lack of interest in Islamic Piety.

More pages