The primary sources in this module are designed to demonstrate the ways in which women have interacted with political power in Southeast Asia through the 20th century.

The first two sources—Nonfiction, Javanese Education and Nonfiction, Philippine Suffrage—essays written by elite women, are set in the colonial era of Indonesia and the Philippines. They demonstrate the tension between feminism and nationalism as well as dilemmas faced by the emerging women’s movement. In addition, they present the opportunity to create a definition of a “feminist” and are useful for establishing suffragists’ primary arguments for the franchise.

The next two sources—Court Records, Imelda Marcos and Newspaper, Unofficial Power—examine women in unofficial and official power. Unofficial power here is represented by former First Lady Imelda Marcos of the Philippines, who wielded enormous influence, and by a “scandal” involving the alleged former mistress of President Fidel Ramos, also of the Philippines.

The two women whose speeches are reproduced—Speech, Philippine State of The Nation and Speech, Burmese Democracy—are classic examples of the workings of kinship politics. The photographs of Imelda Marcos and Aung San Suu Kyi—Photograph, Philippine First Lady and Photograph, Burmese Activist—address the politics of dress, exploring how women have tapped into symbols of dress, particularly cultural constructions of the feminine as bearer and wearer of national tradition, to achieve their political agendas.

Finally, there are several documents about second-wave feminism in Southeast Asia—Song, Philippine Feminist Movement and Website, Sisters In Islam. Feminism is still a negative word in Southeast Asia. “Feminism” is seen as “Western” and associated with the radical feminism of the 1960s (particularly the “bra burners”). Most activists prefer the term “womanist.” These sources offer insight into how feminists “packaged” their ideas to promote the women’s movement.

They provide the opportunity to raise the issue of the “Orientalized” image of Filipinas worldwide as domestic helpers, “mail-order brides,” or prostitutes. The song Maria provides an opportunity to compare the tensions between feminism and nationalism over time. Although Kartini wrote her essay (Nonfiction, Javanese Education) and GABRIELA produced Maria in different countries and at different times, the tensions between feminism and nationalism are ever present. This theme cuts across countries (space) and across time (colonial and postcolonial eras).

Website, Sisters In Islam is an example of women who have confronted religious definitions of the feminine in a transnational context. This source can be the basis for a discussion on feminism and religion—in particular Islam. It is possible to discuss veiling (dress) as well since veiling is not traditional to Malaysia. If students are interested, the Resources section offers website addresses of two other transnational organizations—AWARE in Singapore and GABRIELA in the Philippines. Students can analyze the character of these organizations through their websites.

Discussion Questions:
  • Is Kartini a feminist or a nationalist or both? Was she an elitist? Why or why not?
  • What are the differences between Filipino first-wave feminism and Western first-wave feminism?
  • To what extent was the debate on Filipino suffrage a debate about how “the Filipino woman” was going to be defined in the early 20th century?
  • Is unofficial power real power? Is it problematic that it is linked to the male? Should scholars ignore unofficial power and focus on women’s access to official power only?
  • Are Imelda Marcos and Rosemarie Arenas feminists? Are they the embodiment of women’s empowerment?
  • Do the speeches of Corazon Aquino and Aung San Suu Kyi reflect a feminist perspective?
  • What are the similarities and differences between how Corazon Aquino and Aung San Suu Kyi represent themselves as moral guardians and as alter egos of men?
  • How does Imelda Marcos and Aung San Suu Kyi's dress reflect their conscious self-representation? How do they want people to interpret their dress, and how might their audiences have interpreted it differently? For example, historian Emma Tarlo showed how Mahatma Gandhi wore the loincloth made of white Khadi (course, homespun cloth) to send the message that India’s poverty would be solved by hand-spinning and freedom from British rule. But for many Indian people, the loincloth sent a different message—that he was a holy man, a saint, an ascetic. (See Emma Tarlo, Clothing Matters Dress and Identity in India, (London: Hurst & Co, 1996), chapter 2.)
  • What does the song Maria portray as the traditional definition of Filipina woman (a cook, beauty queen, or sex object; someone who accepts oppression or is resigned to it)? The song raises alternative models for women. What sort of alternative role models does the song suggest?
  • How does Islam define the feminine in Malaysia? And then how does the Sisters In Islam group challenge or attempt to redefine the feminine?