Gender and power

Gender and power
03 May 2021

In our series of conversation on diplomacy in South East Asia, we now turn to the issue of gender and power. In Southeast Asia, just as elsewhere, rulership as well as the right to conduct negotiations with foreign lands came with gendered norms. Exactly how these norms looked has recently been called into question. While Barbara Watson Andaya has stressed the importance of women in early modern Southeast Asian societies, Sher Banu A. L. Khan’s work highlights the long reign of the sultanahs of Aceh, women whose rule was legitimized by Islam and indigenous norms alike. What is more, new turns in diplomatic scholarship stresses that by including actors not formally appointed as ambassadors as diplomats and instead focus on the practices of connecting two foreign entities, we allow for the inclusion of women, as well as for critically discussing the role of men. In this conversation, Stefan Amirell Eklöf, Hans Hägerdal, Peter Borschberg, and Benjamin Khoo all chose to respond to the question of how they see gender relations, gendered practices, or norms of masculinity and femininity play into the formation of diplomatic practices.

Stefan Eklöf Amirell starts off the conversation by a much-needed emphasis on the fact that gender does not simply equal the inclusion of women. In addition to gender norms and family policies, we should also include an analysis of fatherhood and masculinity into the history of diplomacy and colonialism.

Like in other colonial contexts, I have found in my work on the Sulu Sultanate that colonial relations of power often used family metaphors, with colonised people referring to the colonisers— including local governors or presidents—as their ‘father’. Such terms were often used by Sultan Jamalul Kiram in his correspondence and meetings with United States colonial officials. On one occasion, when he apparently was allowed to formulate himself in his own words, he also likened the colonial power to a mother, saying to the district governor of Sulu, Major Hugh Lenox Scott:

We Moro people are very poor; we are very pleased that we have found a mother in the American nation, the same as a young woman, just mature with plenty of milk, to nurse us with, not like our former mother, the Spanish, who was old and her milk was less...

The quote suggests several possible interpretations. A plausible one is that the Sultan saw the colonisers as providers of material goods and benefits, in addition to the protection that United States had offered in the treaty from 1899. In that sense, the colonial power was both a father and a mother, who both protected and saw to the welfare of its child.

Hans Hägerdal expands on this idea of gendering diplomacy in his work on the sultanate on Ternate. As he shows, the effect of gender relations on diplomacy was not only discursive, but also part of the ongoing hands-on negotiations of power. In that negotiation, the role of marriage might be a key entry point.

The patterns of wife-giving and wife-raking that structure many societies in eastern Indonesia also had consequences for diplomatic relations with the ‘white strangers’, and the later perceptions of such relations. A culturally deviant stranger was in some senses frightening and unpredictable, so it was desirable to install the outsider inside one's own cultural sphere. An obvious aspect of this was marriages. Legendary stories of stranger kings who marry daughters of local lords of the land are commonplace in this part of maritime Southeast Asia. The Portuguese arrival to Ternate in the early sixteenth century triggered similar dynastic dynamics. A sultan's daughter was allowed to marry the Portuguese resident Baltasar Veloso, contravening all formal socio-religious principles, and the step does not seem to have evoked any opposition. The couple had a role in Portuguese-Ternatan relations, for example by taking care of the old queen-mother.

More to the point, collective memory on Kisar in South-western Maluku has fit the coming of the Dutch in the 1660s into an imagined matrimonial template. Jan Blinne, an official in the Dutch East India Company (the VOC), who helped ward off the threat from the Portuguese and forge closer diplomatic ties with the island's aristocracy, is remembered as having married a daughter of the main chief, something that is not mentioned in the detailed VOC sources. Here, Jan Blinne, as the frontman of the VOC, performs the role of the stranger king. Several origin stories in eastern Indonesia tell of precisely this type of marriage arrangements. Locals regard such stories as vital to understand the origins of political configurations.

Peter Borschberg contributes with a broader take on the role of gendered hierarchies. Marriage patterns can also be considered as part of the political use of family, and how inheritance patterns would also influence the gender roles within royal families. As he argues, understanding such hierarchies also allow us to consider how positions for commerce and politics could be created outside of the court, and outside of state relations.

Questions of kinship policies and gender relations are an essential aspect of considerations of Southeast Asian power historically, but also how these have been perceived in the present. Contemporary diplomacy in Southeast Asia features shadows of earlier values, modes, and paradigms from the pre-colonial era. As Southeast Asia de-centres the Anglo-American regional order of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the resulting polycentricity with its new dynamics and evolving hierarchies of power are beginning to resemble Southeast Asia’s earlier pre-colonial past. Some researchers have argued that in order to understand the emerging new order we need to better understand the more distant past.

A point that can be made here is Southeast Asia’s familialism. Rulers were keen on building extended families which was a strategy they employed to expand their authority through marriage alliances and cement their position at court. They were always keen on having lots of sons—a sign of how precarious and uncertain life was in this part of the world, but also how fragile political power could be across multiple centres of authority. But having lots of potential heirs also had a downside: there were more contenders to the throne, raising the spectre of a war of succession on the death of a ruler. Those sons who were farther down the succession line and had little prospect of succeeding sometimes struck out on their own, collected followers, and for example lived off of plundering vessels at sea. They became what in contemporary vocabulary might be dubbed ‘powerful non-state actors’. Barbara Andaya, who has contributed broadly to this field with analyses on kinship, marriage but also on the politicised aspects of sexuality in maritime Southeast Asia, has also written about the anak raja (royal child), which addresses these important agents of politics and commerce.

Finally Benjamin Khoo, reminds us of the role of gendered spaces and the position of women and eunuchs in the inner circle of governing elites, and their residences. Using the example of Singora in southern modern-day Thailand, he underlines the many ways in which women have been shown to have unofficial influence, a power dynamic similar to that which among others Jeroen Duindam has given examples of—at Asian and European courts alike—throughout the early modern period.

Another facet of gendered diplomacy has much to do within the dynamics and mechanisms in the inner sanctum of the court. Besides forming alliances and relations through strategic marriages as the other commentators here have observed, Cheah Boon Kheng and Barbara Andaya have also noted that women were often involved in shaping the politics and policies of the day, wielding both power and influence from ‘behind the throne’. There is much room for exploring gender in early modern Southeast Asia. While the female members of Sultan Suleiman of Singora later married into the important families (the Chakri dynasty and Shi’ite family of Sheikh Ahmad) in the Rattanakosin period (1782–1932), we understand comparatively little of the role and impact women had during the seventeenth century. The queens of Patani stand out as the best-known example of female agency and rule, illustrating that women could and did play important roles in the shaping of this history. It is thus hoped that this could eventually be expanded by further study of the role women played in the politics at other regional courts, not just in Singora but also of Sai, Ligor, Phatthalung and Phuket, to name a few.