on: Michael G. Peletz: Transgenderism and Gender Pluralism 
in Southeast Asia since Early Modern Times

in: Current Anthropology, vol. 47, no. 2 (April 2006), pp. 327-328


Clifford Geertz
School of Social Sciences, Institute for Advanced Study, Einstein Drive, Princeton, NJ 08540, U.S.A. ( 21 IX 05


Peletz gives an excellent review of the shape and evolution of gender categorization in Southeast Asia from "early modern times" until the present, with particular reference to Burma and Malaysia. I confine my comments to some necessarily schematic observations concerning another part of the region, "inner Indonesia" (i.e., Java and Bali), where I myself have workedˇobservations which suggest that in addition to marking out sexual identities, plural or binary, gender categorization categorization can be embodied in and reflective of finely graded and subtly expressed status differences, higher and lower.


The importance of status marking in Java and Baliˇin language registers, in art forms, and in social etiquetteˇhas often been noted (Geertz 1960; Keeler 1987; Errington 1988). The locus, from the ninth to the nineteenth centuries, of strongly hierarchical, caste-inflected "Indicized" states (Wolters 1982; Geertz 1980), the concern with rank, title, precedence, and politesse has always been intense there and the intertwining of gender distinctions with stratificatory ones correspondingly intricate and far-reaching. Rather than a primordial, originary phenomenon sorting people into contrastive categories, gender difference is conceived as a derivative, essentially secondary, diffuse and muted phenomenon emergent from a primal unity as human beings descend, rank by rank, from gods.


In royal genealogies, the founding ancestor is conceived to have been an androgynous or, more exactly, an unsexed god. "He" (in both Javanese and Balinese pronouns are unmarked for sex, and indeed there is no grammatical marking for sex at all) gives birth to sons and daughters, who marry each other. They in turn produce cousins who marry among themselves, and so on in a "sinking status" pattern in which as divinity declines into humanity it produces a spiritually inflected hierarchy of rank and title that governs much of ordinary life (Geertz 1966). This view has a number of implications, among them that the higher oneÝs inherited status the more culturally muted the gender binary becomes, that marriage should be status-endogamous, and that incest is a status mistake not a blood crime. In Bali and probably earlier in Java as well, opposite-sex twins are considered to have had incestuous relations in the womb. If they were of high, triwangsa, status and thus relatively closer to divinity, they were celebrated and expected to marry, which apparently they at least sometimes did. If they were of lower, sudra, status and thus farther removed toward corporeality from their divine origins, they were subject to a severe and elaborate purification ceremony involving their segregation and treatment as animals. Until recently, patri-parallel-cousin marriage was normatively preferred, especially among the higher "castes," and even lower-ranking people expressed a preference for marriage within their agnatic kin group (Geertz and Geertz 1975). What in both PeletzÝs "pluralist" and "binary" gender regimes is a distinction of kind modeled ultimately on sexual dimorphism, stressed or counteracted, is in these stratificatory regimes a distinction of degree modeled on politico-religious hierarchy.


This tendency to mute gender distinctions in favor of status ones and to express the former in terms of the latter, inexplicitly and indirectly, runs through the whole of inner-Indonesian culture. The contrast in the famous wayang shadow play between alus ("refined," "smooth," "high") and kasar ("crude," "rough," "low") characters models social roles generally, with higher-status alus ones having a marked ambiguity of gender. (A secondary marking, gagah ["strong," "powerful"], sets off the more energetic from the more detached alus figures, but the distinction there has more to do with that between impulsivity and control than it does with gender.) In Balinese temples, the godsˇthere are always two of them, one male, one femaleˇare represented by identical faceless wooden statues. And, traditionally in any case, the dress both of men and of women was distinguished more by status than by gender.


It is not possible here to trace in detail how this marked status/ unmarked-gender view of things works out in practical life. The question that PeletzÝs paper raises is what happens to this sort of pattern as the impacts of Islam, the one hand, and modernity, on the other, are more and more deeply felt. The increased role of explicitly Islamic commitment in Java in recent years (Hefner 2000) leads to a clearer and more emphatic definition of gender distinctions there and especially to a strong marking out through modesty dress codes of the special status of women (Brenner 1998) in terms of the sexual inequalities inscribed in the Quran and Sharia. And, at the same time, modernization, particularly in the form of radical nationalism, leads to a perception of traditional status distinctions and the forms associated with them as "backward" and "feudal." Much of the future of Southeast Asia will shaped by the outcome of this advancing cultural struggle within its largest component population.


Cited references 
(pp. 336-340)


Brenner, S. 1998. The domestication of desire. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Errington, J. 1988. Structure and style in Javanese: A semiotic view of linguistic etiquette. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Geertz, C. 1960. The religion of Java. Glencoe: Free Press.

ˇˇˇ. 1966. Person, time, and conduct in Bali: An essay in cultural analysis. Yale Southeast Asia Program Cultural Report Series 14.

ˇˇˇ. 1980. Negara: The theatre state in nineteenth-century Bali. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

ˇˇˇ. 2000. Available light: Anthropological reflections on philosophical topics. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Geertz, H., and C. Geertz. 1975. Kinship in Bali. New York: Basic Books.

Hefner, R. 2000. Civil Islam: Muslims and democratization in Indonesia. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Keeler,W. 1987. Javanese shadow plays, Javanese selves. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Wolters, O. W. 1982. History, culture, and region in Southeast Asian perspectives. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.


Comment on: Michael G. Peletz: Transgenderism and Gender Pluralism in Southeast Asia since Early Modern Times, in: Current Anthropology (ed.: Chicago/Ill./USA: The Wenner Gren foundation for Anthropological research; pub: Chicago/Ill./USA: Univ. of Chicago Press), vol. 47, no. 2 (April 2006), pp. 327-328.


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