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Michael G.

Gender Pluralism: Muslim
Southeast Asia since Early
Modern Times
scholars and journalists in the west and elsewhere have
devoted a good deal of attention in recent decades to the ways in which
gender and sexuality are experienced, construed, and regulated in
Muslim societies and under Islamic law in particular.1 To date, however,
hardly any studies dealing with Muslims have focused squarely on longterm historical transformations with respect to gender or sexuality.2
One consequence is that scholarly and other public discourses foreground wildly contrasting imagery of gender and sexual realities in the
Muslim world. Further exacerbating the problems are time-honored
practices involving the use and abuse of terms such as traditional to
characterize social and cultural-political patterns among Muslims that
are often of relatively recent provenance and that do in any case vary a
good deal through time and space.
From the Middle Ages through the Victorian era, for example,
Western literature dealing with Muslims frequently addressed the
ways in which middle-aged and elderly men in some parts of the
Muslim heartlands were inspired by the beauty of pre-pubescent
boys and beardless young men with whom they sometimes engaged
in erotic if not explicitly sexual relations. This literature commonly
I am grateful to Perrinh Savang for research and editorial assistance and would also
like to thank Afsaneh Najmabadi and Rayna Rapp for their comments on an earlier
draft of this essay.

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focused on what was taken to be religiously sanctioned lust, decadence, and perversion, often suggesting that at least for elite male
sectors of Muslim societies and polities, the reigningand traditionalethos with respect to gender and sexuality was essentially
one of anything goes. These impressions are usefully viewed in relation to stereotypes undergirding media and other public discourses
in the new millennium, which sharply invert their Victorian-era
predecessors. The inversion is particularly obvious when the media
deal with subjects such as the execution of allegedly gay men in Iraq;
pronouncements from leaders in Iran that there are no homosexuals
in that country, and that if there were they would be put to death;
and the constraints on women and female sexuality (heteronormative and otherwise) that are widely documented for settings such as
Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. The most general sense we
are left with is that Muslims are inherently conservative with regard
to matters of gender and sexuality, and that this conservatism is
somehow traditional or racial. The more specific impressions
are essentially threefold. There is no room in Muslim societies or
cultures for any kind of pluralism with respect to gender or sexuality;
Muslim men are invariably given to patriarchal excesses of various
kinds, if not misogyny, heterosexism, and homophobia; and all of
these dynamics are sanctioned and engendered in the first instance
by divinely ordained law (syariah) and attendant norms laid down in
the Quran and other sacred texts such as the Hadith (oral accounts,
later written down, of the teachings and actions of the Prophet
How might we make sense of these contrasting depictions of
gender and sexuality? There are at least two ways of engaging the question. The first involves asserting that the tropes and stereotypes to
which I have drawn attention have little bearing on empirical reality,
and that they tell us more about those who traffic in them (Westerners)
and their (shifting) sensibilitiesalong with widespread processes
of Otheringthan those to whom they purportedly apply (Muslims).
There is some truth to these arguments, but they are too simplistic.

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Among their shortcomings is that they are profoundly ahistorical; they

make no provision for important developments that have occurred in
Muslim societies and polities in recent centuries, some of which go
a long way toward accounting for the real and imagined contrasts at
The second and more productive way to engage the question
is thus to examine relevant historical developments in one or more
regions of the Muslim world, including in particular the ascendance of
certain kinds of heteronormativities. The more encompassing dynamic
I address in the pages to follow involves the transformation and
constriction in recent centuries of a critical range of pluralistic sensibilities and dispositions with regard to gender, sexuality, and bodily
practices, which I subsume under the rubric of gender pluralism.3 Like
other kinds of pluralisms, gender pluralism is relative in a number of
different ways. Indeed, the examples of gender pluralism in Muslim
Southeast Asia that I focus on are most appropriately viewed as components of systems of graduated pluralism. The latter term draws attention to the differential distribution throughout societies and polities
of sentiments, dispositions, and institutionalized arrangement conducive to or inhibiting pluralism, many of which are keyed to systems
of stratified reproductiondefined as encompassing systems of power
relations that encourage certain groups nurturance and reproduction
while discouraging or precluding those of others (Foucault 1978, Cohen
The main goal of this essay is to analyze gender pluralism
in Muslim Southeast Asia since the beginning of the early modern
era, which historians of the region commonly define as the period
extending roughly from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries.4
I pay particular attention to the roles of trangendered persons and
the sexual variability associated with them, and should thus note
that I use the term transgender to refer to individuals involved
in customary behaviors that transcend or transgress majoritarian
gender practices. One of my arguments is that transgendered persons
provide a powerful lens through which to view gender pluralism in

Gender Pluralism: Muslim Southeast Asia since Early Modern Times

Muslim Southeast Asia since the beginning of early modern times.

This is partly because, for this region and period, the vicissitudes of
transgenderism index a number of analytically distinct yet culturally
interlocked processes: the increased formalization and segregation of
gender roles; the distancing of women from loci of power and prestige; the narrowed range of legitimacy concerning things intimate
and erotic; and the constriction of pluralistic gender sensibilities as
a whole. Another, more general argument is that it is only in light of
this historical exegesis that gender pluralism and its structuring can
be understood.

among the interesting features of muslim southeast asia

in cultural-political terms are the deeply entrenched traditions of
pluralism with respect to gender and sexuality. Perhaps most important to underscore in this regard is that during the first half of the early
modern period (and for many centuries prior to it), kinship systems
throughout Muslim Southeast Asia tended to emphasize bilateralism
(tracing kin ties to relatives through both the father and the mother)
rather than one of another variant of unilineal (for example, patrilineal) descent and inheritance, thus valorizing relations through men
and women alike; and that religious traditions were profoundly dualistic, with male and female elements both needing to be present to give
power and effect. Female gods of the underworld, of the earth or crops
(especially rice), and of the moon balanced the male gods of the upper
world, the sky, iron (that which ploughs the earth, cuts the rice-stalk),
and the sun (Reid 1993: 161-162). Women predominated in many
rituals associated with agriculture, birth, death, and healing, perhaps
because their reproductive capacities were seen as giving them regenerative and spiritual powers that men could not match (Reid 1988: 146,
Lieberman 2003: 118).
Womens reproductive capacities and the powers of regeneration associated with them also raised the specter of danger (through
pollution, for example) to men and variously defined moral and
natural communities, and were thus seen as requiring that some of

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the activities of women of child-bearing age be carefully regulated.

Notwithstanding this regulation, the ambivalences associated with
it, or the fact that men were generally accorded more prestige than
women, this was a period in Muslim Southeast Asias history that was
characterized by womens active involvement in the realms of trade,
diplomacy, and statecraft, by a good deal of female autonomy and
social control, and by relatively egalitarian relations between males
and females. Viewed from a different angle, it was a period in which,
to paraphrase Barbara Andaya (2006: 227), women were noticeably
less socially inferior to men than was typically the case either in the
West or in areas that neighbored Southeast Asia, such as East Asia,
South Asia, and Melanesia.
This period in Muslim Southeast Asias history was characterized by considerable fluidity and permeability in gender roles, and
by relative tolerance and indulgence with respect to many things
sexual, at least for the commoner majority. Sixteenth-century
Portuguese observers reported that Malays were fond of music and
given to love, the broader themes being that pre-marital sexual
relations were regarded indulgently, and [that] virginity at marriage
was not expected of either party (Reid 1988: 153). Other observers emphasized similar patterns when writing about Javanese and
other Muslim groups (as well as non-Muslim Filipinos, Thais, and
Many of these patterns were grounded in the Austronesian
and Hindu-Buddhist (especially Tantric and Saivite) sensibilities that
informed early Southeast Asian Islam, which took root in the region
beginning around the thirteenth century, mostly as a mystically (Sufi)
oriented variant of Sunni Islam. Inscribed in monumental architecture and indigenous texts of various kinds, these sensibilities were
keyed to cosmological emphases (variably inflected by Austronesian,
Hindu-Buddhist, and Islamic motifs) on both the reconciliation of
contrasting or opposed forces to attain harmony and liberation, and
the use of the human body to achieve these ends. It merits note in this
connection that Islam, particularly in its mystical/Sufi forms, is often

Gender Pluralism: Muslim Southeast Asia since Early Modern Times

described as a sex-positive religion. This is partly because Islamic

doctrine views lawful sexual acts both as good, healthy, and praiseworthy and as a divinely approved form of pleasure that serves as
a foretaste of the delights of paradise (Ali 2006: 60, 154, Kugle 2003).
Another relevant issue is that Islamic doctrine encourages husbands
and wives alike to take seriously their spouses desires for sexual satisfaction, including orgasm. Of more immediate concern, however, is
the bounded nature of this sex-positivity; for example, that those
believed guilty of incest or adultery in Muslim Southeast Asia in early
modern times might be immersed in vats of molten metal or subject
to other gruesome punishment. These latter punishments make clear
that we are not dealing with sex/gender systems characterized by an
ethos of anything goes and that the pluralism that suffused many
realms of gender and sexuality was domain specific and otherwise
bounded (though nonetheless far more expansive than what we see
In light of the religious and cosmological patterns outlined
earlier, it should not be surprising to find that during the first half of the
early modern period, many communities of Southeast Asian Muslims
accorded enormous prestige to male-bodied individuals who dressed
in female attire, especially but not only while they performed rituals
associated with royal regalia, births, and agriculture. Such individuals,
along with female-bodied ritualists, who sometimes engaged in transgendered behavior as well, served as sacred mediators between males
and females, and between the spheres of humans and the domains of
spirits and nature (Blackwood 2005).
Consider the bissu. This term denotes ritual specialists among
the Bugis of Sulawesi who, like many other Indonesians, have long
identified with a highly syncretic variant of Islam influenced both by
Hindu-Buddhist beliefs and practices, and by the Austronesian ritual
cults that predated Indic and Islamic influences in the region. The
male-bodied bissu, who were described by outsider observers as early
as 1544, assumed female attire and other accoutrements of femininity, safeguarded the sacred symbols of ruling families, and engaged

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in sexual and marital relations that were simultaneously homosexual

and heterogender. In other words, a bissu typically married and had
sexual relations with a person having male genitals who was gendered
male, unlike the bissu who, despite being phenotypically male, was
performatively feminized. The heterogender nature of the relationship is noteworthy inasmuch as it points us to the more encompassing but largely implicit heterogender matrix that has long existed
among Bugis and other Southeast Asian Muslims. This cosmologically grounded template rendered heterogender same-sex relationships legitimate (even imbued with sanctity) in certain contexts, just
as it defined homogender relations as completely beyond the pale.
The heterogender matrix was of far greater cultural salience than
any analogous matrix defined in relation to heterosexuality, partly
because gender has long encompassed and informed sex and sexuality
rather than vice versa.
It is instructive that practices involving transgenderism and
same-sex relations also occurred among male- and female-bodied
Bugis who were not ritual specialists, and that these practices seem
to have been accorded as much honor as more conventional, majoritarian arrangements so long as they were heterogender. These facts,
along with womens ready access to the highest offices in the land,
suggest that gender pluralism suffused a variety of analytically
distinct domains, and was by no means limited to the sexual and/
or gender license that obtained among transgendered ritual specialists and their normatively gendered partners. Put differently, the
transgenderism and same-sex relations under consideration did not
represent quarantined exceptions to the relatively pluralistic hegemony bearing on sex and gender that prevailed throughout Bugis
Unfortunately, for many societies in Muslim Southeast Asia we
have little information on the subjectivities, desires, or pleasures of
the individuals who oversaw the rituals at issue or were otherwise
involved in them as participants or observers. It is nonetheless significant that the most knowledgeable scholars of this era of Southeast

Gender Pluralism: Muslim Southeast Asia since Early Modern Times

Asias history, such as Barbara Andaya (1994: 105), have spoken of

the respect accorded bisexualism both at the aesthetic level and
beyond. One reason for this pattern of respect may be that bisexualism, like transvestism, combined elements from and simultaneously transcended the male-female duality that helped structure and
animate the universe in its entirety. Another may be that, in combining elements of male and female, institutionalized bisexualism and
transvestism symbolized wholeness, purity, and gender totality, and
thus the unfractured universe posited to exist before the advent
of humanity and difference. No small matter is that in many local
cosmologies, important spirits and deities were depicted as androgynous or as existing in male-female pairs. Ritual specialists exhibiting androgyny were thus ideally situated both to communicate with
these spirits and deities, and to personify them. More generally, just
as the local cosmologies in question undergirded state rituals of various kindsand vice versaso too did many of these rituals resonate deeply with locally salient mythologies as well as domestic and
social structural arrangements (including bilateral kinship; relatively
high rates of divorce, remarriage, and informal adoption; systems of
kinship terminology involving birth-order names, teknonymy, and
classificatory terms of reference and address) that encouraged conceptual and moral relativism.
The fact that this was the case and that this situation obtained
well into the twentieth century serves as an important reminder that
when thinking about states we need to range beyond consideration of
the utilitarian roles they play in controlling bodies or, alternatively,
protecting them. States do of course endeavor to control, constrain,
and protect bodies, sometimes by making different kinds of biopolitical investments in different subject populations (Ong 1999: 217),
just as they typically levy taxes, wage war, underwrite monumental
architecture, and do the other kinds of things for which they are
(in)famous. But we also need to bear in mind that state structures are
commonly grounded in sanctified cosmologies, and that some of these
legitimizing charters valorize gendered and sexual arrangements that

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are not reducible to cultural logics based on utilitarianism. This was

the case with the Bugis state and many others in the regionMuslim,
Buddhist, and Hindu alike (see, for example, Geertz 1980, Day 2002,
Gibson 2005).

i want to proceed to a discussion of dynamics since the

second half of the early modern period, roughly the seventeenth and
eighteenth centuries. This period witnessed dramatic transformations
in many realms of society and culture. These transformations came
about due to dialectically related processes involving the intensification
of commerce, state building, and territorial consolidation conducive to
political systems that were more absolutist, centralized, and bureaucratic (Lieberman 2003: 16). Integrally related to these processes in
areas that had become Muslim or would soon do so, was the heightened centrality, in courtly realms and beyond, of Sunni Islam. This
male oriented, legalistic, and hierarchical world religion, as Andaya
(1994: 106) describes it, makes no scriptural provision for the public
ritual centrality of women or the transgendered. Due to the spread
and enhanced appeal of canonical orthodoxies, the previously sacrosanct roles of women and transgendered individuals in public ritual
were subject to processes of questioning and, ultimately, to declines in
prestige and legitimacy. So, too, was muchbut not allof the sexual
license and gender diversity that had long characterized the region, as
well as bodily practices such as tattooing, ear-boring, and the wearing
of long hair by men.
These trends went hand in hand with a number of other dynamics that proved detrimental to women and pluralism alike: the relative exclusion of women from political office; an increase in poverty;
and the demise of craft specializations that helped women maintain
their economic and social autonomy. Many of these trends continued
in subsequent centuries due to the pronounced albeit regionally variable impact of Dutch and British colonial rule, Western (especially
Protestant) missionary activity, and increasingly muscular states. These
states typically promoted one or another form of capitalism and were

Gender Pluralism: Muslim Southeast Asia since Early Modern Times

undergirded by ideologies of high modernity, which James Scott (1998 :4)

has characterized in terms of a self-confidence about scientific and
technical progress, the expansion of production, . . . the mastery of
nature and the rational design of social order commensurate with
the scientific understanding of natural laws. There is little space in
such schemes of institutional and cultural rationalization for the valorization of locally distinctive ritual or esoteric knowledge deemed
necessary for the reproduction of kingship or the cosmos as a whole.
Perhaps more to the point, architects of rationalization, along with the
sociocultural forces that spawn them, are notoriously unfriendly to all
phenomena deemed to be ambiguous or liminal with respect to gender,
sexuality, and most everything else, unless they have folkloric, touristic, or other market value. The same may be said of Islam and other
world religions, or at least widespread interpretations of them. In many
contexts, political and religious elites cast as guardians of these religions are deeply suspicious of ethical pluralism and the value diversity
that it logically entails.
Political and other developments outlined here stimulated the
growth of religious nationalisms and educational reform, which also
constricted the religious and ritual spaces accorded women and the
transgendered. They also worked against the continued reproduction of a good many ritual complexes that involved transgenderism
and same-sex relations, just as they discouraged shamanic practices
and syncretic ritual complexes as a whole. The more general point
is twofold. First, the strong historical bonds throughout Muslim
Southeast Asia between politically connected ritual specialists on
the one hand, and transgenderism on the other, almost guaranteed that radically changed cultural-political contexts would result
in overdetermined attacks on transgendered ritual practitioners.
And second, these attacks went a long way toward severing the ties
linking transgendered ritualists with religious orthodoxy and state
power alike.
Historical dynamics bearing on an Indonesian society mentioned
earlier merit consideration here. In the Bugis case, the adoption by


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1611 of various features of Islam by local rulers and their charges

posed serious dilemmas for transgendered ritual specialists, the bissu.
This is partly because the mostly male-bodied bissu had same-sex
spouses. Another problem was their claim of descent from the gods,
hence the status of divinitya major heresy in Islam. Thus, beginning
in the early seventeenth century, we see periodic efforts by Islamic
rulers committed to literal interpretations of syariah to discredit bissu
and expel them from their jurisdictions (or simply put them to death).
Such moves were part and parcel of more encompassing strategies
of cultural cleansing aimed at eradicating gambling, slavery, the
consumption of palm wine and opium, and other evidence of pagan
The imposition of Dutch colonial rule in Sulawesi in the early
twentieth century resulted in additional challenges to bissu, as did
Indonesias independence in 1949. Although the two sets of developments were of course quite different, they both contributed to the elimination of long-sovereign kingdoms, thereby depriv[ing] bissu of their
royal patrons and their principal raison dtreguarding royal regalia and enhancing the sacred potency of local rulers (L. Andaya 2000:
44). Another factor relevant to the decline of bissu is that the sacred
texts (such as the epic La Galigo), which served as the bases of their
legitimacy and sanctity, have become somewhat irrelevant due to the
spread throughout Indonesia of modern-day science, education, and
transnational media, coupled with the increased importance of Islamic
institutions and pan-Islamic discourses. It did not help the bissu that by
the mid-twentieth century, many Bugis regarded them as remnants of
feudalism, a view that sheds light on why bissu were tortured and killed
by some groups of reformers during the South Sulawesi Rebellion
This is not to suggest that bissu, transgendering, and same-sex
sexuality have disappeared from Sulawesi; for they have not. The postSuharto/Reformasi era, which began in 1998, has even witnessed a bissu
renaissance of sorts (Davies 2007: 98). This era has also seen phenotypic
males who are not bissu but are involved in transgendered practices and/

Gender Pluralism: Muslim Southeast Asia since Early Modern Times


or same-sex relations endeavoring to legitimize their subject positions

and identities by invoking the legacy of bissu or taking on some of the
ritual roles long associated with them. Similar options appear largely
unavailable to female-bodied Bugis involved in transgenderism and/
or same-sex relations. No less significant is that female-bodied Bugis
who transgress gender norms (that is, calalai) are outnumbered by their
male-bodied counterparts (calabai) by some twenty to one, presumably
because they are accorded less legitimacy and incur far more stigma in
locally salient hierarchies of value.
A non-Muslim example merits brief mention here inasmuch as
it helps illuminate historical processes that have occurred throughout Southeast Asia, among Muslims and non-Muslims alike. I refer
to the Ngaju Dayak of Borneo, who have been subject to Western
(mostly German and Swiss Protestant) missionary influences since
the 1830s as well as the effects of (mid-nineteenth-century and subsequent) Islamic revivalism, Dutch colonialism, and the transmigration policies of the Java-centric Indonesian state. One result has been
large-scale abandonment of animistic practices and conversion to
Christianity. Extensive rationalization processes, both institutional
and cultural, have been pursued by the Ngaju Dayak in the same
general ways as they have been embraced by Bugis, Malays, and
other Muslims in the region. Many of the more flamboyant features
of Ngaju ritual that occurred in connection with fertility cults and
periods of ritual license have been eliminated or dramatically toned
down. Equally telling, female ritual specialists known as balian,
who, in former times, engaged in ritual prostitution, have all but
disappeared, and very few of their male counterparts are involved in
transgender practices.
Indonesian cases such as these are revealing, partly because
they are quite dramatic. But they can also convey the erroneous
impression that historical processes involving the diminished legitimacy and attendant stigmatization of transgenderism, and the
transformation of gender pluralism generally, were all encompassing, uniform, or monolithic. This was definitely not the case. Nor


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should we assume that the development of sanctions discouraging transgendered practices and same-sex relations were always of
the formal legal or explicitly religious variety. Far more common
were diffuse and informal sanctionsgossip, ostracism, etc.albeit
primarily when private activities were made public or when individuals involved in transgendering or same-sex sexuality failed
to honor basic expectations associated with marrying properly
and upholding other community norms. Put differently, an ethos
of Dont ask, dont tell pervaded many Muslim Southeast Asian
cultures of gender, sexuality, and jurisprudence until fairly recently,
owing partly to cultural premises keyed to the idea that talk about
illicit sex might be as socially destabilizing as its perpetration. This
is not a simple matter of prudery; the practice of avoiding potentially incriminating questions, and not sharing information about
indiscretions, is woven into the fabric of Islamic legal thought as
well as embedded in Muslim social norms (Ali 2006: 73).
These generalizations are important to bear in mind in light of
assumptions among some scholars that Islamic law, informed by Quranic
or other textual injunctions against same-sex sexuality (or at least anal
penetration; liwat) and an alleged emphasis on retributive as opposed to
restorative justice, was widely applied in Islamic areas of Southeast Asia
either during early modern times or in subsequent centuries. With a few
exceptions, such as seventeenth-century Aceh (northern Sumatra) and
Sulawesi (noted earlier), this was not the case. It is instructive too that
even in present-day Malaysia, which has seen high-profile scandals and
political crises associated with the sacking, imprisonment, and bogus
adjudication of charges alleging sodomy on the part of former Deputy
Prime Minister (and current opposition leader) Anwar Ibrahim, the laws
typically invoked to punish same-sex sexuality have nothing to do with
Islam. The relevant legislation, which dates from the colonial era, is of
thoroughly British origin and design. This is one reason why the wording and numbering of Section 377 of Malaysias National Penal Code,
which severely criminalizes sodomy and other sexual acts against the
order of nature, is more or less identical to its counterparts in the penal

Gender Pluralism: Muslim Southeast Asia since Early Modern Times


codes of other former British colonies (for example, Singapore, Pakistan,

Burma, and, until recently, India).

despite the overall thrust of the long-term historical

processes outlined here, a good deal of gender pluralism existed
throughout Muslim Southeast Asia well into the twentieth century
(see, for example, Ong and Peletz 1995, Peletz 1996, Oetomo 1996,
Johnson 1997, Boellstorff 2005). Among the Bugis, Javanese, and other
Muslim groups in Indonesia, Malaysia, and the southern Philippines,
for instance, most categories of women and femininity continued
to be valorized in positive ways, women tended to enjoy considerable autonomy and social control (though this varied by social class),
and individuals engaged in transgenderism and same-sex relations
continued to be involved (and esteemed for their role) in ritual activities associated with spirit cults, weddings, and beautification. More
broadly, even though some of the relevant anthropological accounts
bearing on transgenderism and same-sex relations suggest a certain
dismissiveness, ambivalence, and, arguably, a euphemized violence
of exclusion, they also document subjectivities and cultural attitudes
that were (and remain) in many respects relatively positive, albeit
less so than in earlier times. Referring to predominantly Muslim
Sumatrans and to Southeast Asians generally in the 1960s, for example, the anthropologist M. A. Jaspan (1969: 22-23) could still relate
that homosexuals and transvestites are treated with kindness and . . .
tolerance; . . . are seldom considered a menace to society, blamed for
being what they are, or made to feel that they must be kept in separate places from other people, ostracised or confined to institutions.
(Significantly, Jaspan makes no mention of the same-sex practices
associated with sadati performances that Snouck Hurgronje [1906]
documented among Acehnese in the 1890s, presumably because
they were no longer as common, public, or visible.)
Deeply resonant with these findings are contemporaneous
reports from the Malaysian state of Kelantan, which borders southern Thailand and has long been regarded by Malays and others as a


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bastion of traditional Malay culture. The anthropologist Douglas

Raybeck reported that in the late 1960s Malays regard[ed] homosexuality as peculiar, different, and even somewhat humorous, but they . . .
[did] not view it as an illness or as a serious sin (1986: 65; emphasis added). Raybeck also encountered several specialized homosexual villages in or around the state capital, Kota Baru, one of which
adjoined the palace of the sultan. These villages were composed exclusively of male couples engaged in same-sex erotics whose primary
breadwinners made their living as transvestite performers of a Thaiorigin dramatic genre known as mak yong. Mak yong performers were
esteemed for their artistic skills and could out-earn the heteronormative majority inhabiting neighboring settlements who comprised
most of their audience.
The specialized villages in which many Kelantanese mak yong
artists resided in the 1960s were not outcast communities to which
gender transgressors known to be involved in same-sex intimacies
were banished. Nor is there evidence to suggest anyone harassing these
enclaves or otherwise bothering their members. These communities
were well known to other villages, to local as well as regional and statelevel religious and secular authorities, including of course the sultan
of Kelantan, who was their royal patron, and to Malay (and Malaysian)
society at large. Indeed, the surrounding Malay communities and political-religious elites such as the sultan did not simply know about these
unique villages; they actively supported them and especially in the case
of the sultan clearly helped constitute them.
Even though these villages are a thing of the past and in twentieth-century Malaysia were largely confined to Kelantan (so far as we
know), the pluralism suggested by their existence is broadly consistent with ethnographic findings from other regions in the Malay
Peninsula during the same general period. During my fieldwork in
the state of Negeri Sembilan in the 1970s and 1980s, for example,
normatively oriented Malays still exhibited considerable tolerance
and respect for male-bodied individuals involved in transgendering,
assuming they merited tolerance and respect on other grounds as

Gender Pluralism: Muslim Southeast Asia since Early Modern Times


well. But this is not to suggest a transgender let alone gay or lesbian
paradise, particularly since, in sharp contrast to their Bugis counterparts, villagers found it altogether inconceivable that phenotypic
females might be involved in transgenderism or same-sex relations
(Peletz 1996, 2009).
This being the case, one could look at the proverbial glass as
either half empty or half full. I begin by considering the half-empty
perspective, briefly enumerating four broadly encompassing sets of
dynamics that eroded gender pluralism over the longue dure. First,
forces of political centralization, some of which involved the expansion and consolidation of state power at the expense of local polities.
Second, the development of nationalist and modernist discourses
emphasizing rationalized religion, science, technology, economic
progress, secular education, and mass literacy. Third, processes of
urbanization, bureaucratization, and industrialization, coupled with
the rise of capitalist market economies. These dynamics entailed
widely ramifying institutional and cultural rationalization that not
only undercut the moral bases of agrarian communities and the
pluralism-friendly cosmologies in which they were embedded, but
also undermined modes of comprehending the body in relation to
the cosmos, as Laqueur (1990: 154) put it for broadly analogous developments in the West. They simultaneously contributed to increased
social differentiation and stratification, along with new forms of
surveillance, discipline, and control geared toward producing heightened normativity in all areas of social life.
A fourth dynamic, which I discuss in a bit more detail, involved
the colonial-era (and postcolonial) encounter between Southeast
Asian Islam and European Christianity, especially Protestantism,
and the ways that engagement contributed to the specific directionalities in which Southeast Asian Muslims rationalized their
discourses, practices, and subjectivities. As political and religious
elites in Muslim Southeast Asia negotiated the cultural and political intrusions of mostly Protestant Westerners, they typically did so
in ways that involved adopting their strongly binary/dichotomous


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notions of gender and sexuality and embracing the repression of

overt sexuality along with Victorian sexual norms on the whole
as also happened in Arabic- and Persian-speaking regions of the
Middle East and elsewhere in the Muslim world (El-Rouayheb 2005,
Najmabadi 2005). Broadly comparable shifts occurred in Sri Lanka
and Theravada Buddhist contexts of mainland Southeast Asia, leading some scholars (e.g., Gombrich and Obeyesekere 1988) to coin
the term Protestant Buddhism. I find the latter notion problematic and am also uncomfortable with expressions such as Protestant
Islam and Muslim Puritans. That said, concepts such as these help
remind us that the doctrines and practices associated with world
religions are best understood in relation to historically specific
local contexts and the interpretive communities associated with
Of more immediate relevance here, these concepts encourage recognition of the fact that the normative bite of contemporary
Islam with respect to gender and sexuality owes at least as much to
the circumstances of Muslims encounter with the West, the structure of the conjuncture in Sahlins (1985) terminology, as to Islamic
doctrines being male oriented, legalistic, and hierarchical (B.
Andaya 1994: 106). This is all the more evident when one considers
the discursive origins, foils, and prevalence of the extremely conservative (puritanical) Salafi-Wahabi sensibilities promoted by Saudi
leadership that have informed Taliban- and Al Qaeda-style Islam as
well as the Muslim paramilitary groups that sprang up throughout
Indonesia during the early years of the post-Suharto/Reformasi era.
These same sensibilities are partly responsible for the recent introduction throughout Indonesia (particularly in Aceh, West Java, and
South Sulawesi) of syariah-inflected regional bylawsostensibly aimed
at curbing alcohol consumption, gambling, prostitution, and corruptionwhich tend to be used by religious police and vigilante groups
to discipline and punish women for styles of dress and comportment
that are deemed seductive, pornographic, or otherwise inappropriate according to ascendant views of classical Islam (Wieringa 2007).

Gender Pluralism: Muslim Southeast Asia since Early Modern Times


It should be clear in any event that we are dealing with dynamic not
static or fixed religious traditions whose entailments with regard to
gender and sexuality are highly variable both historically and crossculturally, and, perhaps more to the point, that the same religious
traditions (and Asian values) that help give rise to an expansive
gender pluralism in some historical and ethnographic settings may
provide the basis for its constriction in others.
More generally, because of the broadly encompassing sets of
dynamics outlined here, many rituals associated with dual-gendered
or female spirits and deities have fallen by the wayside. In addition,
transgendering, like femininity, has been stripped of many of its
positive associations with religion and the sacred. Its long-standing
centrality in state cults, royal palaces, and the reproduction of local
polities exists primarily in scattered memories and dusty archives.
And, as regards its contemporary loci, it tends to be most visible in
secular venues of fashion and entertainment, in the increasingly
scrutinized and disciplined private domain, and on the notoriously
ungovernable Internet. When viewed from a long-term perspective,
we see that most variants of transgendering and all types of same-sex
relations have been subject to processes of secularization, stigmatization, and medicalization, and that some of themmost notably in
contemporary Malaysiahave been heavily criminalized as well. We
also see that many transgendered individuals have been redefined as
contaminating rather than sacred mediators who, to paraphrase a
point made by Stallybrass and White (1986: 110) in another context,
are perversely if not treasonously muddling and enmiring the increasingly dichotomous terms of sex/gender systems long characterized by
If, on the other hand, we view the proverbial glass mentioned
earlier as half full, we need to ask a different question: Why is gender
pluralism still relatively robust in many Muslim Southeast Asian societies, despite the forces long arrayed against it? A partial answer is that
many Muslim Southeast Asian systems of myth, ritual, and cosmology
continue to be culturally salient, encouraging imaginative play condu-


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cive to the creation of implicit cultural models that ascribe value to

different ways of being in the world. Also germane, particularly since
pluralistic sentiments and dispositions begin at home, is a nexus of
domestic and social structural dynamics identified by Beatty (2002) for
late twentieth-century Java, which are relevant throughout Muslim
Southeast Asia. These include: high rates of divorce and remarriage;
widespread fosterage and adoption; and systems of kinship terminology involving classificatory terms of reference and address, birth-order
names, and teknonymyall of which valorize the conceptual and
other shifts involved in changing places and viewing things from different perspectives. Owing partly to their synergy, these dynamics engender relationality, temporal flux, and reversal, and otherwise encourage
conceptual and moral relativism.
Another relevant factor has to do with agency and resistance on
the part of those targeted by forces hostile to pluralism or the political
regimes that sought to guarantee it. Throughout history, the Bugis bissu
actively resisted efforts to undercut their prestige and succeeded in
convincing many people of the righteousness of their cause. So, too, did
their counterparts in Christian and Buddhist areas of Southeast Asia,
such as the northern Philippines and Burma, respectively. In Burma, for
instance, transgendered female ritualists assumed a prominent role in
military charges against the British in what came to be known as the
First Anglo-Burmese War (1824-1826). It seems quite likely that such
resistance enhanced the reputations of ritual practitioners and all that
they signified in cosmogenic terms, even when both the ritualists in
question and their supporters experienced resounding military defeat
by imperial (or other hostile) forces.

by way of a conclusion, i emphasize three sets of issues

bearing on the proliferation of sexual and gender diversity that
has occurred in Muslim Southeast Asia in the last few decades,
largely as a consequence of globalizing forces that have seen the
transnational circulation of discourses emphasizing gay and lesbian
subjectivities and sexual rights as human rights. The first involves

Gender Pluralism: Muslim Southeast Asia since Early Modern Times


a loosening of the hegemonic deep structure that long informed

subjectivities as well as the directionality and the embodiment of
potential[ly] erotic enterprises (Butler 1993: 110). I use the term
loosening partly because we are not dealing with the shattering of
a hegemony in a Gramscian sense, nor with an epistemic rupture or
succession la Michel Foucault or Dennis Altman. The evidence for
this loosening, which comes from Indonesia, Malaysia, and other
parts of Muslim Southeast Asia, includes the emergence in the past
few decades of (at least) two new classes of individuals. One consists
of female-identified women who are erotically involved with other
women (for example, lines among the Bugis). What is new and distinctive about these women is that their subject-positions and subjectivities are defined not only by their female gender, but also by their
sexual orientation as lesbians or women who have sex with women.
The other group includes masculine-identified gay men who pursue
erotic relations with other men. These men are also distinctive in
that their subject-positions and subjectivities are likewise defined
both by their gender and by their sexual orientation. Because gender
identities in Southeast Asia have always subsumed and effectively
defined sexual orientations, scholars like Dennis Altman (2001) see
in these developments evidence of the ways that Asian homosexualities are being Westernized or otherwise reconfigured by transnational, globalizing developments.
In my view, however, the shifts at issue are not as dramatic as
they appear at first glance (see also Boellstorff 2005). I say this partly
because feminine-identified lesbians tend to form erotic relationships
exclusively with masculine-identified lesbians, just as masculine gay
men are erotically inclined toward feminized gays. These relationships are still heterogender as far as the participants and others are
concerned. As such, they fit comfortably within the heterogender
matrix that has long been hegemonic throughout the region. If, on the
other hand, the new subject-positions involved relationships that were
simultaneously homosexual and homogender, they might pose serious
challenges to the prevailing hegemony. Notice, though, that it would


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not be the sexual patterningthe homosexualityof these relationships that would raise the specter of subversion vis--vis local taxonomies and hierarchies and the values and interests they serve. Rather,
the threat of subversion would come from the way they are gendered
the fact that they are homogender.
A second, related set of issues has to do with the concept of
heteronormativity. While I referred to this concept earlier (for example, at the outset of my essay, when I suggested that the decline of
gender pluralism since early modern times has entailed the rise of
certain kinds of heteronormativities), it is too ethnocentric to be of
much use to me. The prefix hetero- in heteronormativity refers
uncritically to heterosexuality, thus problematically privileging
sexual difference over gender difference. A key essay in the 2002
Handbook of Lesbian and Gay Studies, for example, defines heteronormativity as the view that institutionalized heterosexuality constitutes
the standard for legitimate and expected social and sexual relations,
insuring that the organization of heterosexuality in everything from
gender to weddings to marital status is held up as both a model and
as normal (Ingraham 2002: 76; emphasis added). Many who use
this term collapse or ignore the heterosexual/heterogender distinction altogether, assuming in the process that ostensibly bedrock
sexual(ized) difference is invariably the defining feature of personal
identity, the difference that matters most. This is unfortunate and
ironic insofar as it entails the suppression of culturally meaningful differences even at the hands of those who have helped develop
language intended to lay bare and critique various kinds of normalizing discourses and institutions. Note in any case that as commonly
defined heteronormativity is not appropriate as a gloss for the hegemonies bearing on bodily practices and social relations in Muslim
Southeast Asia in early modern times or subsequently, unless the
prefix hetero- is taken to refer to gender rather than sexuality.
The term heteronormativity also obscures and impoverishes our
understanding of significant dynamics in Muslim Southeast Asia
in recent years, one nexus of which involves the loosening though

Gender Pluralism: Muslim Southeast Asia since Early Modern Times


continued prevalence and partial sexualization of the heterogender

The third and final set of issues I want to comment on has to
do with the notion of graduated pluralism. As mentioned earlier, this
term draws attention to the differential distribution throughout societies and polities of certain kinds of sentiments, dispositions, and
institutionalized arrangement conducive to or inhibiting pluralism,
many of which are keyed to systems of stratified reproduction defined
as encompassing systems of power relations that encourage certain
groups nurturance and reproduction while discouraging or precluding
those of others. I developed the concept of graduated pluralism partly
because it makes little sense on empirical or other grounds to speak of
pluralismor of tolerance, legitimacy, justice, sovereignty, coercion,
or powerin the abstract. Regimes of pluralism, like regimes of justice,
sovereignty, power, etc., are internally differentiated and domain
specific. Concepts like graduated pluralism encourage recognition of
this fact, helping us to appreciate as well that pluralistic sentiments
and dispositions with respect to gender and/or sexual diversity may or
may not help constitute pluralistic sentiments and dispositions bearing
on diversity defined in relation to race, ethnicity, and/or religionand
vice versa. In Muslim Southeast Asia, pluralism with regard to gender
and sexuality has long been rather robust, and typically far more expansive than its counterparts in the West, but it has always been relative.
Various kinds of close mating (construed as incest) and extramarital
relations (adultery), for instance, have always been beyond the pale, as
have same-sex relations involving homogender as distinct from heterogender relations. We have also seen that male-bodied persons, however
gendered, seem always to have been allowed more bodily play than
their female-bodied counterparts.
The logic underlying many of these distinctions (for example,
heterogender versus homogender) is imbricated in various discursive
modes including Islamically inflected mythologies and cosmologies,
though I have not been able to address these matters in any detail here.
The point is nonetheless worth emphasizing inasmuch as it helps distin-


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guish the concept of graduated pluralism from others to which it bears

a loose family resemblance, such as Aihwa Ongs more state-centric
(1999) notion of graduated sovereignty. The latter concept, which was
also developed largely in relation to Southeast Asian material, refers
to processes in which the state makes different kinds of biopolitical
investments [both] in different subject populations (privileging one
gender over the other, for example) and in certain kinds of human
skills, talents, and ethnicities, along with its willingness in some cases,
even as it maintains control over its territory, . . . to let corporate entities set the terms for constituting and regulating some domains (Ong
1999: 217). Ong deploys the concept of graduated sovereignty primarily to designate post-Fordist dynamics that have arisen with neoliberal
globalization, commonly associated with the post-1970s era, suggesting
that hyper-rational states and transnational corporations driven by wills
to power and profit and other largely utilitarian agendas are invariably the key players in moving these dynamics forward. As discussed in
greater detail elsewhere (Peletz 2009), the notion of graduated pluralism
accords more significance to the cosmological underpinnings of state
apparatuses and the conceptual schema informing the subjectivities
and practice of agents of governmentality and their proxies and charges,
and the ways these cosmologies and conceptual schema are dialectically related to myth, ritual, and various domestic and social structural
arrangements. It remains only to add that the two concepts (like the
literatures to which they are keyed) are by no means mutually exclusive;
that bringing them more directly into conversation with one another
will further illuminate the myriad ways in which states and bodies are
implicated in dynamics of power, prestige, legitimacy, and difference;
and that we have much to learn from exegeses of gender pluralism and
its structuring in different world areas that take seriously both regional
specificity and historical dynamics of the longue dure.

1. This essay presents a synoptic overview and reworking of arguments

developed in Peletz (2009), which provides a book-length treatment of

Gender Pluralism: Muslim Southeast Asia since Early Modern Times


gender pluralism in Muslim and non-Muslim areas of Southeast Asia

since the beginning of the early modern period. Space limitations
preclude citation of many relevant references along with discussions
of methodology. Suffice it to say that the larger work upon which this
essay is based draws on indigenous (mostly Malay) manuscripts, and
on the writings of Chinese and other explorers, European colonial
officials and missionaries, as well as the research of archeologists,
historians, and anthropologists. I also build on the archival study and
ethnographic fieldwork I conducted in Malaysia during two extensive periods of research (1978-1980, 1987-1988) and shorter visits in
subsequent years (2001, 2002, 2008, and 2010).
2. Important exceptions include El-Rouayheb (2005) and Najmabadi
3. For my purposes, the term gender designates the cultural categories, symbols, meanings, practices, and institutionalized arrangements bearing on at least five sets of phenomena: 1) females and
femininity; 2) males and masculinity; 3) androgynes, who are partly
male and partly female in appearance, as well as intersexed individuals, who to one or another degree may have both male and female
sexual organs or characteristics; 4) the transgendered, who engage
in practices that transcend or transgress normative boundaries and
are thus by definition transgressively gendered; and 5) neutered
or unsexed/ungendered individuals, like some eunuchs. Sex, by
contrast, refers to physical activities associated with desire, reproduction, and the like, including but not limited to sexual intercourse
of a heterosexual nature; to physical bodies that are distinguished
by having genitals that are construed as female, male, both (as
with some intersexuals), or neither (as in the case of some eunuchs);
and to bodily processes associated with anatomical and physiological maturation, such as menstruation and ejaculation. The partially
overlapping term sexuality bears more specifically on the realm
of erotic desire, passion, and pleasure. Gender pluralism, for its
part, denotes pluralistic sensibilities and dispositions regarding
bodily practices (adornment, attire, mannerisms) and embodied


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desires, as well as social roles, sexual relationships, and overall ways

of being that bear on or are otherwise linked with local conceptions
of femininity, masculinity, androgyny, and so on. Sexual pluralism,
premised minimally on a concept of relatively benign sexual variation (Rubin 1984: 283), is included under the more encompassing
rubric of gender pluralism. This is in keeping with analytic conventions subsuming sex into the category of gender (but not conflating
or eliding the differences between them) that are adopted by many
scholars in the field. It is also consistent with the empirical realities of Muslim Southeast Asia, insofar as gender difference has long
encompassed sexual differenceassociated with anatomy, physiology, sexual activity, and the likerather than vice versa.
4. I use the term Muslim Southeast Asia to refer to areas of Southeast
Asia now known as Indonesia, Malaysia, and the southern Philippines,
and to designate their Muslim inhabitants in particular, especially
Bugis, Javanese, Acehnese, Malays, Tausug, and Sama.

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