Rey Ty. (2001). Pious Women, Prostituted Women: Gender Realities, Contending Interpretations, Buddhist Texts, Thai Social Context
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Rey Ty. (2001). Pious Women, Prostituted Women: Gender Realities, Contending Interpretations, Buddhist Texts, Thai Social Context

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Rey Ty. (2001). Pious Women, Prostituted Women, Gender Realities, Contending Interpretations, Buddhist Texts, Thai Social Context

Rey Ty. (2001). Pious Women, Prostituted Women, Gender Realities, Contending Interpretations, Buddhist Texts, Thai Social Context

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  • 1. PIOUS WOMEN, PROSTITUTED WOMEN: GENDER REALITIES AND CONTENDING INTERPRETATIONS OF BUDDHIST TEXTS IN THE THAI SOCIAL CONTEXT] Rey Tyz Northem Illinois University SUBSTANTIVE ABSTRACT There are contending interpretations on gender roles in society in general and in Thailand in particular. Hanks and Hanks mentioned the relative equality of women to men because of their involvement in economic activities. Kirsch, however, stated that Buddhism denigrates economic activities in which women are involved and values religious activities in which men are engaged. By inference, men are more religiously advantaged than women in society; pious men are more advantaged than pious women because the latter need more merit; pious women are more advantaged than prostituted women; however, on the basis of their actions (i. e. of merit making), prostituted women can gain more merit than men or pious women. Keyes, on his part, asserted that both women and men are attached to the world but in different ways. However, Keyes admitted that women as mothers and nurturers are more religiously advantaged than men who are naturally hunters and life takers. By inference, men are naturally less religiously advantaged than women. Also, prostituted women who nurture their families in the villages as well as the temples by sending money back home are more religiously advantaged than both men and women do not send money to the temples. These are some of the contending interpretations on Buddhist gender roles in Thai society. Because of multivocality, the relationship between men and women is complex and defies a singular explanation. Based on the foregoing, the relationship between pious women and prostituted women is complex and defied a univocal account. For different reasons, women and men are at the same time equal and unequal. Pious women are not necessarily more religiously advantaged than prostituted women. Depending upon their activities involving merit making, pious women may be either more or less religiously advantage than prostituted women. ' First Prize, Best Graduate Paper, Women's Studies Program, Northern Illinois University, Women's History Month 2001, March 26, 2001. 21 would like to thank Prof. Judy Ledgerwood for introducing me to and discussing the literatures on the debate regarding the relationship between Buddhism and gender roles in Thailand, to Julie Lamb for providing me with additional materials on the subject, to Prof. Susan Russell of Northem Illinois University Center for Southeast Asian Studies, and to Diwash Shrestha, and Rajesh Maharjan for all their support.
  • 2. In sum, this essay has presented several contrasting images regarding gender relations in Thailand to which I have presented my critique. Among these contrasting images are the following: (1) virtue and vice, (2) structure and agency, (3) women vs. men and relative equality of women and men, (4) attached economic women vs. unattached pious men, (5) earthly men vs. pious men, (6) religious women vs. nurturing women, (7) pious women vs. prostituted women, (8) texts vs. contexts, (9) two opposing interpretations by Keyes and Kirsch of the same Buddhist texts, (10) religious context vs. natural context, (1 l) Buddhist virtue and natural virtue, (12) the structure of Buddhist values vs. the structure of the new global economy, and (13) detached observer- researcher focused research vs. actively-involved-subject-focused research (i. e. Thai women themselves speaking up). Both Kirsch and Keyes agree that Buddhism play a crucial role in the definition of sex roles in Thailand. They also agree that the image of women as mothers and nurturers is the dominant image in Thai society, not women as “lovers” (or “adu1terers”) or as “demanding mistresses”, although these and other images of women do in fact exist and coexist with the image of women as nurturers in general and as mothers in particular. As a result of multivocality, gender realities and Buddhist texts are susceptible to multiple interpretations based on either textual (Keyes) or contextual (Kirsch) analysis. Gender images of Thai women both in the rural areas and in the cities are multiple. Gender roles situated in real life contexts are open-ended and are complex in meaning and content. There are various constructions on gender roles in society. Women have multiple realities and, as a consequence, multiple — and sometimes incompatible -- roles to play in society. Inferences laid down and inserted throughout this paper provide the unspoken subtexts that enrich the analysis and interpretations of the Buddhist texts in Thai social context. Keyes (1984: 238) argued that cultural coherence is to be located in texts, not in action or in everyday discourse that accompanies action. However, Kirsch (1985: 306, 317) claimed that cultural coherence should be focused on the lives or contexts of the women in whom texts, actions, and everyday discourse become meaningful. Though all authors agree on the importance of Buddhism in Thai society, some (Kirsch and Khin Thitsa) argued that Buddhism affect the lives of prostituted women, while others (Keyes, 1984: 236) locate the structure of degraded status of prostituted women not on Buddhist- based culture of gender but on the new secularized image of women as sex objects. Kirsch (1985: 312) responded by saying that the image of women as sex objects (i. e., “lovers” or “demanding mistresses”) is not new, as Keyes (1984: 230-233) himself has pointed out. While Keyes (1984: 236) admitted that Thai Buddhism is permissive and tolerant of prostitution, he recognized the advent of a new materialistic culture — unrelated to Buddhist values -- that goads village women into prostitution. On her part, Khin Thitsa argued that it is not so much that Buddhism is tolerant and permissive of prostitution but that Buddhism has a very regard of women in the first place which pushes women into prostitution. Kirsch (1985: 316), however, argued that Thai
  • 3. Buddhism — far from being on the decline -- is very much alive and that Buddhist-based representations and appraisals sway the lives of Thai prostitutes. By and large, the debate here is whether the structure that constrains women’s roles in society is that of Buddhism or of the new global economy. For Keyes, the constraining structure is the new global capitalist economy, which commodifies women as sex objects, while for Kirsch and Thitsa, it is Buddhism itself, which denigrates women and facilitates their entering into prostitution. In the final analysis, women themselves are dynamic acting human subjects who activate the flow of events and give the never-ending “last word” on gender roles in society. While researchers have their own research agenda and can provide multiple interpretations to women’s realities, researchers must not merely view women’s realities “from a distance” and give their subjects and data a clinical or “cold treatment” in their effort to be “objective”; rather, they must start asking Thai women about their multiple perspectives through which they view their own realities. At the end of the day, we have to go back to Thai women, rural and urban, pious and prostituted, and ask them how Buddhism affects their lives, livelihood, devotion, and values. Better, Thai women - in the urban areas and in the villages — must be encouraged to write their own views and enter into a continuing dialogue about their own realities.