Rey Ty. (2001). Pious Women, Prostituted Women: Gender Realities, Contending Interpretations, Buddhist Texts, Thai Social Context
PIOUS WOMEN, PROSTITUTED WOMEN:
GENDER REALITIES AND CONTENDING INTERPRETATIONS
OF BUDDHIST TEXTS IN THE THAI SOCIAL CONTEXT]
Northem Illinois University
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
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
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.