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Women as Change Agents of Adaptation among Religious Communities in Southeast Asia

A313
Panel Chair: Sophana Srichampa | Monday, August 24, 1:30-3 p.m. | Venue

Religions play an important role in the life of Southeast Asia. The region has experienced ongoing religious influences from other parts of Asia, making it a critical hub for religious interaction. The role of women has been relatively absent from studies of these religious developments. Yet Buddhist women in Thailand and Christian women in the Philippines have been advocating for responses to these broader changes such as the inclusiveness of women in Sangha activities (Thailand) and opening of schools for underprivileged children in rural areas (the Philippines). For example, Bikkhuni Dhammananda in Thailand has made public demands for several adjustments in Buddhist practice. On the other hand leading women reformers in Philippines argue for a broader understanding of religion to avoid discrimination against the traditional practices and customs of indigenous peoples. This panel will describe and analyze how women draw on religious resources and arguments to advocate for and effect change in countries like Thailand, Malaysia and Philippines, aided by a new environment of rights talk, particularly equal rights for women, and some progressive Court judgements.

Sophana Srichampa

Can Women be Change Agents in Thai Buddhism?

Although Buddha allowed women to be ordained as Bhikkhuni (nun), the Thai Buddhist clergy or Sangha does not allow women to obtain this religious status. In recent times, Dr. Chatsuman Kabilsingh rebelled against this system of non-ordination and went to Sri Lanka to become a Bhikkhuni, only to come back home and start a movement of demanding the creation of a Bhikkhuni order on a par with the monks (Bhikkhu). By establishing her own Buddhist Wat (temple), Chatsuman (now known as Bhikkhuni Dhammananda) has attracted several Thai women to her reform movement. The paper discusses how support for this protest has led to the growth of a strong network of over 100 bhikkhunis, 400 female novices and supporters in more than 20 provinces in the country. It has also led to broader protests by women over prevailing gender inequities in Thai society. A qualitative method is used for data collection and the paper draws on Gramsci’s concept of cultural hegemony for analysis.

Bahiyah Abdul Hamid

“Would You Rather Be a Mistress or a Second Wife?” Muslim Women and Polygamy in Malaysia

Islam regulates and restricts polygamy, mandating conditions for its practice and providing legal restraints that could amount to discouragement and even prohibition of the practice. In Malaysia, this practice is legal for Muslims where a man can have four wives. While women and women’s NGOs have criticized this practice, charging that Muslim men marry women for exploitative reasons, even when framed as noble, a group of women established the Ikhwan Polygamy Club (IPC) which advocates that husbands are to be shared and not fought over. This paper investigates the group’s discourses to understand their arguments for a reformed approach to polygamy. Using media reports and personal interviews, a critical discourse analysis indicates that IPC attempts to influence Muslim women to accept polygamy as a cure for social ills like adultery and prostitution. However, this discourse does not seem to gain support among women due to weak starting points in IPC rhetoric as well as emerging cultural factors.

Esmeralda F. Sanchez

Babaylan: Filipina Ritualist and Healer

This study focuses on the changing roles of Babaylan healers in some communities in the Philippines. While the significance of these indigenous healers appears to be declining in urban areas, due to globalization and modernization, more careful research shows them to be still active at the community level in both rural and urban areas. They may be called on to perform healing rituals or deliver prayers at the beginning of community events. The paper also discusses why many modern, educated women recognize the continuing need for the Babaylan in their daily lives, and how and when they turn to them. Research methods for this paper include library research, participant-observation, and in-depth interviews.

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