Asian Modernity and Its ‘Gendered Vulnerabilities’

【這是2007年6月1-3日何春蕤在冰島Akureyri University由Gendering Asia Network主辦的會議 ‘Modernity and Gendered Vulnerabilities in Asia’上發表的主題演講。後來發表於Nordic Institute of Asian Studies出版的Asian Insights 1 (June, 2008): 9-11.】

“Vulnerability” describes the fragility of certain populations as resulting from their structural positionality in a society.   But what kind of power effects would such an approach bring forth for our conception of gender and its social existence?   And, what are the specificities of modernity (or modernities) in Asia that entail such gendered vulnerabilities?

As a rather modern notion, the term ‘gender’ usually evokes a recognition of social division and its hierarchical implications as well as a whole array of social changes, upheavals, movements, revolutions and more. As such, it is expected to clash with Asia’s gender-blind or gender-degrading cultures and states.  Yet, in many Asian states, a very complicated collaboration has evolved in which the state adopts certain gender-related, women-friendly policies and measures in order to secure new constituencies in the increasingly competitive electoral processes, as well as to showcase their progress in modernization while maintaining traditional patriarchal social structures and cultures.   The emergence of this development has come to embody the specific kind of “governance” that is increasingly adopted by Asia’s new liberal democracies.

International indices of modernization often include items that have to do with women’s status in the society, their political participation, educational opportunities, employment levels, wage patterns and the like.  More significantly, Asia is experiencing an economic boom and prospering nations are increasingly expected to march toward civility and reputational respectability so as to prove their status as new liberal democracies.  Compared with other progressive measures, such as those dealing with poverty or environmental hazards; political gestures that illustrate the state’s role as patron-saint for the weak and vulnerable, namely women and children, prove to be quite cost-efficient for the nation-state in formation.  This whitewashing process works so effectively that opportunistic politicians are more than eager to jump on the bandwagon of protection-oriented legislation.

The adoption of gender equity measures impact upon Asia’s gender culture in other complicated ways.  As modernization is often intermixed with experiences of (masculine) defeat and humiliation of Asian men/states in the hands of western powers, there is a certain degree of ambivalence toward modernization, which gives rise to complicated, conflicting demands and values that make the path of gender equity more than treacherous.  Policies are often subject to interpretations that backfire upon their original purposes, sometimes creating more difficulties than expected.  Ironically, as modernization – or at least the look of it – also provides the self-pride and sense of accomplishment that consolidate identification with and support for the Asian nation-state, resistance to modern gender equity measures often ends up being fractured by the new democracies’ desperate desire for international recognition, thus driving the conflicting emotions deeper down.   This complicated emotional complex over the issues of gender, modernization, and nationalism often prove to be fertile ground for manipulation by the state as well as state-oriented NGOs in their quest to satisfy their own respective needs.

In the west, gender/sexuality-based movements grew out of different historical development and lineages, spreading diachronically across historical moments and eras.  In Asia, an almost synchronic explosion of various quests for identity, issues, and rights not only enact as well as respond to the rapid encroachment of modernization and globalization, but also greatly exacerbate the clash of values and practices in the already complicated socio-cultural contexts of Asian countries.  This volatile situation, when compounded by the rise of the media culture and a populist-oriented democratic structure, leaves many Asian states in a desperate quest for the most efficient way to attain continued legitimacy and governance.   The discourse of gendered vulnerabilities, presented by the conservative Christian right in an appeal for patronage and protectorship, makes a powerful case for the fortification of the state’s legitimacy while regimenting social space for the conservative agenda.  This specific and deliberate deployment of the concept of vulnerability has now become the most potent force that is worthy of our concern.

While the use of the term ‘vulnerability’ introduces a whole new vision through which to view subjects and the effect of their positionality in the social structure, the term also shifts our frame of reference and outlook in a way that lends itself to other uses.  For one thing, the preventive or proactive measures being proposed to counter this vulnerability often run the risk of over-extension or crass usage in the hands of over-eager politicians.  For another, as they are used by many conservative Christian groups in Asia, vulnerability claims in relation to women and children are almost exclusively restricted to sexual matters – this, in turn, has led to demands for new legislation and litigation to purify social space, in particular, internet space.  Unfortunately, while such measures aim at catching and stopping those who might take advantage of such vulnerability, the measures do little to change the social production of such vulnerability, and more collateral damage (for example, infringement on basic human rights for all) often results.

As has been observed, the concept and narrative of vulnerability best fans the fires of social/sexual panic through the increasingly sensationalized media in Asia, as it portrays helpless and vulnerable subjects easily falling prey to the schemes of depraved criminals.  In the ecology of existing media, it is all too easy to push the panic button and shut down meaningful public discussion of an ambiguous or controversial phenomenon.  Dramatic and generalized depictions of absolute vulnerability effectively foreclose the possibility of close examination of the varied faces of reality, not to mention second-guessing the complicated motives of those who make the claim.   Increasingly, scare tactics are employed by conservative Christian NGOs to prosecute sexual dissidents, while all the time, the narrative is driven by the emotional nexus surrounding the vulnerability of women and children in the face of sexual predators.

In Asia, the vulnerability discourse is most often applied to two social groups: the first is the youths of Asia.  Increasing and rotating development of affluence among Asian countries is now helping to fuel the growing production of desire among Asia’s young.  The liberalization of tendencies in consumption and cultural production and the new lifestyles of the young provoke increasing anxiety among adults, whose threatened authority and control then express themselves in moralistic-disguised-as-nationalistic language and fervour, couched in a discourse that emphasizes the vulnerability of youths to bad western influences which are embodied in consumerism and loose moral values.   As Asian youths become increasingly fluent in the new communication technologies, adults are left feeling frustrated in their efforts to monitor their children’s lives.   This frustration on the part of parents lends itself easily to mobilization by conservative discourses, and middle-class parents are increasingly recruited into the formulation of new laws that severely restrict communication on the internet as well as on the mobile phone system, all in the name of the protection of children.  Notably, the institutionalization of regulatory measures is almost always grounded in a vulnerability discourse that characterizes the young as easy prey and thus must be “protected” at all costs, segregated from all the outreaching and explorative activities that make up youth.  Worse, the regulations and restrictions enacted often constitute direct violations of freedom of information and association for all citizens, not to mention discrimination against the young as their activities are curtailed and their desires silenced.  The youths’ vibrant restlessness and the risks/dangers they incur staunchly remind us that there IS more than one side to the vulnerability story.

The discourse of vulnerability is blatantly applied to a second group that is increasingly featured as Asian states march toward human rights indices.  This second group is none other than the previously slighted and criminalized members of the sex industry, women in particular.  Descriptions focus on their disadvantageous social positions, their weak minds and self-control, and, of course, their mishaps and misfortunes under patriarchy and licentious men.  There are also discourses that criticize the women’s laziness as they refuse to take up other, serious and hard-working jobs such as cleaning or care for the sickly.   Having established their vulnerability, efforts are proposed to help them change their ways, move them out of the sex industry and train them, for example, to use computers in order to promote ‘self-esteem’ and ‘empowerment’ through ‘work opportunities’ in occupations other than sexual ones.  Significantly, vibrant sex work rights movements have risen in quite a few countries in Asia, moving further and further away from the discourse of vulnerability and toward a discourse of self-empowerment.  Posed against recent US policy linking NGO funding allotments to a mandatory anti-sex-work stance, sex work activism in Asia stands to challenge this highly imperialistic demand, in addition to locally-engendered social stigma.

Sociologist Anthony Giddens has described the quintessential quality of modernity as being exemplified in the modern project of the self, in which individuals seek to colonize the future, that is, constantly evaluating and calculating so as to better manage possible upcoming risks.  Yet the concept of vulnerability in the hands of conservative Christian groups focuses attention on the present and asks: what proactive, preventive, pre-emptive measures should be taken aggressively in the present, in order to protect the vulnerable subjects from harm, or in fact from mobility, change, activity and exploration?  Vulnerability, thus construed as a dimension of gender and age, serves more to frighten and thwart, than to empower and promote.

Let me reiterate that I am not debunking the concept of ‘vulnerability’, nor am I against paying attention to structural disadvantages against certain population groups or social positions.  Yet in Asia, the vulnerability discourse is being mobilized most ardently by conservative Christian groups to monopolize the gender stance that supposedly marks modernity.  This gender stance, with its emphasis on the vulnerability of women and children and the need to purify social space so as to effect protection, has begun to encroach upon basic human rights and freedom by instituting further regulations and restrictions on the lives of those who are most in need of freedom, support and encouragement so as to revolutionize the structure that produces and sustains their vulnerabilities.  I present these thoughts in order to call attention to this sinister development in Asia today.