Gender Relations in a Laotian Rubber Plantation

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A review of “Where Gendered Spaces Bend”: The Rubber Phenomenon in Northern Laos, by Anna-Klara Lindeborg.

Focusing on the Hmong households engaged in rubber plantation in HatNyao village of North Laos, Anna-Klara Lindeborg’s dissertation maps out and explains how gendered boundaries of work and authority in both public and private spaces have been influenced by a myriad range of factors. In particular, Lindeborg explores how individuals manipulate and negotiate gender relations of power and labour according to the socio-economic contexts they find themselves situated in. Based on a thoughtful and critical assessment of a wealth of ethnographic sources which involve photos, interviews – structured and semi-structured, and field observations – involving both participatory and participant-observation methods, Lindeborg establishes that gender relations stand at the confluence of demographic, social, economic, political and geographical contexts, and hence an understanding of these interlinked yet unique factors is crucial to understand the workings of gendered traditions in a society. Theoretically, the dissertation raises interesting questions regarding the paradoxical and transitional nature of gendered practices in patriarchal societies.

The first chapter of the dissertation outlines the contextual setting of the Hmong people in HatNyao. It provides background necessary for understanding the socio-economic transformation the village has undergone since the introduction of rubber plantations in the late twentieth century. Herein, Lindeborg foregrounds how the introduction of a labour-intensive rubber plantation economy has exposed Hmong to transnational exchanges, which consequently has in a protean range of ways facilitated Hmong women with opportunities to become crucial socio-economic players in their own right.

Next, in Chapter 2, Lindeborg, creatively connects the theoretical framework of her dissertation with her personal ethnographic experiences by establishing a dialogue between the two. Through this thought-provoking way of discussion, she unpacks her dissertation’s theoretical framework and simultaneously critiques her – own ethnographic research methods. Lindeborg combines a varied range of theories to facilitate a better understanding of her research questions, Lindeborg combines a myriad range of theories like -the body materialistic theories, gender and feminist theories of subjectivity and wider discourses on the everyday life, gender contract and situated knowledge. Lindeborg relates her research closely to the body-politics study of Judith Butler (Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter on the Discursive Limits of “Sex”, New York: Routledge, 1990) and the “inter-action” and “inter-section” theories suggested by Karen Barad (Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Realism and Social Constructivism without Contradiction. Feminism, Science and the Philosophy of Science, Eds. Lynn H-Nelson and Jack Nelson, Cornwall: UK Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1996, pp. 161-194), and thereby emphasizes the simultaneous importance of age, physicality, generation, class and geographical location – as factors essential for understanding the gendered labour division in any given society. She conclusively explains, gendered division of labour and decision making are entangled with the intersectionality of various social categories.

In Chapter 3, while continuing her discussion of ethnographic methodologies Lindeborg simultaneously describes the variety of strategies she used to overcome some of the common challenges faced by ethnographers in the field. She even addresses the issue of constructed reality with all honesty, by acknowledging that the knowledge dispensed by researchers are perfumed by their personal choices and even admits the limitations of her using of an interpreter for her research. However, she convincingly asserts her detailed knowledge and understanding of her field through a thick description of the socio-economic context of the HatNyao village and the traditions of the Hmong people. What struck me to be the most impressive element of this chapter was how Lindeborg weaves her personal experiences in the field while describing her research subjects– the Hmong. In doing so, Lindeborg skilfully emphasises the importance of the intersection of various socio-economic and cultural factors, including race and ethnicity, discussed in Chapter 2.

Chapter 4 links back to the theories discussed in Chapter 2 by analysing in great detail the introduction of rubber cultivation in HatNyao village and how it came under the influence of international economy and politics. While discussing the expansive effects the Chinese patronship has brought to the households in HatNyao village, Lindeborg also moves the story ahead by studying the intersection of the private and public lives of the rubber-producing households in HatNyao. She suggests that while the rubber industry introduced many socio-economic changes in the village, the core gendered-household structure, i.e., labour and decision-making traditions remained the same in the initial years of the rubber cultivation, i.e., women remained barred from marketing meetings or transactions, as women in Hmong culture were considered to be incapable of handling such transactions.

Moving into the core of gender power relations within the household space, Chapter 5 examines how Hmong within the locale of HatNyao village have negotiated their gendered traditions to address the needs of labour requirements in the evolving rubber plantation economy. Based on her ethnographic study, Lindeborg suggests that, while the men have continued the Hmong traditions of dominating the decision-making roles in the households and were almost always seen as the “public face” (p.126) and the “voice” (p.125) of the household, in “less-important spheres” Hmong women are seen to hold some pace of influence. Lindeborg also adds that such influence intensified if the woman was a widow or a senior member of the household. Lindeborg teases out such initial signs of change in gender relations from her ethnographic work. She even draws impressive conclusions like, with the rubber plantations maturing and expanding, labour availability is becoming a prime concern for the plantation families, and consequently in matters of inheritance and public labour, Hmong are increasingly softening the gendered traditions and recognizing women’s rights in inheritance and decision-making issues.

Exploring the various ways in which gendered traditions “bend” in public and private spaces, Chapters 6 – 7 form the core part of the dissertation. In Chapter 6, while discussing the gendered and age-based labour division on rubber plantations, Lindeborg speculates that in the future, the women rubber workers will assume greater role and recognition for their work. She even argues women workers who are currently restricted in their mobility (by the absence of transportation means) may in the near future, learn to ride motorbikes like their fellow men, or the family might start living closer to the plantation to ensure maximum utilisation of time and labour in the ever-expanding plantations. Relating back to a few discussions initiated in Chapter 5, Lindeborg continues to investigate further into the changes in gender relations she has witnessed and draws interesting conclusions regarding the changes occurring in the gendered inheritance norms followed by Hmong. Lindeborg conclusively shows, instead of gender being the deciding factor in inheritance, in the present day the residential location of the inheritor becomes a key factor in deciding who inherits what. She also noted that many relatives of the women who married into Hmong families in HatNyao, are now moving into the village to offer labour help to the concerned woman’s family. Based on such signs of change, Lindeborg draws conjectures that with the rubber-boom such migrations would become more frequent, which will contribute to the weakening of the patrilineal clan structures and further bend the gender relations within the Hmong households and society (p.154).

Chapter 7 continues and expands on the discussion of “bending” gender roles in public and private spheres of everyday life in HatNyao. Lindeborg explores how the Hmong crafted their traditional everyday gendered activities and even perceptions of the body around the rubber plantation and economy. For instance, she points out that since the rubber boom in 2012, the gendered work on plantations has visibly bent, allowing women to engage in tasks like tapping, which were previously perceived as a man’s task. She even reveals that, as women got more and more involved in the labour force, the Hmong men were increasingly seen to be contributing to household work like cooking, taking care of the children and feeding animals. Using her excellent interpretive skills, Lindeborg suggests, while this can be seen as an extension of the traditional Hmong custom of husbands contributing to household chores for a month or so after their wives delivered their child, it can also be perceived as a Hmong way of manipulating traditional gendered roles of exceptional situations to fit everyday life situations during the rubber boom when the labour of both man and woman was necessary inside and outside a household (p.179). Thus, quite rightly Lindeborg argues that the traditional gendered lines were visibly “bending” among the Hmong in HatNyao during 2009-2012. Adding on to this argument she also suggests that due to labour shortage in household plantations, the earlier gendered labour division on plantations are now becoming based more on age than gender. With many men living outside the village (either for work or studies), Hmong women depending on their age and seniority in the family become the household authority who would decide the division of labour, hire outside labour if required (p.181) and presumably in some ways these women implicitly become the “public face” of the household as opposed to the Hmong traditions described earlier in Chapter 5. Hence, the author speculates that such changes driven by the newly emerging rubber economy in HatNyao will eventually lead to visible changes in traditional gender roles in household and plantation labour, which invariably will have “intra-acted” and “inter-acted” (p.211) with age, location and other socio-economic factors involved with the rubber industry. Based on her prediction that the Hmong women will become increasingly involved in the rubber plantations, Lindeborg even insists that women will soon emerge as key economic players in the rubber production of HatNyao village.

In the final chapter, Lindeborg brings home the discussion on the intersectionality of various components influencing labour division and authority in public and private spaces and underlines the transitional and paradoxical nature of traditions and spaces. Her conclusions relate closely to Mahtani’s theory of paradoxical spaces (Minelle Mahtani, “Racial ReMappings: The Potential of Paradoxical Space.” Gender, Place and Culture, 8(3) 2001, 299-305), which explains that spaces are inherently paradoxical due to the simultaneous overlapping of social categories within a given space. Lindeborg thus concludes that (as seen through Chapters 5 – 7) Hmong households involved in rubber plantations in HatNyao village, are inherently paradoxical spaces wherein gendered traditions “bend.” Arguing neither against this nor for it, Lindeborg emphasizes that such transformations in gender relations in Hmong households will continue and in-effect will bend the earlier patrilineal, staunch gendered roles and traditions of work and authority to give key roles of labour and authority to the women.

When revised and published, Where Gendered Spaces Bend, is likely to make an important contribution to multiple fields of inquiry, including gender studies and labour studies. It would make popular reading for scholars and others interested in gender studies, women’s studies, human-geography and Southeast Asian Studies. In particular, I found Chapter 2 as the most intellectually stimulating chapter in the dissertation, wherein Lindeborg intervenes in various ongoing debates surrounding gender relations. Instead of trying to solve the debates, she rightly reveals how overlapping they are and that instead of one particular element being the only determinant factor of power and authority in gender relations, a variety of factors (a combination of which is always in a state of flux) work simultaneously to influence such relations.

Arunima Datta
Post-Doctoral Fellow
Asia Research Institute
National University of Singapore
datta.arunima@u.nus.edu

Primary Sources
Interviews
Surveys
Participant observation

Dissertation Information
University of Uppsala, Sweden. 2012. 272pp. Advisors: Aida Aragao-Lagergren and Susanne Stenbacka.

Image: Bending Mekong River from above, Photo: Mats Lindeborg.

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