Victorious Wives: The Disguised Heroine In 19th-Century Malay Syair

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In ‘Victorious Wives,’ Mulaika Hijjas uses tools drawn from literary criticism and gender studies to look at a previously neglected corpus of Malay literature in a new light. The relatively equal gender relations in Southeast Asia have long been presented as a defining characteristic of the region, but there are few detailed case studies of premodern women or women’s literature to illustrate this point, and studies of women in traditional literature have of necessity relied on texts that express masculine viewpoints. The ‘syair’ of the Riau Archipelago that are the basis of this book, six 19th-century Malay narrative poems, are a unique exception in that they allow access to women’s imaginative worlds, and they provide a significant historical backdrop to anthropological accounts of gender in the Malay world in modern times.

‘Victorious Wives’ engages with these poems not as historical documents to be mined for data but as complex literary works. In the storylines, the heroine disguises herself as a man in order to rescue a male relative, reversing and subverting the assignation of passion (‘nafsu’) to women and reason (‘akal’) to men that was a commonplace of religious discourse at the time. The book develops a nuanced textual analysis of this material, and explores the interplay between social reality and literary fiction.

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In ‘Victorious Wives,’ Mulaika Hijjas uses tools drawn from literary criticism and gender studies to look at a previously neglected corpus of Malay literature in a new light. The relatively equal gender relations in Southeast Asia have long been presented as a defining characteristic of the region, but there are few detailed case studies of premodern women or women’s literature to illustrate this point, and studies of women in traditional literature have of necessity relied on texts that express masculine viewpoints. The ‘syair’ of the Riau Archipelago that are the basis of this book, six 19th-century Malay narrative poems, are a unique exception in that they allow access to women’s imaginative worlds, and they provide a significant historical backdrop to anthropological accounts of gender in the Malay world in modern times.

‘Victorious Wives’ engages with these poems not as historical documents to be mined for data but as complex literary works. In the storylines, the heroine disguises herself as a man in order to rescue a male relative, reversing and subverting the assignation of passion (‘nafsu’) to women and reason (‘akal’) to men that was a commonplace of religious discourse at the time. The book develops a nuanced textual analysis of this material, and explores the interplay between social reality and literary fiction.

 

Publisher: NUS Press

Paperback

2011

ISBN: 9789971695262