American Ethnologist

text and context: Buddhist sex roles/culture of gender revisited

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Abstract

Drawing on interpretations of popular Buddhist “texts,” a recent analysis of Thai Buddhist conceptions of female gender has questioned the contemporary relevance of a long-standing sexual division of labor in Thai society based in a view that, in Buddhist terms, women are deemed to be more “attached” to worldly objects than are men. This paper argues that the available evidence supports rather than impugns the view of a Thai sexual division of labor in which men specialize in Buddhist monastic roles and political-bureaucratic occupations while women specialize in economic-entrepreneurial activities. Further, it argues that the textual interpretation offered as an alternative to the view of women as relatively “attached” is misleading in that it does not sufficiently address the religious, social, and historical contexts in which the popular texts are found. Viewing the texts in their relevant contexts supports the view that both Buddhist conceptions and the actual situation of women in traditional Thai society is one of relative “attachment” compared to the conceptions and situation of men. Recent changes in Thai society could be seen as having “liberated” women from some traditional limitations and influenced the manner in which women's “attachedness” is manifested in contemporary Thailand. [division of labor, sex roles, textual interpretation, social and cultural change, Buddhism, Thailand]

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