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The Role of the State in the Construction and Representation of Women’s Work

overwhelmingly negative effects on the local female workforce however such studies do not include a critical analysis of the role of the state in the exploitation of women workers.

The Role of the State in the Construction and Representation of Women’s Work

Stivens’s appeal for attention to the role of the state in mediating representations draws us into another dimension of the literature. In the late 1980s, Enloe argued that the politicians and policy makers (mostly men) who put together policies to achieve positive outcomes for the nation as a whole, failed to consider the different outcomes for men and women.47 As a result, development policies concerning agriculture, export-oriented manufacturing and tourism were made without questioning the effects that these policies might have on women.48 For example, in agriculture men have better access to new technology, which can displace women who have traditionally supported their families. Likewise, tourism policies do not necessarily recognise that large numbers of tourists will create situations in which women are exploited, including growth in low-paid hospitality positions or an increased demand for sex workers.49 Christine Chin, following Enloe’s work on the state, has analysed the connections between Malaysian nationalism and foreign domestic labour.50

Households Permit their Daughters to be Urban Workers? A Case Study from Rural Malay Villagers," Land and Management in Development 1, no. 2 (2000).

47 Enloe, Making Feminist Sense of International Relations: Bananas, Beaches and Bases, 11.

48 Enloe argued that by making women invisible, workings of both femininity and masculinity in international politics are hidden. Ibid.

49 According to Enloe, if we listened to women more closely and ‘tried to break out of the “strait jacket” of conventional femininity and to those that find security and satisfaction in those conventions − and made concepts such as “wife”, “mother”, “sexy broad” central to our investigations, we might find that … international politics generally looked different’. Ibid.

50 Christine Chin, In Service and Servitude: Foreign Female Domestic Workers and the Malaysian 'Modernity' Project (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998).

Her work demonstrated how low-paid foreign domestic labour in Malaysia is important for state development. She argued that the state refuses to introduce legislation that outlines fair wages and working conditions for these women so Malay families can easily access affordable domestic labour and childcare, which in turn enhances nation-building because Malay women can remain in the workforce.51 This argument is based on the assumption that the state is a paternal state.

However, according to Stivens, the Malaysian state cannot be characterised simply as patriarchal.52 Stivens argued that the development of family forms and women’s situation in them is the outcome of a highly complex historical process, in which families have often been explicit objects of such policies, and the effects of such policies have often been piecemeal and highly contradictory.’53 Yet while the effects of government policies may be inconsistent, the state has been particularly important in the lives of women in developing countries where policies concerning the family, the household, and women’s sexuality and fertility are concerned.54 Stivens’s point about the complexity of state-family relations is important. However, the state in Malaysia can be considered a patriarchal state, as Chin suggests, because it endorses the domesticity of women and the unpaid services they provide for the family and their low-paid status in the manufacturing workforce. This is also reflected in the state’s attempts to control women’s sexuality and fertility, for example,

51 Ibid., 2-11.

52 Stivens’s work criticised earlier feminist scholars such as McIntosh who argued that the state intervenes less conspicuously in the lives of women, often in fact denying them the protection given to men. The state often defines a family but does not interfere in that private sphere, leaving the control of families to the men.

M McIntosh, "The State and the Oppression of Women," in Feminism and Materialism, ed. A Kuhn and A Walope (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978), 257.

53 Stivens, "Family and the State in Malaysian Industrialisation: Case of Rembau, Negeri Sembilan, Malaysia," 91.

54 Shirin Rai, "Women and the State in the Third World," in Women and Politics in the Third World, ed.

Haleh Afshar (London: Routledge, 1996); Shirin Rai, "Women and the State in the Third World: Some Issues for Debate," in Women and the State International Perspectives, ed. Shirin Rai and Geraldine Lievesley (London: Taylor & Francis, 1996).

when the 1960s family planning policies were abandoned in the 1980s in favour of a policy which encouraged women to have five children.55

The state has played a particularly important role in the proletarianisation of working-class women. The government encouraged the feminisation of manufacturing industries to attract multinational companies, and repealed worker protection legislation.56 In doing so, it has not necessarily considered the women workers’ welfare or their long-term job prospects.

Vivian Lin noted as early as 1986 that government policies go hand in hand with company strategies concerning labour, because legislation aimed at controlling labour organisation and suppressing worker discontent combine with employers’ divide-and-rule tactics, recruitment strategies and corporate paternalism to create a submissive workforce.57 Alison Wee Siu Hui also focused on the state as a powerful force behind the feminisation of the export-oriented industry in Malaysia and Malay women’s place in it.58 She argued that the state reduced Malay women to instruments of production, to tools to achieve the goals of the country. Hui maintained there are considerable tensions between promoting Malay interests and keeping Malay women in low-paid manufacturing industries to sustain industrial development. She claimed that the state has managed to overcome these barriers by framing women in ‘Asian’ and ‘Malay’ discourses about Asian women’s ‘biological’

attributes such as small hands and nimble fingers and notions of female attributes such as passivity and docility.59

Some anthropologists have also emphasised the power of the state. Wolf, for example, argued that the ways in which women workers are defined and subsequently treated by

55 According to Stivens, ‘as part of the Fourth Malaysian Mid-term Review in March 1984 the family planning policy was to be discontinued and Malaysia was now aiming for a population of 70 million by the beginning of the twenty first century’. Stivens, "Family and the State in Malaysian Industrialisation: Case of Rembau, Negeri Sembilan, Malaysia," 104.

56 Alison Wee Sui Hui, Assembling Gender: The Making of the Malay Female Labour (Selangor: Strategic Info Research Development, 1997), 27-39.

57 Vivian Lin, "Health and Welfare and the Labour Process: Reproduction and Compliance in the Electronics Industry in Southeast Asia," Journal Of Contemporary Asia 16, no. 4 (1986).

58 Wee Sui Hui, Assembling Gender: The Making of the Malay Female Labour, 14-6.

capital is not only a reflection of the relationship between capital and women workers or the oppressive nature of capitalist patriarchy. Rather, ‘it is the state’s cosy relationship with capital, which makes it very much a partner in the exploitation of women workers’.60 This does not mean that women workers are passive victims of the state and capital.61 Ong highlighted the resistance strategies of young Malay women in the electronic factories.

According to Ong, factory workers became hysterical over harsh factory discipline during work hours and the factories had to close the doors until the workers were ready to return.62 Likewise, Wolf pointed out that workers are not ‘docile’, and that workers’ resistance is not always noted because it occurs in everyday ways, such as working more slowly, absenteeism or stealing, rather than through stop-work meetings and subsequent strike action.63 Ong’s work, Spirits of Resistance and Capitalist Discipline, also acknowledged the links between the power of multinational companies over women workers and the government’s position on modernisation and development at the ‘grassroots’ level.64 Ong questioned the effects of Malay capitalist development on Malay peasant society, and drew links between capitalist discipline and cultural discourse by examining how the experiences of new factory women and their images of vice and virtue are mediated by the visitations of Malay spirits in modern factories.65 In her view, women are constructed as good mothers, wives and daughters who aspire to meet the goals of the country and the needs of the family. This has significant consequences for women workers, who work in the modern industrial workforce in Malaysia. Such women must maintain their ‘traditional’ values in

59 Ibid., 37.

60 Diane Wolf, "Javanese Factory Daughters," in Fantasizing the Feminine, ed. Laurie Sears (London: Duke University Press, 1996), 142.

61 Scholars using other perspectives have also made arguments about resistance. Lin, for example, argued that workers exercise agency when choosing to work in electronic factories over other factories because of the health and welfare benefits that these companies offer. Lin, "Health and Welfare and the Labour Process:

Reproduction and Compliance in the Electronics Industry in Southeast Asia."

62 Ong, Spirits of Resistance and Capitalist Discipline, Factory Women in Malaysia.

63 Wolf, "Javanese Factory Daughters," 160. This was also confirmed by a Malaysian NGO spokesperson.

"Interview with Irene Xavier, Sahabat Wanita," (Malaysia: 1992).

64 Aihwa Ong, "Japanese Factories, Malay Workers Class and Sexual Metaphors in West Malaysia," in Power and Difference, ed. Jane Monnig Atkinson and Shelly Errington (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990).

65 Ong, Spirits of Resistance and Capitalist Discipline, Factory Women in Malaysia, 2.

order to be viewed as ‘good’ daughters. Ong’s work is also important because she links representation of women’s bodies with both their feminine attributes and their sexuality.

Like Ong’s work, this thesis examines state discourses regarding women and work.

However, the approach taken here differs from Ong’s because it examines state discourses of women and work over a longer period and looks at the continuities and discontinuities between the colonial and post-colonial periods.