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The intensity of local political elections in Rural Thailand can place immense stresses on Thai women, who have to maintain harmony within and between communities. In contrast to other authors, who see local Thai politics as primarily a male preserve, Katherine Bowie recognizes, in a recent journal article, the important role that women play as well.

The author, from the Department of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin, analyzes Thai rural politics by focusing on a local election that she observed in 1995. Since the heads of districts and villages in Rural Thailand are normally men, and they have appeared to be the predominant political actors, women have often been seen as politically disadvantaged and irrelevant. They seem to be supportive characters who follow the rules of a game established by men. Even women who enter politics may be seen as supported by their kinship ties with men.

Increasingly, observers are recognizing that Thai women now play a role in elections, at least at the national level. Thaksin Shinawatra, the controversial prime minister who was quite popular among the Rural Thai people and ousted from office in 2006, received a lot of support from his wife and sisters. Bowie argues that women also play an important role in rural elections.

Her basic argument is that the electoral politics are embedded in village matrilocal practices and matrilineal kinship relationships. She examines four separate incidents that occurred in the 1995 election in the study village to show that the traditional interpretation of Thai politics—that it is mostly the domain of men—is far from accurate. The hard-fought nature of the contest that she observed reversed normal patterns, so the usually invisible roles of the women became quite noticeable.

The author shows how village women in that contest had to go to incredible lengths to avoid appearances of being partisan. Supporters of a candidate would work for their man, but then make a show of working for another candidate on another day. Despite their attempts to appear neutral, many village women were suspected of beings spies for other factions. Bowie argues that intense election rivalries stressed family relationships.

By way of background, the author explains that in rural Northern, Northeastern and Central Thailand, a man will move into the village of his wife and live in proximity with her relatives. The men have to fit in with their matrilineal relations and support candidates in their wives matrilines. These patterns ensure strong bonds in the woman’s family. The man frequently depends on the parents of his wife for the land he farms and for the home they live in.

The wife’s family members are normally the people with which the man cooperates in agricultural projects, and the same family members may provide additional support in the form of gifts, loans, and supplies. Intra-village bonds are the basis for most everyday support, but ritual events may draw on the matrilineal kinship ties with people in other villages. Men identify themselves as sons-in-law.

The women have a lot of control over numerous economic activities in their own right. They take charge of trading produce in the village markets, and as a result they tend to control the family money supply. They handle family funds and decide whether or not to extend credit to other relatives and villagers. Customary laws ensure that a woman has the right to control the family property; she retains the right to money she has earned in case of divorce.

Rural women are also responsible for keeping relationships peaceful with their matrilines and, more broadly, within the village and between villages. The cooperative nature of many important village activities requires that harmony be maintained in the community—and villagers typically believe that women are better able than men to maintain peacefulness through their matrilineal social connections. During political conflicts, a woman tries to keep herself in a position of neutrality, or at least to maintain its appearance, so she can better mediate conflicts and foster village harmony, even if her husband is a candidate.

The villagers will expect the family of a candidate to support him, but people who are related to several candidates still try to achieve a facade of neutrality. Bowie argues that women have to play active peacemaking roles when male relationships become fraught with tensions, as happened in her study village.

The author presents four vignettes of stressful situations caused by the closely contested 1995 election. In each of the case studies, it was the women involved who were able to run interference, to offer apologies, and to re-establish family ties that were threatened. In one situation, women healed rifts that opened up when some men felt that an individual had been a traitor to the local cause. In another, a very strong woman worked for weeks to heal wounds brought on by outspoken men who decried the actions of a partisan individual. He had tried to straddle the sympathies and support networks of two villages.

In a third situation, a very poor section of the village was threatened with splitting apart since local needs had been ignored by the politicians. An effective woman mediator helped heal the rift. A fourth vignette describes how a woman became quite stressed by the election and found herself ostracized for a time. But the inevitable rounds of ceremonial activities and social situations—the “seemingly apolitical acts of women chopping vegetables at each other’s homes for various special occasions”—served to revive communications and social networks (p.147).

Bowie concludes that in the context of Rural Thai politics, “conflict is the arena for ignorant, drunken husbands and sons-in-law; resolving conflict is the arena for knowledgeable, sober wives and mothers (p.148).”

Bowie, Katherine. 2008. “Standing in the Shadows: Of Matrilocality and the Role of Women in a Village Election in Northern Thailand.” American Ethnologist 35(1): 136-153