Women's Economic Activities in an Industrializing Malay Village

Margaret Wolfberg Kedia

PhD Thesis. 2001

This dissertation investigates the impact of industrialization on women's lives in a fishing village located on the east coast of Malaysia. The research explores the ways in which Malay women respond to and shape income-earning possibilities in the wake of rapid economic development. Local economic development consists of a mix of light export-oriented manufacturing, heavy industries, petroleum extraction, and the corresponding establishment of retails sales and services. An increase in women's employment, both in factories and other sectors, has accompanied industrialization. In addition, there has been a dramatic expansion of women's small-scale business enterprises, a traditional way of earning income.

This research has two major findings. First, development policies penetrate local cultures in far-reaching ways. These influences cause social changes which in turn affect how people of the local culture respond, shape, accept and resist development policies. Thus development policies and the local culture act dialectically. This case study outlines several social and economic changes accompanying industrialization that have affected women and encouraged (or perhaps necessitated) their earning income. These changes include the decline, or at least the increasing uncertainty, of the traditional economic base of fishing, coupled with an increasing need for cash. A delay in the age of first marriage and an increase in bridewealth encourage both young women and men to earn income. Thus local acceptance of industrialization and income earning by women is further fostered by these changes.

The second major finding involves the degree to which the various economic sectors of society are interconnected. In this case, the "traditional" informal economy is being transformed to support the newly established household tasks, such as preparing food, through the expanding involvement of women in small-scale businesses, such as food services. Therefore wage employment would not be able to exist in its current form without the support of women's small businesses. This process both enhances the productivity of the female wage labor force and, together with the fishing economy, subsidizes the reproduction of the wage labor force. Both of these findings highlight the need to examine the total cultural context of development policies as local economies industrialize and incorporate into the global economy.