Linina Phuttitarn
ICH Facilitator, UNESCO

In many cultures, there is a concept of expected gendered roles where people perform certain functions, parts, or kinds of a cultural or social activity according to their gender. Men are expected to be strong and masculine, and employ the roles which are more related to hard labor, leadership, and literacy. Women, traditionally, assume feminine and maternal characteristics and roles in supporting men in their social events. Although these notions of gender qualities and roles differ from culture to culture, it is often found that the traditional customs which dictate who can and cannot participate in specific parts of the culture are often bounded by gender stereotypes and taboos.

What if a woman or a man would like to take up a role which has traditionally been associated with the opposite gender, would it be acceptable by their group of people? Would this change be allowed and respected? What impacts would it bring to the community and the intangible cultural heritage, and what would this change mean in terms of social development? The case study of Salak Yom Festival in Lamphun Province in Thailand provides some insights on this topic.

UNESCO’s 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage highlights the fact that intangible cultural heritage or ICH is constantly recreated in response to the changing social and environmental contexts of the communities (Article 2, 2003 Convention). These changes vary from the kinds of materials and tools used, the meanings and purposes of the actions, the temporal and spatial settings, and—most importantly—the people within the communities who practice and transmit it. The 2018 Operational Directives for the Implementation of the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage also signify the important roles of genders in the safeguarding of the ICH, and advocates for the elimination of gender discrimination.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs include Gender Equality as one of its seventeen goals. It promotes respect, equal rights, and opportunities as well as empowerment for all genders. But the question is—rights and opportunities in what?

The more popular answers are related to education, social services, health care, economic resources, and employment. But people often forget that men, women, and those who belonging to other genders are also endowed with their rights to participate in political, social, and cultural events. In other words, they should be able to speak their mind and take up the role that they want in their cultural and social activity. The more challenging question in this regard asks whether they would be allowed to do so by their community if it would mean going against their social norms or customs of gendered roles.

Men preparing decors made with banana leaves at Si Bang Wan Temple © Linina Phuttitarn, 2017

In Lamphun Province in the North of Thailand, the Salak Yom Festival is practiced by the Yong Tai-Lue ethnic group. It is one of the most significant merit-making Buddhist events which takes place around September or October each year. People donate offerings in many forms to the monks and temples, including tall colorful bamboo trees which are decorated with objects and are called Salak Yom trees. Historically, it was a cultural norm for single, young women to commit themselves in offering a Salak Yom tree when they turned 19—the normative and ideal age of marriageability. The making of the offering required an enormous amount of effort, time, and money, so the merit earned was deemed as equivalent to that of the man’s tradition of temporary monkhood—something in which Buddhist women in Thailand have not been allowed to take part. Other community members gathered to support the young woman and her family in the tedious making and donating processes. There was a clear division of roles by gender. Women gathered to cook, sew, weave textiles, carve fruits and vegetables, and make other light handicrafts. Men helped by cutting, sharpening, and assembling wooden pieces. They also played musical instruments and sang a lengthy poem depicting the biography of the woman donor. This long poem is called kalong or kamham.

Back in olden times, only men could sing this song. There had never been a woman who had assumed this role before, and the tradition had strictly been kept…

Until a few years ago when something new happened.

In 2016, Wat Phrathat Hariphunchai—the province’s primary temple—resonated with the powerful females’ voices singing a kalong through the microphones. A group of four 40-to-50-year-old women competed at the kalong competition. When asked why they, as ladies, could participate in the singing of kalong now, they replied, “Why can’t we? The reason that there was no female singer back then was because women were illiterate. Only men who wanted to become a monk could go to school while women were expected to take care of their home. Today’s world has changed. Women also go to school. We can read now, that means we can sing the kalong, too. Men and women are not different.” Hence this was their reason for joining the competition. The local men fully supported the female kalong singers for the same reason, and even helped train them.

In this case, the change was accepted and even welcomed. The change was based on the community’s recognition and respect for women as empowered members who can decide their own role in this important tradition.

However, there are still many other aspects and elements of the local community that are still strictly maintained. For example, the restriction of females entering certain parts of the Buddhist temples or in specific parts of Buddhist ceremonies where only monks and males are allowed. Based on the author’s observation, changes in gendered roles in the ICH that are not directly related to the religious customs receive more room for flexibility.

Another change related to the normative gender roles in this festival was that, in olden times, only individual females could be the donors of the Salak Yom tree. There is no evidence of a male donor. However, nowadays, socioeconomic changes have influenced women’s values and financial ability to make such time-consuming and expensive offerings like the Salak Yom trees, which cost, on average, about THB50,000-100,000 each. Many women now go to school and work outside of their home instead of fulfilling old jobs like farming and home making. It is nearly impossible to find individual women to make and donate a Salak Yom tree in the traditional way. Therefore, the trees are prepared and donated by a community instead.

This means that men can now take a part in this collective donor role. The men shared that the removal of gender restriction has empowered and allowed them to pour their hearts out in these annual Buddhist merit-making events which they identify as an important part of their cultural identity. Other genders can also proudly and openly participate, because the modern meaning of this ICH focuses on the community’s solidarity and spirituality. The Salak Yom Festival members have been supportive of all genders’ participation.

We can see from this case study that expected gendered roles in traditions can change. ICH, by definition, embraces these changes. The festival’s original function has partially changed from primarily as a young women’s rite of passage and empowerment to an annual religious, cultural, and social event though tourism has become a large part of the force behind the funding and management of the festival. Many changes have been observed, including those in gendered roles. Some past roles have weakened; at the same time, new ones have emerged. In their own way, the communities are also observing and evolving with all of these sociology-economic changes, but they seem to remain resolute in their respect for all genders. This respect has, in turn, provided them many benefits such as the widened scope of their practitioners, bearers, and secondary participants which has led to an even stronger foundation in the continuity for the Salak Yom Festival.