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Social theory in contemporary asia

Social Theory in Contemporary Asia

Philosophical debates around reflexivity, intimacy and identity have preoccupied Western social and cultural theorists since the 1990s. In fact, late
modernity has become conspicuously engaged with issues of intimacy, reflexivity and identity. Ann Brooks analyses the relevance of these debates in the
context of contemporary Asia and combines an analysis of significant social
theorists including Beck, Giddens, Bourdieu, McNay, Adkins and Ong with
an application of these debates to social, political and cultural contexts in
Asia. The author examines to what extent contemporary Asia is experiencing
the same transformation in or 'democratization' of traditional heterosexual
relationships, as theorists maintain is occurring in the West. The book examines changes in patterns of intimacy, reflexivity and identity across the countries of Southeast Asia and more widely. Drawing on empirical research, case
studies, global reports, media and academic literature, the book provides a
relevant, wide-ranging and contemporary analysis of the debates in the context of Asian culture and society. In the foreword to the book Bryan S. Turner
‘Professor Brooks shows consequently that the intimate and emotional
cultures that have been described by Anthony Giddens and Ulrich Beck with
respect to the West have not arrived in Asia or at least that they have not
become visible and permanent aspects of the social landscape.’
Ann Brooks is Professor of Sociology and Cultural Studies at the University
of Adelaide. She is author of Academic Women (Open University Press 1997);
Postfeminism: Feminism, Cultural Theory and Cultural Forms (Routledge

1997); Gendered Work in Asian Cities: The New Economy and Changing
Labour Markets (Ashgate 2006); Gender and the Restructured University:
Changing Management and Culture in Higher Education (Open University
Press 2001) (with Alison Mackinnon). Her forthcoming books are: Gender,
Emotions and Labour Markets (Routledge 2010) and Emotions in Transmigration (Palgrave 2011) (with Ruth Simpson).

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Ann Brooks

Social Theory in Contemporary

Ann Brooks
With a foreword by
Bryan S. Turner

First published 2011
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© 2011 Ann Brooks
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Social theory in contemporary Asia/[edited by] Ann Brooks.
p. cm. – (Routledge advances in sociology; 51)
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-0-415-55109-0 (hardback) – ISBN 978-0-203-84973-6 (ebook)
1. Social sciences–Asia–Philosophy. I. Brooks, Ann.
H61.S7752 2010
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ISBN 10: 0-203-84973-6 (ebk)
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ISBN 13: 978-0-203-84973-6 (ebk)


Introduction: understanding intimacy, reflexivity and identity in
contemporary Asia



Contesting intimacy, reflexivity and identity in contemporary social



Intimacy, reflexivity and identity in contemporary Asia



Reflexivity and the transformation of gender identity in
cosmopolitan Asia


Postmodern Confucianism, ‘moral economies’ and ‘biopolitical
otherness’ in redefining intimacy and identity in Southeast Asia



Sex and ‘singlehood’ as a source of tension in contemporary Asia



Cultural production, intimacy and identity: paradigms of resistance
and Islamic orthodoxy in Asia





Bryan S. Turner

There is a long-standing sociological argument that the West has been historically characterized by an emphasis on individualism, whereas Asia with its
dominant Confucian traditions has placed greater cultural store on social
stability, obedience and familial continuity. This theory of individualism owes
a great deal originally to Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic thesis in which he
described, with the evolution in pietism, an emerging focus on the authority
of the direct experience of the individual. Nothing was to stand between the
individual and the revealed biblical truth. This individualism was heroic and
its grand isolation from traditional institutions. For Weber (2002) in the more
emotional variations of Protestantism, such as Wesleyan Methodism, the
conversion experience of the individual through a personal encounter with
Jesus came to be regarded as the principal foundation of faith. By contrast, in
The Religion of China, Weber (1951) had noted the importance of filial piety,
respect for state authority, the importance of the family to social stability as
defining features of the Confucian philosophy of state and society. Of course,
Weber’s comparative sociology of religion has over the last century been
heavily criticized, but nevertheless the issues he raised about how different
cultures understand the individual have remained salient and influential.
One relevant aspect of Weber’s sociology for understanding different
emphases on the individual in western and Asian cultures is the question of
human emotions. We might plausibly suggest that one common aspect of
Christianity and Confucianism was the deeply rooted suspicion of the corrosive role of emotions in human society. Any emotional outburst in traditional
cultures was normally taken as a sign of irrationality and that an emotional
individual was out of control. For Weber the unique feature of western culture was rationality, specifically the systematization of the everyday world and
the quest for logical coherence. These two are the foundations of purposive
rationality. While Weber recognized ‘affect’ as one type of social action, in
practice this aspect of human life was ignored by sociology, which concentrated
almost exclusively on the cognitive bases of social action (Barbalet 1998).
One important contribution of modern sociological theory has been to
open up the scientific debate about the emotions, embodiment and practice in
understanding social action and social structure (Evans 2009). In this brief

xiv Social Theory in Contemporary Asia
foreword, I want to suggest that recognition of emotions and embodiment in
contemporary sociology is certainly a sign of the intellectual impact of the
modern debate about reflexivity, but it is also an index of changes in society –
at least in the West. It is not simply that modern individualism, in contrast to
the Protestant individualism described by Weber, is self-reflexive and that
modern identities are fluid, modern reflexivity is also open to emotions and as
a result the emotional life is often taken as an index, not of an irrational
failing, but of self-authenticity. I feel, therefore I am. We could look at various empirical examples of such emotionality such as the propensity of
celebrities and politicians to weep in public and to expose their inner feelings
to public scrutiny. TV stars are not only expected to display their foibles and
failings, they must do so with an extravagant emotional display. Emotion now
also surrounds the lives of other public figures such as the traditional monarchy. Public grief at the tragic death of Lady Diana came as a shock to most
seasoned observers of the royal family and the incapacity of Queen Elizabeth
to contribute to this national outpouring came to be regarded as a political
threat to the very survival of the Crown.
I want however to take an example from elsewhere. The spectacular career
of Oprah Winfrey provides an insight into the new codes of intimacy that are
associated with emotive individualism. Her rags-to-riches story is also an
important demonstration of changes in gender relations and gender identities
in the West. In 1986 The Oprah Winfrey Show was expanded to a full hour and
broadcast nationally. In the mid-1990s, the show departed from its tabloid
format and began to explore significant public issues about race, women’s
health, meditation and spirituality. Her skills as an interviewer produced
famous encounters when celebrities would explore profoundly personal issues
relating to sexuality, drug abuse and marital breakdown. The Oprah talk
shows are characterized by a high level of personal disclosure and raw emotion, including her own propensity to cry on air. Praised for the success with
which her show has brought gay, bisexual, transsexual and transgender
people into the American mainstream, she has also been criticized for creating a therapeutic chat style that pandered to the American obsession with
self-help. Indeed her shows are said to have created an American confessional
culture and the notion of ‘Oprahfication’ is now used to describe this emerging self-reflexive culture of therapy, confession and emotion (Wilson 2003).
These themes of violence, suffering, and healing are rooted in the history
of western Christianity, but they are also decidedly American. The triumph of
the individual over adversity sits well with the tradition of self-reliance
and individualism. But what is the source of this emotional dynamic in
American culture? One answer is that in the first half of the twentieth century
American corporations started to employ psychologists to advise them on
how emotions could be used to sell commodities and as a result emotion
came to play an important part in advertising and in the promotion of commodities (Illouz 2007, 2008). While the influence of the Catholic confession
has declined, we live in a secular confessional culture which acts as conduit of



emotion and can be regarded as a popular manifestation of reflexivity, intimacy and emotion in daily life. Have these emotive, reflexive and individualistic cultures of modernity begun to transform the gender, sexuality and
intimacy in Asia?
Much has been written in recent years about globalization and hence about
the increasing global influence of western sexual mores – such as late marriage, voluntary childlessness, no-fault divorce, and the companionate marriage. Equally there is the perception that gay and lesbian cultures have also
become global. However, there is also important historical research that
demonstrates that in Southeast Asia there was traditionally less patriarchy
and more pluralism with regard to gender and sexuality (Andaya 2006). In
addition, ethnographic research demonstrates that in general terms there has
been growing sexual and gender diversity throughout much of Asia as a
whole, but the situation is also variable between for example Buddhist Thailand and Islamic Malaysia. The spread of sexually transmitted disease in
China in the 1990s from commercial sex was indicative of changing values,
but also of continuing sexual inequality. In addition, there is often considerable hostility in China against the western discourse of weak and effeminate
Chinese men. Michael Peletz (2009) suggests that the great popularity in Asia
of megastars like Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Chow Yun Fat is associated
with the sense of a crisis of masculinity.
Although there is evidence of significant cultural variation between Asian
societies and of significant changes in the Confucian legacy of gender hierarchy, Ann Brooks is sceptical about the extent and depth of these social
changes. Drawing upon a wealth of experience from her own research in Asia
and reflecting on a broad range of sociological research results about Asian
societies, she shows that issues of intimacy, identity and reflexivity are posing
difficult questions for Asian women in the choices they are making as regards
career and family, and that women find many aspects of marriage and
motherhood unrewarding and unattractive. These factors partly explain the
growth of ‘singles’, experiments with temporary marriage, high rates of
divorce and exceptionally low rates of total fertility (at least from a historical
perspective). Unsurprisingly while fertility rates in the Philippines have fallen,
they are still significantly higher than Hong Kong and Singapore which are
among the lowest rates in the world. Professor Brooks shows consequently
that the intimate and emotional cultures that have been described by Anthony
Giddens and Ulrich Beck with respect to the West have not arrived in Asia or at
least that they have not become visible and permanent aspects of the social
In many respects, the situation of women in Asia has the same paradoxical
features that one were once to be found in nineteenth-century Britain in the
heyday of industrialization. While women in Asia have left the security and
stability that characterized the patriarchal family life until the end of the
colonial period, with industrialization in the post-colonial period women are
exposed to the harsh, exploitative and masculine culture of the modern factory.


Social Theory in Contemporary Asia

In her poignant account of female factory workers in modern day China on
low pay and under harsh bureaucratic regulation, Leslie Chang (2009) provides valuable insight into the transition from village to industrial city. Similar
conditions are widespread in Asia and in Vietnam and despite the so-called
liberal changes of the Renovation Period women are exposed to gendered
labour conditions with low pay, high risk of industrial accident and long
hours of work (Nghiem 2004). Alongside these examples of naked exploitation, there are other societies such as Singapore where professional women
have achieved considerable advancement. However, in these professional
Chinese households Singaporeans depend on the domestic help of maids primarily from the Philippines, who work under less than satisfactory conditions.
Throughout Asia, the experience of Muslim women has been very different in
terms of achieving equal status with men than for Chinese women in Singapore and Hong Kong. Throughout Southeast Asia, Muslim women have been
entering into secondary and tertiary education in increasing numbers, but the
content of education for Muslim women in both Malaysia and Indonesia is
often influenced by traditional attitudes in favour of men. Men are characteristically dominant in technical subjects. Nevertheless, in Malaysia women
outnumber men at the matriculation level by almost two to one (Kraince 2009).
The evidence relating to women in Asia is consequently complex and often
contradictory. Ann Brooks provides a sure and certain guide to these complexities, offering a balanced sociological analysis of the data. Social Theory
in Contemporary Asia provides a rich and rewarding insight into these transformations of gender and sexuality across Asia. While there is greater gender
equality and signs of sexual pluralism, there is also overwhelming evidence
regarding the plight of poorly educated and low-status women in the industrialized regions of Asia. There is much lip-service to the rights of women, but
these entitlements are rarely achieved in reality. For many uneducated
women, their lives are devoid of any emotional satisfaction and the work of
professional women often robs their personal lives of emotional comfort. The
new sociology of intimacy invites us therefore to consider how far the reflexive modernization of Asia will actually deliver human lives that are meaningful and fulfilling as well as being economically rewarding. Ann Brooks’s
study of the changing lives of men and women suggests that women have not
found emotionally rewarding lives with modernization and the growth of
singles, delayed marriage, low fertility, high levels of divorce, and sexual dissatisfaction are indicative of the underlying problems. In conclusion, we might
claim that Asia has experienced considerable gender change as a result of its
modernization but Asian societies have not yet been through a process of
emotional self-reflexivity.

Andaya, Barbara (2006) The Flaming Womb. Repositioning Women in Early Modern
Southeast Asia, Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.



Barbalet, Jack M. (1998) Emotion, Social Theory and Social Structure. A Macrosological Approach, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Chang, Leslie T. (2009) Factory Girls. From Village to City in a Changing China, New
York: Speigel and Grau.
Evans, Mary (2009) ‘Feminist theory’ in Bryan S. Turner (ed.) The New Blackwell
Companion to Social Theory, Oxford:Wiley-Blackwell, pp. 235–51.
Illouz, Eva (2007) Cold Intimacies. The Making of Emotional Capitalism, Cambridge:
Polity Press.
—— (2008) Saving the Modern Soul. Therapy, Emotions and the Culture of Self-help,
Berkeley: University of California Press.
Kraince, Richard G. (2009) ‘Reforming Islamic Education in Malaysia: doctrine or
dialogue?’ in Robert W. Hefner (ed.) Making Modern Muslims. The Politics of Islamic Education in Southeast Asia, Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, pp. 106–40.
Ngheim, Lien Huong (2004) ‘ Female garment workers: the new young volunteers in
Vietnam’s modernization’ in Philip Taylor (ed.) Social Inequality in Vietnam and the
Challenges to Reform, Singapore: ISEAS, pp. 297–324.
Peletz, Michael G. (2009) ‘Pluralism, globalization, and the “modernization’ of gender
and sexual relations in Asia’ in Bryan S. Turner (ed.)The Routledge International
Handbook of Globalization Studies, London: Routledge, pp. 470–91.
Weber, Max (1951) The Religion of China. Confucianism and Taoism, New York:
Weber, M. (2002) The Protestant Ethic and the “Spirit” of Capitalism and Other
Writings, New York: Penguin.
Wilson, Sherryl (2003) Oprah, Celebrity and Formations of Self, Basingstoke: Palgrave.


I would like to acknowledge the support of a number of colleagues in Asia,
Australia, the US and the UK in the publication of this book. In Singapore,
Lionel Wee generously agreed to the inclusion of our co-authored article in
Sociology (42(3): 503–21, 2008) as Chapter 3. In Australia, David Lemmings
has been a constant source of intellectual engagement and encouragement. In
the US Bryan Turner has been an inspiration and friend in both Asia and
Australia and has written a dynamic and powerful Foreword for this book. In
the UK John Scott has been a great advocate and enthusiast over number of
I published my first book with Routledge in 1997, Postfeminisms: Feminism, Cultural Theory and Cultural Forms, and Routledge remains for me a
very exciting publishing house to work with. For publishing in the Social
Sciences it is unrivalled. It has been a great pleasure to work with Peter
Sowden, Senior Editor at Routledge over two books appearing in 2010 based
within an Asian context. Peter is an excellent editor and a great enthusiast for
scholarship in Asia. Emily Senior has been a fantastic production editor and
a pleasure to work with.
Professor Ann Brooks
March 2010

Understanding intimacy, reflexivity and identity
in contemporary Asia

The relationship between intimacy, reflexivity and identity has been the focus
of an explosion of interest in contemporary social science in the last decade.
Key social theorists have made a significant contribution to contemporary
theoretical and philosophical thinking which has had global ramifications for
the social sciences. Contemporary social theorists such as Giddens (1991,
1992) Beck (1994, 2000a, 200b), Beck-Gernsheim (1996), Bauman (2000),
Lash (1994), as well as feminist and gender theorists McNay (1999, 2000,
2004), Adkins (2003, 2004) and Plummer (2003), have redefined the relationship between reflexivity, intimacy and identity which has led to a significant
rethinking of issues such as social justice, individualization and the democratization of relationships.
This is closely related to the impact of globalization on questions of
cultured, gendered, and ethnic identities within late modernity. Philosophical
debates concerned with intimacy, reflexivity and identity are located at the
intersecting nexus of contemporary social theorizing, particularly the
‘reflexive modernization thesis’ (Beck et al. 1994; Beck and Beck-Gernsheim,
1996; Giddens 1991, 1992; Lash 1994) with gender and feminist theorizing.
This book seeks to explore these frameworks for understanding gender
relationships in the West and considers to what extent these frameworks
have a universal application by examining their relevance in contemporary
Where large areas of a person’s life are no longer set by pre-existing patterns and habits, the individual is continually obliged to negotiate lifestyle options. Moreover and this is crucial – such choices are not just
‘external’ or marginal aspects of the individual’s attitudes, but define who
the individual ‘is’. In other words, life-style choices are constitutive of the
reflexive narrative of self
(Giddens 1992: 75).
In his book The Transformation of Intimacy (1992), Anthony Giddens
describes late twentieth century processes of social change which involve a
process of transformation in the nature of self-identity and intimacy. In


Social Theory in Contemporary Asia

drawing together identity and intimacy, Giddens shows how structural factors
and individual responses are inextricably interconnected.
Giddens makes the case for the transformations of relations of intimacy
within traditional heterosexual relationships and maintains there is now
greater equality within relationships. Giddens (1992) outlines what he describes
as a transformation in the basis of relationships and of intimacy, to what he
describes as a concept of ‘a pure relationship’ where sexuality and intimacy
are tied together. Within the transformative process, Giddens raises the possibility of equality and intimacy in personal life as manifestations of the
democratizing of gender relationships.
The type of intimacy involved in ‘the pure relationship’ necessarily requires
equality between individuals in the relationship. ‘The pure relationship’ which
is a result of a relationship characterized by democratic principles is matched
by a pattern of sexuality which Giddens calls ‘plastic sexuality’. The key
characteristic of ‘plastic sexuality’ is a form of sexuality which is free from
conventional definitions. For Giddens ‘a revolution in female sexual autonomy’ is an aspect of this, with women finding sexual pleasure in ways which
are not dictated by men and in addition the growth of homosexuality is
another area.
The causes of these changes in the nature of relationships and patterns of
sexuality come from the nature of social change itself in late modernity. These
produce changes in individuals in terms of their own processes of reflexivity,
cultivating changes in identity and impacting on their relationships. As
Giddens notes, in the conditions of the late twentieth century, personal relationships are the key site in which men and women find ‘forms of self
exploration’ (Giddens 1992: 144). Giddens does recognize that ‘the pure
relationship’ because of its intensity is characterized by internal tension. For
Giddens this is seen as important in the openness and intimacy of this new set
of relationships. Other social theorists, Beck and Beck-Gernsheim (1996)
maintain that there is a breaking down of traditional family obligations and a
more fluid set of bonds based on negotiation.
Despite the emphasis in both Giddens and Beck and Beck-Gernsheim’s
work emphasizing equality and democratization of gender relationships, literature on the nature of heterosexual relationships and on patterns of sexuality emanating from the West show that men continue to dominate gender
relationships. As Jackson and Scott (1997: 567) note: ‘women and girls are
positioned as sexual carers who do the emotional work and police their own
emotions to ensure that they do not place excessive demands on men.’ Men
continue to have more choices around domestic work and childcare (Hochschild 1997, 2003, 2005) and managing financial matters. Relationship patterns
highlight patterns of inequality even when couples think that equality exists:
‘Research suggests that the ways in which couples generate a sense of themselves and their partners as mutually caring often produce gender inequality –
the creativity and intimacy of couples is not yet typically harnessed to gender
transformation’ (Jamieson 2002: 263).



Large-scale surveys of sexual relations in Britain (Wellings et al. 1994) and
the US (Lauman et al. 1994) show there is evidence of more varied sexual
activity implied by ‘plastic sexuality’. However as Jamieson (2002: 262) points
out: ‘there is no clear evidence of gender convergence in sexual behaviour but
rather a rediscovery of patterns of gender difference. … ’ In the US survey it
was shown that on all measures of sexual activity, men are more sexually
active than women. However there is some evidence of gender convergence in
expectations and ideas about sex. In the British survey, most men and women
think that ‘companionship and affection are more important than sex in a
Giddens does recognise that high rates of divorce reflect the fragility of the
‘pure relationship’. However he does not link the fragility of heterosexual
relationships with the tension caused between strengthening intimacy and
equality in relationships, and the continued structural emphasis on gender
inequality which works against the achievement of those qualities. Jamieson
(2002: 265) points out that ‘inequalities and asymmetries in parenting,
domestic divisions of labour and “emotion work” sometimes breed simmering
discontent which defies the desire to feel equal and intimate.’ Hochschild
(1997, 2003, 2005) has documented the intensity of responses and extent of
the problem:
… three years after divorce, half of American divorced fathers had not
visited their children during the previous year and thus did not perform
the basic form of care. After one year, half of the divorced fathers were
providing no child support at all, and most of the other half paid irregularly or less than court designated payments
(Hochschild 2003: 216).
Giddens sees same-sex couples particularly lesbians as in the vanguard of the
‘pure relationship’ and thus likely to experience a high incidence of relationship breakdown. Same sex couples tend to see themselves as having more
equal relationships than heterosexual relationships (Weeks et al. 1998; Dunne
1997). However there is nothing in the literature to confirm this and in fact
there are parallels between heterosexual and same-sex relationships.
In addition not all heterosexual relationships follow patterns of intimacy
and equality described by Giddens. While in the West, marriage is usually
thought of as a relationship based on love, this is not a universal view. In
many cultures both within and outside Western society, marriage is part of a
relationship in which wider kin are involved, for example in Indian, Pakistani
and other Muslim communities in Britain, marriage is based on a relationship
between two parties and part of an arrangement made by the wider kin
group. In these relationships, love and intimacy develop after marriage.
Similarly in gay relationships, Jackson and Scott (2002: 204) note that ‘in the
light of ever more sophisticated options for assisted conception and reproduction’ these provide a different context for intimacy.


Social Theory in Contemporary Asia

Giddens maintains that ‘the pure relationship’ is not necessarily a lifelong
commitment and is more likely to be characterized by ‘serial pure relationships’ based on choice and having a limited term. However Jamieson (1998)
takes issue with Giddens and shows that most people have too many institutional constraints and are too personally constrained to risk indulging in
‘serial pure relationships’.

Understanding intimacy and reflexivity in contemporary Asia
The emergence of debates around intimacy and reflexivity in contemporary
Asia are inextricably bound up with modernity and affluence. These developments have occurred later than in the West. However, whereas Giddens
understands these processes to be synonymous with individualism, equality
and democratization, the situation in Asia is more complex when assessed on
each of the criteria. Cultural and political factors clearly influence both intimacy and reflexivity in contemporary Asia. Asian communities have traditionally emphasized the extended family and the ‘filial’ obligations of children
to their parents. So despite the fact that patriarchal Confucianism has been
replaced by ‘postmodern’ Confucianism (see Chapter 2 and Brooks 2003) in
Chinese diasporic communities in cosmopolitan Asia, family obligations
remain a powerful dimension of Asian societies. However there are changes to
traditional patterns of marriage and a greater emphasis on the emergence
of romance and intimacy, if not equality, in heterosexual relationships. As
PuruShotam (1998:159) observes of Singapore ‘[m]onogamy and romantic
marriage have replaced polygamy. Schools, colleges and the university opened
their doors to females. Homes in which husbands rather than mothers in law
presided can be jointly owned.’ The impact of ethnicity and religion are also
significant in Asia, particularly in Islamic states and the impact of Islamic
revivalism and the ‘New Islam’ present additional challenges to the democratization of relationships and to intimacy and sexuality (see Chapters 2, 4, and 6).
The essence of the ‘pure relationship’ as described by Giddens requires a
high level of equality between individuals and a much greater equality around
sexuality. Equality as a fundamental feature of relationships, needs to be
continually reinforced by social and cultural policies which reinforce this set
of relations.While there has been a move in the West towards recognizing
equality in relationships, there has been little or no commitment to gender
equality in Asia in any formal sense.
The World Economic Forum’s The Global Gender Gap Report (2006)
investigated 115 countries across the criteria of gender equality, educational
attainment and economic participation and opportunities. Two of the countries investigated were the UK and Singapore, their ratings are as follows: on
the issue of gender equality, the UK was rated 9 and Singapore 65 for overall
gender equality; while in terms of educational attainment and being on a par
with men, the UK was ranked 1 and Singapore was ranked 86 (behind
Latvia). On the issue of economic participation and opportunities, the UK

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