ABSTRACT

If, as Thomas Huxley once wrote, “the mind is so constituted that it does not willingly rest in facts and immediate causes, but seeks always after a knowledge of the remoter links in the chain of causation” (1874: 155), every attempt at explanation will bring criticism at its boundaries. This chapter invites such criticism. In it I seek to align footbinding, a massive and costly cultural curiosity, with parallels in the two other major preindustrial agrarian regions of AfroEurAsia. By the time the goals of northwestern Europeans became factors in their internal arrangements, the Chinese, the continental Islamic peoples, and the peoples of India had developed extensive handcraft industries with flourishing commercial ties to each other and to most of the populations on their Central and Southeast Asian, sub-Saharan African, and European margins. Their statecraft, too, was complex, sufficient to unite empires for centuries at a time, giving their commoners time to adjust local behavior to the strictures of their rulers. And they had each evolved exceptional means for constricting the activities of girls and women to housekeeping, childrearing, and handcraft production. By well over a thousand years ago, from Morocco to Japan across the

AfroEurAsia continent, the ties among the temperate agrarian cores had brought the bureaucratic logic of androcentrism and the malleable logic of the market to bear on social structures. Agrarian empires traded among themselves, mostly in luxuries, but for essential goods as well. They passed on cosmological fashions (e.g. Abu-Lughod 1989; Liu Xinru 1998) that reinforced the inequalities of gender and class on which their guiding logics depended. Their trade was slow and relatively peaceful, but-combined with the ineluctable force of population growth-they made greater and greater demands on limited land and everburgeoning labor power. Those demands fell with particular weight on societies’ most vulnerable-unmarried women, from girlhood to their marital transfer. In this chapter, I argue for homology among three forms of harsh girlhood labor discipline in these societies: for “hypergendering.” Footbinding, claustration, and heavy veiling were the historical products of similar preindustrial agrarian empires on their long trajectories of production intensification. Such a perspective uses highly visible custom to focus on the gendered labor regimes that under-pinned the AfroEurAsian civilizations over which industrial capitalism has spread, so recently and so thinly, its veneer.