Myanmar Women’s Rights: Breaking the Silence

Ever since I was able to speak and became conscious of my own actions, I remember telling my mom that I wished I were a boy. This wasn’t astonishing because you would always find me as the only girl among the boys, playing games only boys would play. Besides, most of my close friends and playmates were boys. My parents happily allowed this until I started middle school. Then, my mom began teaching me certain behaviors a girl must follow, telling me that I couldn’t just act like a boy anymore, and then the nightmare began. I was restrained from playing with my close male friends unless there were some girls in the group. When I asked why, I was lectured on how girls were different from boys, how “good girls” must not mingle with boys, and how girls must always conform to feminine customs. I habituated myself to most of these traditions, as I did not want to become an outsider.

I was raised in many conservative ways as any other girl in Myanmar. There were many unanswered questions inside my head as I grew up, but I always stopped myself from asking them because I knew I was going to get the same old answers. Then, I went to study abroad in the United States, just before I turned 18, although it was the last thing expected of a teenage Myanmar girl to travel 8,000 miles alone. A couple years ago, when I was 19, I remember arguing with a friend of mine during a walk to the library. I couldn’t recall how we got on the topic, but he was telling me that men were smarter and more successful than women. I disputed that it was just a stereotype – one that could affect the images of many accomplished women out there. The debate went on for a while and he finally argued, “Listen, most leadership and top positions are in the hands of men, and out of everyone, even the world’s most famous chefs are men although cooking is a woman’s task.” I could not deny it. I wanted to disagree, but I did not know how. At that point, I did not have any consistent facts or data to support my points that females were as brilliant and capable as men. But, I was provoked.

Last year, I realized for the first time that I was a feminist after reading Sheryl Sandberg’s book, “Lean In.” The more I explored the subject, the more I became aware of how much our culture privileged men. Scrutinizing the ways I, my siblings, friends and neighbors were brought up, I observed how deeply misogyny was embedded in our culture. Recently, however, seeing a lot of people in my social attend to the problem of gender inequality makes me a lot more hopeful and encourages my desire to share my knowledge. We are on our very first steps towards a feminist revolution, yet we can’t refute that many men and a few women are unhappy with the change. It is understandable that some men are unsupportive of the movement towards equality as they do not want to relinquish their privileges yet. On the contrary, it always surprises me when some women declare that they are not supporters of feminism as they think men and women are already equal. This is how invisible male-privilege is, and, I believe we all bear a responsibility to these women, as well as men, to help them understand what the feminist movement is really about. They need to be enlightened about how unjust these gender-biases are in our community.

Marriage and Relationships

As I grow up, I have learned the most daunting concept of all, which is the requirement to fit the expectations of society. In my country, Myanmar, the expectations for a girl or a woman are pretty high – higher than anything we can imagine. Starting with marriage, in most households, raising a girl is about finding her a good husband, not about raising her to be independent. From a very young age, girls are taught to invest so much in being “liked,” and in acting and becoming a “good girl,” so that boys will marry them. For girls, virginity is expected before marriage, yet the same does not apply to boys. Having a boyfriend before marriage violates the good girl image and in the case that girls do, they’re expected to marry him. If a girl has had more than one boyfriend in her life, she’s considered a slut, and the society will see her as a disgrace despite the fact that boys are applauded for doing the same, just because they’re boys. Worse than all, arranged marriage is still taking place countrywide, – even in the cities because it is seen as a deep personal failure if a girl is unmarried at a certain age.

School and Education

Apart from these biased marriage and relationship norms, girls’ dreams are destroyed from the first day they go to school. The automatic understanding that a class monitor or team leader should be a boy in any coed school has led us to think that it is “natural” for boys to be leaders. The fact that little girls are called bossy when they take the leadership positions in the same ways boys would is still permeating our society, which means that no one will speak up about it because it looks normal. Along with all kinds of unfair treatment towards girls in schools, there is one issue that I find genuinely unjust, the establishing of two different scoring systems for different sexes to enter a specific college/university. For example, to get into medical school in Myanmar, boys only need to obtain a score of 460 whilst girls need a score of 500. The same policy is administered in the entrance of any institution of higher education. I presume the idea implies that things are easily achievable for boys, but girls have to try much harder to accomplish the same goals. There is no excuse such “boys are born lazier than girls.”

Despite the fact that education is playing an important part of everyone’s lives in the cities as of today, it is a totally different situation in the villages or remote areas. The literacy rate in Myanmar is much lower for girls than for boys. There are countless stories of young girls having to give up their education for their brothers because the tradition suggests that it is ok for girls to be illiterate or uneducated as they’re going to get married (i.e. be dependent on males) when they grow up. We also hear this very often: “As a girl, you don’t have to be that educated.” Many girls stop pursuing higher education because colleges or universities are located far from their birthplaces and it is, again, not proper for a girl to leave her hometown “just” to continue her education.

Daily Life

Unsurprisingly, the primitive notions connected to deep-rooted sexism perpetuate in everyday life. For example, ideas about women belonging only in the kitchen or about women being expected to know how to cook, are utterly pervasive. As a person whose hobbies do not include cooking, it is really disturbing when I get comments like, “You should learn to cook because you’re a girl.” Meanwhile, my brother gets scolded for going into the kitchen often because there is this idea that cooking is not a manly task. I am not implying here that women should not learn how to cook; I just do not believe in a doctrine that demands everyone perform distinct roles according to their gender.

What is more, it is truly sad to see women dumping their careers once they get married. There is a dreadful consequence to this in that it further promotes male power – when men are the only ones with the financial authority in the household, they become dominant as in nature. As a result, almost no women report problems in their marriages or get divorces because they have no idea where to go or what to do when they lack financial resources. Besides, divorce is still seen as a “shame” nationwide. Accordingly, most women end up getting stuck in unhappy marriages for a life-time.

There are a few exasperating superstitions regarding clothes as well. In Myanmar, we hang clean clothes in the sun to dry them. False beliefs, such as women’s clothes must always stay hung below men’s because ‘men are noble,’ are entrenched in the society. Insults such as “You should go wear a hta-mein (a traditional woman’s clothing worn around the waist and running to the feet)” are widely used when there is a clash between men during their conversations, – connoting that women’s clothes are icky and wearing them earns them a lower status as well.

Religion or Culture?

When we talk about our culture and its norms, we must not exclude religion, because these two are somehow always interconnected with one another. A country’s religion is linked to its culture, and Myanmar is a country with a population that is 89% Buddhist. But being a female in this country is never easy as long as male chauvinism is omnipresent. Religion is extensively used as a weapon to construct an ideology of discrimination against women. Girls and women are often told to wish to be a male in the next life because being born as a female is a result of wrongdoing in the preceding life. On every pagoda, there are signs of “No Women,” as women are restricted from entering certain areas inside. Likewise, women are not allowed to wear pants and are forced to wear traditional clothes on pagodas, whereas there is no constraint on men’s clothing. Last of all, men (and even women) hold the idea of the invisible power of men: that men have higher status than women. When I asked why, I was told about fairytales in which women went to hell for disobeying these beliefs, and when I disagreed, many people panicked and said that disagreeing was not an option.

I lived with these pseudo-religious cults for 18 years. Sometimes, they were quite irritating but, I admit that I did not think they were wrong. They were just normal parts of my daily life that had become invisible – yet, this invisibility disables us from making essential changes. Schools just taught us facts, but never taught about rational or skeptical thinking. And, I am convinced that most of us never really take time to reflect on the religion we practice. Do we actually believe that the situation outlined above is in fact informed by Buddha? If so, Buddhism becomes a religion that endorses gender discrimination and inequality, but I refuse to believe that Buddha ever promoted this. Some men argued that Buddha did and the testimonies were in the books. The thing is, no one really knows. Buddhism started in 5th century B.C.E. and isn’t there a possibility that men misinterpreted the terms and their significance along the continuum because that seems like a long way back in time? Sexism has existed ever since men were around, which was at least millions of years ago. Religions are created by men, therefore sexism has been playing a role since at least the time of Buddha.

Rape and Harassment

Myanmar is ranked #49 in a list of the most dangerous countries in the world, according to the 2016 GPI. This is not a surprise. Our country is known, among tourists, for only two things: first, for its beauty and pagodas; and second, for the lack of basic human rights. Growing into adolescence, one of the things I hated the most was to walk down the streets alone because boys would hiss or make catcalls at me every time I passed. Aside from that, these boys would stare at me from head to toes and start singing random song lyrics at me. It is a really embarrassing and aggravating thing that I – along with any other female teenager or adult – have to bear every day, but there is little we can do about this but to live with it. Parents ban girls from going out alone at nights because the outside world is too dangerous for a girl alone. Freedom is an unthinkable sentiment for girls and women. Rape is still common although it does not happen as often in the cities as it does in rural areas. Victims of rape are often ethnic minorities, and most of the rape crimes are committed by military troops with the intention of dividing the country. Rape is used as a weapon of war against minorities in Myanmar. When the crime is reported, the fact that government ignores it only ignites the conflict between the government and minorities. What is more sorrowful is that the majority of rapes are never reported because of the country’s intense honor-shame culture. Being raped is still considered a very humiliating tragedy among the majority of people. Not to mention, victim-blaming is ubiquitous. Instead of blaming the perpetrator, the public does not hesitate to criticize the victim for her not-fully-covered-body, for mingling too much with the boys, for her flirty personality, or other ridiculous aspects of the person.

Rejecting Patriarchal Culture is a MUST!

As many know, Myanmar had endured under military dictatorship for more than 50 years, and just recently transitioned to a democratic nation. Although the country has shifted its political stance towards a democratic path, we can’t deny that the exploitation of the dictatorship is still in the core of our people. Yet, it is not just the government’s responsibility but also the citizens’ to gain the true democracy we demand. The significant point is that we are far from democracy unless we eliminate the male-dominant system in households and workplaces, which should be the very first and foremost thing to be implemented. The author of Persepolis, Ms. Marjane Satrapi, mentioned in an interview: “The enemy of democracy is patriarchal culture. As with the family, where father of the family decides and has the last word, so a dictator is the father of the nation.” We know that we do not just want the veil of democracy but a truthful one where everybody has equal rights and freedom, and where those who are weak do not have to fear the strong. We have a long way to go if we are to fight for this. It is going to take generations to completely abolish the patriarchal system, but there is nothing in this world that is unachievable when there is human determination and persistence.

Movement towards Gender Equality Should Be Everybody’s Responsibility – Not Just Women’s

As I have been learning more on this topic, I often see people criticizing feminism asserting that there are far more important concerns in the world. However, if we look deeper into the issue, we will see that gender violence is very significant amongst all these critical problems, and is rising at a pandemic rate. Poverty is a gender issue, as poverty rates are higher for women than men in all racial and ethnic groups. There is yet no country in the world where women are paid the same as men in their workplaces. Gender violence is what normalizes domination. It is what supports dictatorship. It is what creates wars. According to Gloria Steinem, one of the cofounders of Ms. Magazine, gender violence is where the concept of any violence is initiated because violence against females is what we see first within families. So, the whole idea that it is ok for one group to dominate another becomes normalized. Hence, I don’t believe we should think of the problem as ‘less crucial’ than other issues because doing so is just going to keep us far from the society we hope to secure.

Concurrently, some men and women state that feminism is anti-men. Feminists do not hate men. The very definition of feminism – the belief that men and women should have equal rights on the grounds of political, social and economic fields – does not include a word about the hatred of men. Certainly, there are always people who want to kill the messenger along the way, and they come up with these harsh words such as “man-hater” or “feminazi” towards those who support gender equality, but this is simply because changing the status quo is never comfortable, and men do not like it when people challenge their power. One quote I read online and really liked goes: “when people comment against feminism, there is no doubt they are supporting sexism. There is no sitting on the fence. You are either a feminist or sexist.”

Gender issues are not just women’s issues. Fighting for equal gender rights is the same as fighting for human rights. In a recent TED talk I watched by Jackson Katz, he analyzed how the gender issue became synonymous with just women’s issues. He explains that we often think of multiple races such as Latino or Asian other than ‘white’ when someone mentions the word ‘race’; we think it means gay, lesbian or bisexual when the word ‘sexual orientation’ is described; and the same notion applies when we hear the word ‘gender.’ We think the word ‘gender’ means women. Katz further explains, “In each case, the dominant group doesn’t get paid attention to – as if white people don’t have some sort of racial identity or belong to some racial category or construct, as if heterosexual people don’t have a sexual orientation, as if men don’t have a gender.” This is one of the ways dominant systems maintain and reproduce themselves. It is how the characteristics of power and privilege develop the ability to go unexamined and unrecognized in discourses about issues that are primarily about men. In the case of gender violence, the issue becomes just a women’s issue when it should be primarily a men’s issue. And we know that we need to change the status quo.

The idea behind feminism is remarkably broad. We simply understand it as fighting for gender equality, but in a country like Myanmar where the patriarchal system is entrenched, I can relate much more with another definition which is, according to Amandla Stenberg, “liberating people from any type of discrimination caused by patriarchy.” We all suffer these discriminations every day and it is not just women. We tell little boys, from a young age, that men are not supposed to cry or show emotions. We tell men that they are failures if they can’t financially support their families. We see men as ‘weak’ if they are too kind. None of us had a choice of sex when we were born, and I don’t believe it is fair that society tells us manhood is a certain way.

Just imagine a world without all these gender stereotypes! How happy everyone would’ve been. We also know that it is not only imaginary, it is also real. If we can dream it, we can achieve it. We owe this duty to the society we were brought up in and the world we live in. We also owe it to our future generations so that they won’t have to live with the level of hardship we deal with on a daily basis. However, we are often silent about situations we could make better, if only we spoke up. Do we really want this sexist system to be perpetuated? Do we really want to experience the same old gender injustice every day? Last of all, do we really want our sons and daughters to live through the exact same experiences of gender-biased prejudices that we are facing now? Fighting for equality requires relentless vigilance and perseverance, but before all this, we must raise our voices for a better, fairer and an equal community.

 

I would like to end with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr.:

“In the end, what will hurt the most is not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.”

It is really time to stand up and act. Later will be too late.

 

Ei Thandar Myint was born and raised in Myanmar. She is currently studying Hospitality Management at University of Nevada, Las Vegas and gained Associate degrees in Business Administration and Psychology from Butte College in 2015. A version of this post originally appeared at her blog here.