Editor’s note: Originally posted in August 2016, Htet Moe Nwe Win’s reflection on growing up in Myanmar’s gendered society remains one of our most popular posts, and still very relevant today.
Since I was a little kid, I have been known for asking too many questions that usually start with ‘why’ – the trademark of an inquisitive kid that often annoys people.
In my household, we would always separate our laundry into two bins — everything my dad and my brothers wore into one bin and me and my mom’s clothes into the other. Then, the two bins would be washed separately – a task that my mom managed with undisrupted regularity. Ever since I was old enough to put in my clothes into the laundry bin, I would question why my clothes had to go into the bin on the floor and my brothers got to use the bin on the chair.
When I crawled up to my parents’ bed and raised that question with burning curiosity, they would smile and say ‘it is because you are a girl and they are boys.’ The six-year old me simply did not understand how a girl’s clothes were so different from boys’ clothes that they had to be washed separately, especially when a lot of my clothes used to belong to my brothers.
When I played with my brothers and I accidentally stepped over them during the games, my mom, my dad, or whoever was there to witness it, would tell me not to do it, sometimes in a nice way and sometimes in the form of a scolding. When my brothers stepped over me, nobody noticed. When I asked why, the answer was again ‘because you are a girl and they are boys.’
Even though both my mom and dad had full-time jobs, my dad never had to do any household chores while my mom would rush back home to manage everything. For all the extra efforts she put in everyday, she never got a ‘thank you’ from anyone. I would sometimes be asked to make coffee for my brothers but they were never asked to do the same for me. And they did not even have to say ‘thank you.’
Because we are women and they are men.
After too many similar incidents and too many questions that got the same answer, I, even as a little kid, began to internalize the message implied in this answer. I am a girl. I am different from boys. There are things that boys are allowed to do that I cannot. Boys can step over me but I cannot do the same to them. My clothes somehow have invisible, intangible ‘dirt’ or ‘filth’ so they cannot be washed with my brothers’ clothes even though we are family. There are many things that women are expected to do for men, without receiving any form of reciprocation or even any acknowledgement.
Then, as I grew into a teenager, I was introduced to the concepts of ’shame’ and ‘fear.’ I had been told not to go out by myself because a girl should be fearful. As a girl, I am vulnerable. I am fragile. My dignity, my ‘purity’, and even my whole life could be easily destroyed by a man. If my family is not around to protect me, fear is the only thing that could.
If boys make catcalls at me on the streets, I should be ashamed of it. If a boy chose to follow me around or get too close to me physically, even though it was his action, I should be ashamed of it. Shame and fear are integral to being ‘a good Myanmar woman’ – a woman that society values and a woman ‘worthy’ of men’s protection. Growing into adulthood, I learnt that there is a rigid social mould for a good Myanmar woman that I was expected to fit within.
At school, I was sometimes criticized for being too argumentative, too goofy, too stubborn, too spontaneous for a woman. When I started to think about what I’d like to do in life, I learnt that I was expected to want to become a doctor – a socially acceptable path to being a good and accomplished Myanmar woman. When I decided that this path was not for me, I disappointed many people.
When I talked about my interests in politics and public policy instead, I was “too ambitious for a woman.” When I decided to leave home and study abroad in the US, I was “too brave for a woman.” When I raised my voice and articulated my opinions at work or in conferences, I was “speaking too much and too boldly for a woman.”
All these criticisms and judgements (which often came in the form of unsolicited, patronizing advice) taught me one thing — no matter what I do, my society, my culture, my religion, and my community will judge me first and foremost as a woman, not as a person. And the social rules and the cultural criteria of judgement are way too different for a Myanmar man and a Myanmar woman.
Being a Myanmar woman is a strong component of my identity. I have great pride in and strong attachment to where I come from — my country, my culture, and my community. I also fully embrace my womanhood. My personal experience being a woman in Myanmar, however, tells me that there is a lot of work to be done for gender equality in our country.
“No women” signs on pagodas, ubiquitous and unchallenged practices of men making catcalls at women on the streets and harassing them on social media, domestic violence, human trafficking, sexual assault and rape, the social norms that dictate that a woman’s place is at home and in the kitchen, the fact that there are so few women in leadership positions in all sectors and industries — these are just some of the problems with gender dynamics in our society that need to be fixed.
Sadly, this list could go on and on. And these problems are critical because of the toxic gender norms and expectations that they perpetuate. I feel a personal responsibility to advocate against these problems because it is very exhausting and infuriating to live with them every single day. More importantly, I believe that we were all born with the duty to leave our country better than we found it. All of us, both men and women, have a responsibility to make our country, our culture, and our society better and fairer for our daughters and sons.
My heart would sink if in the future, my daughter had to live through the exact same experiences of deep-rooted sexism. I would be heart-broken if my daughter was not treated with the same level of respect as others’ sons. I would be devastated if my daughter was expected to just be a housewife and live her life doing chores for someone’s son. I would be anguished if my daughter thought she could not be a leader because she is a woman. I would be disappointed if my daughter had to dumb herself down to get men’s attention. I would be angry if my daughter is slut-shamed for having a boyfriend while others’ sons are heroized for having many girlfriends.
I would teach my daughter to always question and push back against gender expectations. I would tell her not to internalize the double standards that her society has in judging men and women. I would tell my daughter that she is an equally worthy person as her brothers. I would want her to believe that she can achieve anything she wants to because there is no such thing as being too ambitious for a woman. I would let her know that she is strong, not fragile. No one and nothing can take away her dignity. I want her to believe that her life is hers to build and that she does not need to defer to anyone in making her life decisions.
Likewise, I would be very ashamed if my son thought it is okay not to respect a woman as his equal. I would be sad if my son defined his masculinity as the ability to dominate and subordinate a woman. I would tell my son not to feel threatened or emasculated by the strength, independence, and success of women around him. I would teach my son not to judge a woman’s worth solely based on her appearance. I would let my son know that it is okay for him to have and show his emotions. I would teach my son to cook and clean up after himself so that he does not expect a woman to do it for him.
I would tell my son that he should be ashamed and regretful, not proud or nonchalant, if he ever played around with a woman’s trust and feelings. I would teach my son to be grateful and say ‘thank you’ when someone, a man or a woman, does him a favor, whether it is a cup of coffee or a lifetime of support and companionship. I want my son to see that building a family is a duty shared by him and his wife and that his responsibilities are not limited to just earning money.
I want my son to see all the unearned privileges he has simply because he is a man. And I want him to be brave enough to fight against the system and the norms that give him such privileges. I want him to also want a better and more equal society for his daughters and sons.
It is on us, all of us, to strive for gender equality and unlearn toxic norms and expectations that permeate our society. And this is not something that is salient only once a year on Myanmar Women’s Day. Women’s rights are not a mere political punchline or a feel-good slogan. The fight for gender equality is a duty that every generation of men and women has. And I am very encouraged and hopeful to know that many of my peers, both male and female, take this duty very seriously. We all need to be raising our voices louder and engaging more every day in order to make more progress. We are all responsible for leaving our country, our culture, and our society better and fairer for our daughters and sons.
Htet Moe Nwe Win, is from Yangon, Myanmar. She has studied in the USA and the UK and holds a degree in Economics and Political Science from Swarthmore College.