Khin Mar Mar Kyi reviews Ward Keeler’s book on gender and Burmese Buddhist practices in Myanmar.
In The Traffic in Hierarchy, Ward Keeler, a long-time specialist in the studies of Southeast Asian societies in general and Java in Indonesia in particular, as well as a prominent researcher on masculinities in Burma/Myanmar, explores masculinities and hierarchy in everyday social interactions in Myanmar. Following Louis Dumont’s Homo Hierarchicus concept, Keeler explains the reason why the military regime successfully ruled the country for decades, demonstrating that this was because of the nature of Burmese society’s general acceptance of hierarchy as an essential value. Ward Keeler, an American anthropologist and an influential scholar, has worked on gender, particularly on masculinity in Myanmar since 1987. In this book, he carries out much needed research on power and gender (masculine) studies in Myanmar. Importantly, he did so with the blessing of a highly respected monk, Ashin Nyanissaram, the famous ‘Sitagu Sayadaw’, who is revered by the other paragon of Burmese masculinity, the military. Keeler was provided with privileged access by the Shwegyin Sayadaw who allowed him to use his ‘monastery-village’ for his field work, with himself as an ‘insider’. He is after all, the best scholar to discuss this issue as he has been working on it for many years.
Keeler explores Burmese everyday life practices including spiritual practice and meditation and gender ideologies but excludes the influence of politics or the construction of both military and monastic masculinities. He further explains how Burmese society is not only bound by certain rules and traditions, but accepts and encourages people to engage with those in power ‘above one’s head’ so that they too can enjoy privilege and prestige, by associating with those that are in power rather than challenging them. Surprisingly, he ignores how the Burmese protested for two decades against military rule in Myanmar and also excludes the major issue of the construction of military and monastic masculinities. Unfortunately, without these major ingredients, the book fails to be a ground-breaking study on this important issue. The two dominant masculinities in Myanmar are monastic and military institutions. These institutions interact with existing gender power relations, particularly of femininity under the discourse of Buddhist culture and the corresponding distribution of labour. Gender is a configuration of practice, institutionalized as a social structure and constantly constructing the roles of men and women in social, political, cultural, economic, religious and legal spheres. Burmese masculinity is de facto part of Buddhist religious culture and of the institutionalised patriarchal propaganda of today’s extreme gender regime.
Keeler could have made an exceptional contribution if he had explored a fundamental concept of masculinity in Buddhism as the institutionalised nature of gender in Myanmar. Keeler rightly argues that in the Burmese world-view, men and women are born different and thus concepts of equal opportunity or equal rights mean imposing western values. First, amongst these differences is hpoun (or hpon, pon, bun), which is the fundamental Burmese concept of innate masculine privilege, the fundamental difference between men and women, and the birth-right and spiritual superiority of men over women (p 153). Ideas such as equality could be interpreted as negative, dangerous and a potential threat to social order and social harmony (p. 147). Second, Keeler precisely avoids exploring and examining Myanmar’s two masculine domains which could otherwise add to our understanding of Buddhist masculinities, sexualities and hierarchies of hegemonies. One could understand the need to avoid research on monastic masculinities, for many reasons.
Keeler notes that among Buddhist monks, particularly Theravada Buddhists, sex ‘matters so much’ (p.220), and he witnessed a senior Buddhist monk tease another monk about ‘the forbidden’ issue. Because after all desire is suffering or dukkha, and one of the four ennobling truths – tanha or ‘craving’ such as sexuality causes suffering and attachment. Theravada monks are strictly prohibited, and can be expelled if found guilty (Powers 2009) of any violation or any implication of violating the Pātimokkha, (binding in Pāli – the basic code of monastic discipline of 227 rules for fully ordained monks bhikkhus/311 rules for Thilashin bhikkhunis) or Pārājika offence (rules entailing expulsion from the Sangha) in Theravada Buddhism.
Much has been written about contradictory and ambivalent views on sexuality, monkhood, and masculinities in Buddhist texts and Vinaya. Keeler’s analysis of discourse about masculinity and sexuality as an insider will greatly contribute to our understanding of Buddhism, body and gender identities. Comprehensive examination of this is found in the work of John Powers, who successfully draws on the performance theory of Pierre Bourdieu and Judith Butler to show how sexuality, masculinities and extreme virility relate to an ancient Indian Buddhist literature. Monks are expected to exhibit an ‘exemplary masculinity’. Powers (2009) examined Buddhist ultra-masculine virility and sexual activity among monks, and their struggle between ‘sexual deviancy’ and monastic regulations prohibiting sexual activity (pp. 82-84).
Melford E. Spiro’s Gender Ideology and Psychological Reality: An Essay on Cultural Reproduction (1997), a comprehensive study of gender and sexuality in Myanmar could make Keeler’s argument even stronger. And the inclusion of feminist theory explaining why sex, sexuality and masculinity are so closely tied to male privilege and entitlement over women’s inferiority and negative existence.
Further, masculinity cannot be complete without femininity as they construct each other and themselves—a woman is ‘not born, but rather becomes one’ as de Beauvoir wrote in The Second Sex (1949). Femininity ‘is holding away death but also refusing life’, and women desperately desire to escape domestic labour, as Virginia Woolf famously lamented in A Room of One’s Own. Feminist scholars would argue that going to Dhamma talks or meditation retreat centres are reflections of Burmese women’s agency with a conscious choice to be ‘peaceful’ or ‘quiet’ or ‘cool’ (p. 208) or even to take ‘time off’. It is not necessarily women’s lack of agency that makes ‘subordinating themselves to monks much more attractive because less equivocal and so less fraught’ (p. 19) as Keeler argues.
One wonders, had he included scholarship on Buddhism and Feminism, and the Buddhist discourse of femininity and distribution of labour, if his book would have taken a very different direction. Because women do not simply take as he notes, the ‘opportunity given them to enact subordinate roles [and], in doing so, to reap the benefits that subordinating yourself should – but can in only certain cases, like this one, be counted on to – assure someone’ (p 16). The Burmese, also do not passively subordinate themselves. Instead, they interact, negotiate, even resist and compete for power as indicated by Burma’s prolonged rejection and resistance to the military regime.
Raewyn Connell an Australian sociologist Keeler mentions writes on conceptualising hegemonic cum sub-ordination masculinity and toxic masculinities. For Connell, men benefit from rewards in male gender hierarchical power, which, in her words, is ‘hard to imagine without violence’ to themselves or others. Men’s power over women is maintained through acts like rape (rape is the second largest crime in Myanmar) and in setting patterns of binge-drinking or violent behaviour to perform and protect the patriarchal dividend – male privilege and power (Khin Mar Mar Kyi, 2018).
Keeler is critical of Connell and yet does not explore or refute the concept of ‘toxic masculinity’ in the Burmese setting. Masculinities in hierarchies need to explore the majority of Burmese men in the lower ranks of the hierarchical order, particularly as Myanmar men have one of the shortest life expectancies in the world, with premature death and communicable diseases (Khin Mar Mar Kyi, 2013). It could be helpful, if Keeler engaged with Connell’s concept of the patriarchal dividend in the Burmese local setting and theorised his own. Burmese men may not necessarily follow ‘Burman notions of an idealised masculinity’ (p 228).
However, Keeler makes many important points such as the structural nature of gender inequality in Burmese cosmology. He offers a brilliant insight into how the issue of ‘human rights’ is misunderstood between Burmese and Westerners, because lu ahkwin ayei, or ‘human rights’ can also be translated as ‘people’s opportunities’. He rightly argues that for the Burmese, ‘[h]ierarchical arrangements are based on the idea that people are different and relate to each other on the basis of those differences, which grant them diverse opportunities. Rights pertain to egalitarian understandings wherein differences are irrelevant’ (p11).
Keeler’s contribution, in this work among others, to the study of gender relations and masculinities will provide fundamental ideas for many researchers and students. My criticisms of his book are not intended to diminish its value, rather, they are intended to help shape the research, more precisely on the important concept of Buddhist Burmese masculinity, and discourses in political hierarchical order. As someone who is working on masculinities, I was eager to read his book. I sympathise with his ar-na-teh attitude towards his benefactors. All criticisms aside, Keeler’s book is a must-read for those who are working on Burmese Buddhist masculinities and future research will benefit from a more substantive engagement with concerns of contemporary masculinity studies, to illuminate hegemonic masculinity discourses, including agencies, sexuality and distribution of labour. As Foucault suggests, the point of such scholarship is ‘to learn to what extent the effort to think one’s own history can free thought from what it silently thinks, and so enable it to think differently’ (1985). I am feeling like the mother of a monk towards Keeler – I would not be contented if he had not written on monastic masculinities in Myanmar, yet I am still not contented that someone, a specialist on masculine research in Myanmar, wrote in such a way on masculinities, which matter so much in Myanmar gender studies.
Dr. Khin Mar Mar Kyi is Convener and Interim Director of the International Gender Studies Program at the University of Oxford. She is the winner of the ‘Excellent in Gender Research’ award for her doctorate, by the Australia Gender Institute and is the first senior Burmese female research fellow at the University of Oxford.