Reshmi Banerjee reviews Jennifer Rigby’s telling of twelve remarkable Myanmar women and their life histories.
The presence of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the iconic female leader of Myanmar, has long overshadowed the relevance of other inspirational women in the country and their meaningful contributions to Myanmar’s path to democracy. Although these women have come from various social strata with diverse levels of economic prowess and political reach, their individual stories are integrated insofar as they share narratives that feature overcoming powerlessness, cultivating courage and displaying resilience in the face of hardships; they also share a determined commitment to express themselves and act without fear by remaining rooted in their firm convictions. The journey of these women is a journey of space-creation for alternative dialogue and inclusion in a terrain which has witnessed military rule, patriarchal rigidity and inter-communal violence. In her book, The Other Ladies of Myanmar, Jennifer Rigby brings forth the lives of twelve such women – women who have traveled on an unconventional road with an infectious zeal to bring change, to shake up outdated mindsets with defiance from the ground up. The book tries to capture not only their dreams and the challenges they have faced, but also attempts to understand the minds and hearts of these formidable women drivers of change in Myanmar – the often understated yet impressive torchbearers of hope.
The book’s first chapter begins with the Chin activist Cheery Zahau. Her family escaped to the state of Mizoram in North East India after the 1988 democratic uprising was crushed by the military. Her experiences there living with the fear of deportation she describes in the chapter give a glimpse into the everyday uncertainty which communities face when they cross frontiers. She and her team, the Women’s League of Chinland have documented the crimes committed by the military, which used rape and sexual violence as a weapon of war. She continues her fight for human rights, for women and for her ethnic community.
The gender inequality that exists within the religious sphere is something which Daw Ketu Mala is engaging as a feminist Buddhist nun and founder of the Dhamma School Foundation. The next chapter showcases her efforts to rehabilitate the image of nuns in the country. From her family rejecting her decision to become a nun, to facing hate speech on Facebook, she has used her struggles to expand the concept of metta (kindness based on knowledge and wisdom), a useful and perhaps imperative tool to bring people together in Myanmar today.
Mi Mi, activist and survivor of an acid attack, is a true champion, as she is the first woman in the country to protest against such heinous crimes against women and fight for justice. Her story highlights the need to address issues of domestic violence, corruption in the judiciary, an inhospitable environment for victims and an overall culture of impunity. Her acts of bravery will hopefully break the veil of silence and open up doors for many such victims to speak up. Rather than the victim being shamed, the perpetrator needs to be held accountable, particularly in a society which needs to be far more demonstrative in its support towards women, not just by creating more stringent laws but by showing empathy towards women’s issues.
The life-histories of women covered in the book are varied, ranging from Yin Myo Su, a Shan businesswoman (who initiated hotels in the Inle Lake area and in Mrauk-U, along with a vocational training school project) to Myanmar’s green princess and environmental campaigner Devi Thant Cin (the initiator of Global Green Group, Myanmar Green Network and Bamboo Lovers Network). However, the omnipresence and sheer might of the military was evident in their lives with the former’s father being arrested after the 1990 elections (he had stood as a candidate) and the latter losing her job in 1988 on account of her participation in the anti-junta protests. Devi Thant Cin also witnessed her father being jailed for his activism.
The world of creative art has not been left untouched in Myanmar, as it has always been a very powerful arena of expression and revolt. Jennifer Rigby does full justice to this by introducing us to Ma Ei, the bold performance artist who stunned everyone in her exhibition by handing out sanitary towels. Her work has not merely questioned and confronted society’s set values as well as the censorship board but she has worked to make people think. The chapter on her mentions her cooking noodles in front of a crowd in a male longyi and painting the nails of a male audience member, thus constantly raising queries about gender stereotypes.
Topics which are considered taboo for discussion in Myanmar have been taken up by women, with the book delving into the life of the Karen refugee sexual health nurse, Mu Tha Paw, who works in camps along the Myanmar-Thai border including in Mae La camp. Also highlighted are the efforts of human rights champion Wai Wai Nu, a Rohingya Muslim and a post graduate law student at Berkeley. The latter’s contribution in forming civil society organizations (Women for Justice and Women Peace Network Arakan) along with promoting friendship and tolerance through the “My Friend” campaign – which encourages young people to take selfies together irrespective of their different backgrounds – has been commendable.
Diverse roles played by the women of Myanmar show their amazing ability to adapt to changing circumstances. The book efficiently captures the enterprising spirit of farmer Mar Mar Swe who juggles her busy life running between her farms (fish, paddy and duck) and a betel plantation. It also gives the readers a look into the interesting inner lives of pop star Ah Moon, politician Htin Htin Htay (a village tract administrator) and archery trainer Aung Ngeain; art, politics and sports all being male bastions in Myanmar where these women are trying hard to leave a mark.
The book raises certain pertinent questions which Myanmar needs to address if it wants to bring the marginalized category of women into the mainstream. The heavy dual burden which women are supposed to take – in terms of looking after their home and work constantly puts pressure on them. Moreover the daily discriminatory treatment and violence that they endure in every sphere of life, including dated cultural norms, is challenging. The insufficient support and prevailing anti-women attitudes that they experience, the culture of ‘stigmatization of the victim’, lack of inheritance rights (including land rights), the habit of shaming fearless women who fight back and push boundaries are some of the obstacles facing women in Myanmar which the book covers well.
To end with activist Cheery Zahau’s words, “…We need to have lots of stars”. Myanmar needs its women stars, and not just a single star, to create an equal, diverse and colourful sky – an environment which respects and cherishes its women by recognizing their enormous strength and significant role in society. The inspirational stories covered in this book will hopefully provide an impetus for many women in Myanmar to not only dream big, but vociferously act on their dreams.
(Image courtesy of ISEAS)