Myanmar: Women Breaking and Making the Rules
October 10, 2018
I was on the grounds of a textile factory an hour outside Mandalay, Myanmar. It was July 2017—peak monsoon season—and the combination of rain, heat, and an overnight bus ride from Yangon had left me soaked. I was sitting on a small rattan bench in the living room of Zarchi Win, surrounded by all the women in her family, who were all talking at once.
Zarchi, in her 40s, was wearing a hot-pink htamein top and skirt and traditional thanaka face paint on her cheeks. Through the window I spied her parked motorcycle, still an unusual possession for women in Myanmar.
There’s a popular idea, perpetuated by colonialists, Western travelers, and national historians, that women in Myanmar have long enjoyed status equal to men. I have heard this myself from Burma experts who didn’t understand why I, a gender policy specialist, wanted to go to Myanmar. But historian Tharaphi Than, author of Women in Modern Burma, has a different view. There have been a few powerful women in Myanmar, she argues, but their stories, told again and again, have crowded out the stories of the unequal majority.
Yet, as I was also beginning to learn, Myanmar has a rich history of women who refused to play by the rules—journalists who kept writing, artists who kept painting, and soldiers who kept serving their country even when they were attacked, dismissed, and demeaned. Which is why I was here in Mandalay, to gather those less-told stories of remarkable women, past and present, for a children’s book that would inspire a new generation of Myanmar girls to dream big.
Zarchi observed me looking around. “I grew up running around this factory,” she said. Her mother worked here for 40 years, and when she retired, Zarchi joined the factory, becoming, like many young women in Myanmar’s booming garment industry, her family’s principal earner, at age 18. “I liked being a factory worker,” she said.
But then the factory changed hands, and working conditions plummeted.
By 2016, Zarchi had had enough. With no political connections, no organizing experience, and everything to lose, she organized several hundred of her fellow workers to one of the longest-running industrial disputes in Myanmar’s garment and textiles sector. During the strike, she would take breaks between protests to breastfeed her six-month-old baby.
Eventually, she was fired—a common tactic of Myanmar employers—but Zarchi had become a union leader. She had used what she had—mostly her relentless drive—to challenge her situation and push for a fairer, brighter future.
Politics: Where are all the women?
The face of politics in Myanmar today is a woman—State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi—and the country has more women in elected positions of power than ever before. But those high-profile women can be misleading about the real statistics: just one-tenth of national MPs are women, the second fewest in ASEAN, and Suu Kyi herself is only the fourth woman with the rank of cabinet minister or above since 1920. Myanmar’s political parties are uniformly male dominated, women carry the extra burden of household duties, and society’s subtle message is everywhere that they’re not cut out for the job.
Local politics is even more male dominated. Of the nearly 17,000 ward and village-tract administrators in Myanmar, fewer than 100 are women. Incredibly, this represents about a 100 percent increase since the last election.
Than Kyi is one of those few female village leaders, and the only one in Kayah State, in eastern Myanmar.
Growing up in Kayah during years of armed conflict, she daydreamed about opening big grocery stores, with aisles and aisles of every food, drink, and sweet she had ever heard of.
She never opened her stores, but she did find other ways to support her village. She became a family mediator, and then the leader of the village—at the age of 45 and as a mother of six. Though she is the only woman in Kayah State to hold this position, Than Kyi is undaunted. “This is not a man’s job,” she told me matter-of-factly. “I am proof.”
Like Than Kyi, more and more women of all ages are getting involved in political organizing, running for office, and demanding seats at the peace-process table, but the political institutions themselves are still dominated by men. What kind of support do women breaking into all-male systems need? What norms, spoken or unspoken, are holding them back?
Confronting the arts head-on
I knew of painter Sandar Khine before I moved to Myanmar. She had been featured, with her large fluorescent nudes, in the New York Times as one of Myanmar’s once-banned artists. So I was surprised to learn, while looking for female illustrators, how male dominated Myanmar’s art world is.
When I met Sandar Khine last summer at her apartment and studio in northern Yangon, I was struck by how serene and soft-spoken this truly audacious artist is—the same artist who had cheekily foiled the censors by strategically placing black fabric over parts of her nudes. The story still brings her a mischievous smile.
Now widely respected as a pioneer in Myanmar’s contemporary art scene, Sandar Khine had struggled to break into the field. Models were hard to find and expensive to hire. She knew a group of male painters who split the cost and practiced weekly, but they refused to let a woman join. Only when a male friend in the group vouched for her talent was she allowed to participate, and it was there that she fell in love with painting the human form.
What I learned from Sandar Khine and my search for illustrators is that Myanmar, like many other countries, has no shortage of talented female artists; they’re just not always treated as “professionals” like their male counterparts. Sifting through artworks in Yangon’s galleries, it was far easier to find paintings where a woman was the subject than the artist. At the same time, I saw women like performance artist Ma Ei—who in one piece dressed as a man in traditional longyi and cooked noodles for her audience—creating work that challenges the expectations of women and men in Myanmar. I found myself wondering, with the opening of Myanmar, are these gender norms showing any signs of change?
One nun’s fight for equality
Each day, as I rode to work, the bus would fill with the neighborhood nuns as they completed their morning round of alms. I would tightly grip my coffee on those long, bumpy rides for fear of spilling on their bright, baby-pink robes.
The first nun I had a real conversation with was Ketu Mala. I was once again dripping with sweat and rain when we sat down together at a monastery in northern Yangon. She spoke quickly and passionately with her hands as she launched into the story of the first time she wasn’t allowed to do something the boys could do.
She was 13 years old and waiting excitedly at a temple in Mudon, in Mon State. It was a big day—her cousin and uncle were becoming monks.
When she tried to follow the boys and men into the ceremony, however, a female relative pointed to a sign that read “no women allowed.” “Why can the boys go, but not I?” she asked herself. “How are they different?”
In Myanmar, the concept of hpoun refers to an innate power that men are believed to possess. Because women are held to be “unclean,” they do not possess hpoun, but they can rob men of theirs. The concept is insidious, seeping into politics, the law, even how and where one’s laundry may be washed.
Hpoun also permeates religious beliefs and institutions. Nuns are barred from the same spaces that Ketu Mala was forbidden to enter, while monks, called hpoungyi—literally “great hpoun”—hold the highest social status in Myanmar. I remember noticing how people raced to give up their seats on the bus to monks, while nuns barely got a head turn. A colleague explained Myanmar’s social hierarchy this way: monks, men, women, and then nuns.
Ketu Mala rebelled against these ideas. She remembered hearing as a child that only women who are poor, without family, or sick become nuns, but she was educated and had means and a family that (eventually) supported her choice. Smart and ambitious, she became a nun because she cares about people and is devoted to her religion, but also to make a point. She actively sought out people like herself who believe that men and women are equal. Eventually she found her home at Pau-Auk Forest Monastery in Mawlamyine. There, both men and women can walk anywhere.
Like democratization, the road to gender equality in Myanmar is messy. As established norms and power structures conspire to keep them out, women are stepping up in historic ways and numbers, holding the powerful to account like Zarchi Win, growing into leadership roles like Than Kyi, challenging the status quo like Sandar Khine, and driving change from the inside like Ketu Mala.
Alyson Curro is a gender policy specialist and coauthor of the forthcoming book for children Girl Power in Myanmar. Then known as Alyson Neel, she was an Asia Foundation Luce Scholar in 2016–17. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.
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