‘In Places of Military Dominance, Women Can Never Be Equal’

By Khine Thant Su 4 August 2014

Dr. Khin Mar Mar Kyi is an award-winning social anthropologist and documentary filmmaker specializing on Southeast Asia, Burma and gender issues. She has served as a senior advisor to the Australian government and a lecturer at Australian National University, but now works at Oxford University in the United Kingdom. She is currently visiting Burma as a member of the university’s Oxford Burma Universities’ Collaborations delegation, giving lectures at both Rangoon and Mandalay universities as part of the program.

She sat down with The Irrawaddy last week to talk about women’s place in Burmese society, politics and the nation’s peace process.

Question: What has been the status of Burmese women over the course of history?

Answer: If you look at the present situation, the status of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as a leader makes people think there is no gender inequality here. If you ask the ministers, they’d add that their wife has a say in their family.

Judging from this, people are often misled that gender equality exists in Burma. But women have to struggle to support their families. It is also not easy for women to ride a bus without having to worry about their safety. There are now more cases of young girls being raped. There were many female tycoons in various industries before, but nowadays almost all the tycoons in Burma are male.

During colonial times, Burma was admired for its society, which respected women and granted them a lot of rights. But now, even on a regional scale, Burma is a country with the least proportion of women participating in parliamentary affairs. Only 5.4 percent of all parliamentarians are women.

Q: If people in Burma understand gender as you have explained it, what improvements do you think we will see in the future?

A: If they understand gender as not just women’s rights but as their responsibilities, values and beliefs derived from the Burmese tradition, men will see gender issues as not just concerned with women but concerned with men too. So men will participate in addressing gender issues in Burma. That would be an improvement. If a man saw a woman being treated without respect, fairness or with violence—even if only verbal—he would stand up for her if he feels it is a cultural insult for all Burmese men.

Q: What improvements and regressions have you noticed in addressing gender issues since the Thein Sein government came to power?

A: Women’s forums can now be held freely. More women are involved in peace talks, but they are only decorative. In reality, women have no say in decision-making. The Parliament is also male-dominated.

Obtaining peace is crucial in transforming the country. And peace is impossible without addressing gender issues. Currently, if we look at the global level, many countries including East Timor, Rwanda and Northern Ireland all included women in their peace talks. We need to include women in peace talks because women are not only half of the population but also half of the resources of our country. You cannot afford to waste half the population and resources in these peace talks. No woman, no peace.

Moreover, in traditional Burmese culture, women are the ones who harmonize the household. In conflict-ridden ethnic regions of Burma, women are the ones who have to handle such difficulties as wartime survival.

Q: We can see a lot of male-dominated countries nowadays. What are some of the differences between an ordinary male-dominated country and one that has been under military rule?

A: The military is an extreme form of male dominance, an extreme form of patriarchy. In places of military dominance, women can never be valued, women can never be equal, their rights are not protected and their needs are not considered. In places where the military dominates, women face extreme discrimination. The extremely male-dominated military subculture, within the bigger cultural context of Burma, especially deprecates women.

Q: How much do history and culture play a role in creating this kind of mentality?

A: Different circumstances and times can change a culture. During colonial times, every book about Burmese women written by Western authors couldn’t help but reflect in wonder on Burmese women’s high social status. Burmese women dominated the economy. They had rights in marriage and divorce, property rights and the right to freely travel. These were rights that women in the West couldn’t dream of [at the time].

Eventually, those rights came to be called ‘feminism’ by Westerners. Westerners thought Burmese men had become useless because they were living in a female-dominated society. The colonizers saw traditional Burmese culture as an uncivilized culture that they therefore had to change. They started to teach girls in missionary schools how to be feminine. During the nationalist movement, this perception of a feminine woman continued.

Q: How long do you think it will take to change the mentality of the former military leaders in government?

A: One problem is that it will take time to change. So instead of trying to change their perception on the spot, we just have to ask upfront for women’s rights. That’s why we need quotas. On one hand, we can give them reasons as to why addressing gender issues is important, but at the same time, we need to ask for women’s rights directly.

Q: What do you think of the proposed interfaith marriage law restricting Burmese Buddhist women from marrying a person of a different religion?

A: Today we should stop this ‘discipline and punishment’ approach; we all need to develop critical thinking. If they reason that they need this law because financial difficulty and lack of knowledge are causing women to be lured [into marriage], then we need to support women to have financial security, knowledge and autonomy. We need to empower them to make the right decisions to protect herself not just from men of other religions but also their own. We cannot just target other religions but also our own. How many women are facing domestic violence and sexual abuse at the hands of their own men from the same religion? Without empowerment of women, women will always be vulnerable, regardless of religion.

This law creates a loss of her traditional and legal position as wife, or even more importantly, [may lead to] gender-based violence and discrimination.

According to this law, a woman needs written permissions from her parents and the provincial government office as well as his conversion in order to marry him legally or face 10 years imprisonment. It underestimates our traditional customary values. It contrasts with the 10 ways of Burmese traditional marriage as all know. Simple ways to marry, by staying under the same roof, or eating from the same plate, legalizes a couple as husband and wife yet protects her. And the choice should be hers.