Wives and Mothers of the Nation

By Hnin Wathan 1 January 2013

What did it mean to be a “modern woman” in Myanmar during the colonial period from 1920 to 1940? How were they perceived by a society with strong nationalistic sentiments? “Refiguring Women, Colonialism, & Modernity in Burma” provides an interesting insight to these issues.

The book covers the relationship between colonialism, modernity and gender in Myanmar. Divided into six chapters, Chie Ikeya analyses modern Myanmar women from political, social and cultural perspectives using both English and Myanmar-language literary and newspaper primary sources.

The first chapter introduces the contextual setting of the time, especially in the areas of education and media. The second chapter describes the rise of educated Myanmar women in the 1920s and how the press played a role in encouraging them to take on various professions previously dominated by men.

The third chapter looks at how women were politicized as a “wife-and-mother of the nation”—with the duty to take care not only of her family but also her country. The fourth examines how women were consumers of foreign commodities, fashion and culture in two distinct ways—self-indulgence or in a “wise and dutiful” manner for her family.

The last two chapters show how Myanmar women who had an intimate relationship with non-Buddhist foreigners and embraced self-indulgent modernity were perceived by a society that was consumed by the nationalist movement.

In 2002, the debutant author, currently an assistant professor at the National University of Singapore, chanced upon lively discussions while inside Myanmar regarding the modern Myanmar woman in local and English-language publications during the colonial period, and then decided to research the topic.

Although very much based on her PhD research at that time, the fascinating findings and analysis are documented in a very readable manner. The book gives great insight into how Myanmar women were viewed by other Asian nationalities and Westerners during the colonial period.

Despite its rather academic-sounding and ungainly title, “Refiguring Women, Colonialism, & Modernity in Burma” is a worthwhile and absorbing read. 

This story first appeared in the December 2012 print issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.