The Myth Myanmar Can Afford to Ditch
By Brandon Aung Moe 10 August 2017
Myanmar is a country that needs a long-winded introduction as well as careful introspection. Introduction is required because despite all the raves about its potential, whether economic—as Asia’s last frontier—or political—thanks to the headline-grabbing Nobel Laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi—it was and still is unknown to many people outside the country.
In the late 18th century—a period ushering in a new era of globalization—Myanmar, which was then called the Kingdom of Ava, was little-known because pre-colonial Burmese rulers (with the exception of a few) generally chose to develop an agrarian society, mostly detached from global trade. The English ambassador Michael Symes wrote in his famous “An Account of an Embassy to the Kingdom of Ava, sent by the Governor-General of India, in the Year 1795”: “Of the kingdom of Ava, …so little is known to the European world, that many persons … were at a loss on what part of the globe to seek for its position; and … even unacquainted with the existence of such a nation.”
The long history of Myanmar as an isolated patch on the world’s map is significant in that it never presented an opportunity for many an outsider to learn its culture or understand the psyche of its people. This is particularly evident in the case of advocacy around human rights issues in Myanmar. Before the outbreak of the Rohingya conflict, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was relentlessly praised as an icon of human rights. The fact that most activists never fully understood her became undeniable as a deluge of criticism over her supposed silence on the issue arose in full force. Although some did acknowledge her limited power or role in the conflict, disappointment continued to well up from her long time-supporters who could no longer hold her up to the world as a human rights icon. This growing gulf was actually less-than-shocking when one realizes that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was adored by two types of supporters for two very different reasons: locals love her for the sacrifices she made, whereas foreigners showered adulation on her for human rights, something locals never gave much thought to.
Given decades of seclusion, an insular culture—resulting from isolationist policies and Myanmar people’s love for their own set of unique norms—and the lack of systematic (and impartial) study of various aspects of the country, this kind of miss is explicable. However, with the availability of much information about Myanmar now and with the emergence of platforms for discussion (including here on Tea Circle), recent trends in one particular social issue should be scrutinized because if it is not reined in, it will allow a myth to become entrenched in Myanmar society. The issue in question is women’s rights and the myth is the assertion that Myanmar fares poorly in gender equality—a myth perpetuated by both locals and foreigners who have not thoroughly inspected the whole spectrum of Burmese women to appropriately frame issues of women’s empowerment in the Burmese context. Women’s rights in Myanmar is an issue that is misunderstood by some foreigners (particularly international NGOs) and misinterpreted by some locals who inadvertently downplays Burmese-style women’s empowerment.
Before continuing, it would be good to preface by acknowledging that I am perhaps not the best qualified person, for I am neither a social scientist nor a female. I don’t believe in absurd gender-based superstitions, such as women being assumed to have less “hpone” (let’s call it “aura” for lack of a better translation) than men do. Nor do I deny that there indeed exists a disparity between how men and women are generally treated in the country. Besides, what I am going to say may not be true across all cultural groups of Myanmar. However, as far as Burmese Buddhist culture is concerned, my personal experience of growing up in an extended family headed by strong independent women whom I respect very much leads me to conclude that the myth I describe is worth debunking, in as much as I am capable—, the myth that women’s rights are scarce in Myanmar or that women do not enjoy the same privilege as men do. It would have probably been easier to argue in favor of feminism by incorporating grievances some Burmese women have against sexist practices. But, I couldn’t do so because while some of those concerns are legitimate, it only shows one side of the coin. To ignore the other side is to do a disservice to thousands and thousands of Burmese women who contributed (and are contributing) so much to the country in whatever way they could (and can). This is not an argument against feminism; rather this is meant to be a piece that highlights the inadequacies of the current form of feminism that is prevalent in the country.
Many of the arguments that call attention to the need for improved gender equality in Myanmar draw their strength from numbers. Indeed, one will not find it difficult to identify a field in Myanmar where men outnumber women. But, can we truly deduce that sexist attitudes are the cause of this disparity?
I suspect this obsession with numbers is due to the encroachment of a supposedly utopian, egalitarian and extreme-left-leaning ideology of gender equality into Myanmar’s territory of women’s rights. While the degree of fervor among supporters varies from somewhat mild or tolerable to extreme bordering on insanity, the essence of this type of feminism can still be encapsulated in a few short sentences: gender and physical differences between men and women should never be a deterrent to women’s freedom to choose whichever occupations they like; and, not until the number of women in just about every field is equal to (or more than) that of men could a just society be established.
In transplanting this ideology to Myanmar, many fields were cited as examples of gender imbalance: Burmese women are under-represented in media, politics and so on. But, reaching hasty conclusions based on numbers alone is less-than-wise.
Aaron Neil, a contributing editor at the National Discourse, brilliantly portrayed the futility of what he calls ‘gender sameness theory’ in his article “Why It’s Time To Stop Worrying About First World ‘Gender Gaps.’” He disagreed with the view that ‘any country with unequal representation of women in politics, STEM graduates, or the general workforce, is a country that must shed its ancient notion of gender roles and opt for a progressive utopia of gender sameness.’
Similarly, in Myanmar’s context, we should first determine what prompted these imbalances to emerge before quickly attributing them to sexism. We should be asking whether or not underrepresentation truly translates to gender inequality. There should be no justification for failing to do so unless, of course, we are infected with what I call the ‘gender sameness virus.’ This virus renders us, once infected, fixated on fighting for women’s rights based on a narrowly-defined notion of gender inequality and attacks our systematic thinking, causing us to overlook evidence that suggests contrary claims.
When cured of the virus, it becomes clearer that Myanmar was and still is quite progressive when it comes to women’s rights and equality. Repeatedly demanding that Myanmar needs to do better in promoting women’s rights is not only perplexing but also condescending to Myanmar people when one considers ample historical and contemporary evidence that shows that Myanmar women have always enjoyed freedom and have always known liberation—albeit not in a way that could fit into the narratives favored by a majority of activists and feminists.
While Burmese queens were able to sit on a throne alongside kings as they gave an audience to officials and ambassadors, queens in East Asian Kingdoms were not allowed to sit on thrones. In some cases, such as the Qing dynasty, queens had to rule and give commands from behind curtains. Burmese women do not have to change their names upon marriage. Nor are they prohibited from or chastised for assuming the head role of a family (although that may not be widespread in poorer regions). Long before women in the western world had to fight for suffrage or equal inheritance rights, Burmese pre-colonial laws under its monarchs granted women equal rights in inheritance, marriage and divorce. Women could divorce men fairly easily, sometimes even on a whim. In “An English Girl’s First Impression of Burmah” by Beth Ellis, she told the story of a Burmese maid who disappeared for several days, then got married and reappeared after just two weeks because the maid had gotten tired of being married!
I am fully aware that the status enjoyed by women of the past has not remained intact into the present day. Changes did come. Squeezed by economic hardships during years of isolation, lower middle-class and poor families preferred boys to girls as sending children to cities or overseas for further education was a safety concern when it came to daughters. Men and women came to take up different roles for the survival of their family. Amidst a shortage of job opportunities, wives stayed at home and husbands went out to bring what money they could find to the family. As a result, even today, men dominate in various job sectors.
However, much of what seems to be discrimination against women is simply a result of economic and social conditions of those difficult times. Parents were concerned about their daughters’ safety in a faraway land and kept them close. Wives did work outside when their education could lend them a job. More importantly, let’s not forget that the role of women has not diminished much, as contemporary evidence shows.
If sexism is as widespread as we are led to believe, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi could not have survived the military junta’s tactics to discredit her based on her gender, however much weight she has as a daughter of independence hero General Aung San. It was mostly her popularity that propelled the NLD to a landslide victory in the last general election. To the question of what it is like to be a businesswoman in a ‘male-dominated society’, these interviews and research reports show that the much-hyped gender gap is not even an issue for most Burmese businesswomen. Even preference towards a baby boy is not so deeply ingrained in Burmese parents. Some even prefer girls because sons are thought to be unreliable, and will not look after the family once they get married. Parents often utter how sons will become “mane-ma-naut-lite” (“follow the wife”) after their marriage. Moreover, this country does not have skewed gender ratio among the general population, which, according to the 2014 census, stood at approximately 1.07 or 107 females for every 100 males.
My personal experience also convinces me to claim that although a somewhat patriarchal system where men are expected to work and women expected to stay at home and be a good housewife is prevalent in Myanmar, its society at least accords equal amount of respect to both men and women, regardless of the different roles they perform for their families. My mother has always been a housewife. Yet, she commands the same respect as my father does in my family as well as among her friends. No one has ever told her she deserves less credit or respect. I dare say I speak the truth for many other Burmese families like mine.
The fact that Myanmar managed to retain much freedom and respect for women in the face of conditions—economic, social and religious—that could damage women’s liberty should be a source of inspiration for anyone intent upon elevating the status of Burmese women. What better way to promote women’s rights than to begin from where we already are? This is the other side of the coin that has been largely ignored.
Only by examining both sides of the coin shall we begin to ask relevant questions. Is Myanmar really near the bottom when it comes to women’s rights? Emancipation of women in the West came many years after the age of industrialization. Increased economic activities and wealth brought enlightenment values and subsequently the fight for gender equality. Similarly, we should ask whether or not the country has the necessary, basic cultural framework that will enable it to slowly eradicate some existing discriminatory practices applied towards women as it continues to modernize its economy and lift people out of poverty. Personally, I am optimistic because, for a large chunk of Myanmar’s long history, there never was the type of systematic state-sanctioned or religion-sponsored discrimination towards women that could result in serious hindrances to the progress of society.
Late entry to the game of modernization is both a blessing and a curse for Myanmar. The country is blessed that it has opportunities to emulate what worked for the other countries. However, the risk of turning a blessing into a curse is real if Myanmar is not wary of importing ideas that pose dangers to the society. Liberals’ version of feminism is simply one option. People shouldn’t be fooled into believing that the current status of women in Myanmar is a liability. The relative freedom and current status of Burmese women should be celebrated as an asset to this country. It would be a travesty if that asset is consistently ignored and gets replaced with a myth that paints Burmese women as anything but free, independent, empowered and respected people.
Brandon Aung Moe was born and raised in Myanmar. He is an engineering degree graduate from the National University of Singapore (N.U.S.). The views expressed in the article are entirely his own and do not reflect those of anybody else he knows. He is currently working at Thura Swiss, a Myanmar-based firm specialized in market research, consulting and services supporting investments. He can be reached at [email protected].
This article originally appeared in Tea Circle, a forum hosted at Oxford University for emerging research and perspectives on Burma/Myanmar.