Guest Column

Women Writing on Myanmar: There’s a Problem With How We Study Burma

By Jenny Hedström 18 September 2019

At a Myanmar studies workshop late last year, I eye through the papers we are to comment on and notice the absence of women from the bibliographies I read. When I question this, the response is first a bored kind of silence before one of the participants explains, patiently, that everyone writing extensively on these topics is already included. When I object, and offer to share names of women writing on this topic, someone else, probably thinking that he is supportive, smiles and says, sure, for the sake of political correctness. Send the list on. I try to make an argument for the importance of including other perspectives, try to emphasize that which gets lost when we take knowledge for granted and assume one type of knowledge is necessarily the same as—or an acceptable stand-in for—another. I see someone yawn. When the papers come out I notice—again—the absence of women from the bibliographies. The references I sent on were never used.

Why does this matter? Why is this, the absence of certain voices, so troubling? Let me tell you a secret. It is NOT about political correctness. If anything, it is scholarly laziness, which I am as guilty of as anyone else. I am aware of how easy it is to use reliable, and therefore repetitive, citation practices, rather than making the effort to look for new studies on the topic I am interested in. Researching new work, whether actually new or just new to me, takes time. I easily fall back on old patterns, well-threaded research paths. This also goes for disciplines: part of this scholarly laziness is also about not looking outside my own discipline in terms of who is doing what on Myanmar. And this is problematic because when we safely and narrowly stay on our well-trodden research paths, both in terms of disciplines and citational practices, we don’t see what else is out there. It reinforces the (false) assumptions that this (overwhelmingly male and/or white) knowledge is somehow universal. It reinforces a narrow set of methodological and epistemological approaches. This is problematic because it restricts what we know about Myanmar, and how we know it. This is problematic because these citation practices—who we read and who we cite—are the building blocks of Myanmar studies. And this is (very) problematic because when women, or Burmese scholars, are absent from those building blocks, they, along with their knowledge, are excluded from the discipline. They are excluded from syllabi. They are excluded from bibliographies. They are excluded from recognition in the field. They don’t matter.

But they do, and it does, matter.

It matters in terms of epistemology. It is not just about inclusion for the sake of “political correctness” but it is about engaging seriously with other forms of knowledge practices. It is about destabilizing that which we think we know. This has the potential to broaden all of our understandings about who and what to study and how to go about studying it. For example, if we wanted to study the political economy of the transition, what would we learn from speaking to women trafficked from the Delta to work in karaoke bars in Loikaw? If we wanted to measure modalities of democratization, what would we learn from working with queer activists in Yangon? If we wanted to understand ethnic armed conflict, what could children living in displacement camps teach us? A lot, I think.

This also matters in terms of representation. Citation practices are technologies of power and representation matters for who we see and remember. It is not an act of “political correctness.” The marginalization of certain voices over others from discussions about past and current events in the country reproduces a form of knowledge that is predominately white and male.  I believe this reproduction does a disservice to all of us—scholars, students, activists—because it narrows the possibilities for transformational politics. What we don’t see, we don’t know and, importantly, don’t act on. Finally, citation practices also matter institutionally. Citation is a proxy for measuring success and thus informs who gets hired and promoted and who gets invited. Put simply: if you are not cited, you are not included.

This is all by way of saying that we need to broaden our collective knowledge about who and what matters in Myanmar studies. Luckily, the initial list mentioned above took on a new form after discussions with the scholars associated with Tea Circle, who offered a hosting platform to enable wider engagement. Bibliographies of women writing on Myanmar and people from Myanmar writing on Myanmar are now available on the Tea Circle site here, as open-source, “living” documents. It is important to note that these are not exhaustive lists but dynamic ones which we all can use, contribute to and work from. We welcome contributions and additional comments and feedback on this project. These lists have already opened my own eyes to work I had not yet read. Hopefully that’s one way the bibliographies can be of immediate use to scholars: they can serve as a first step when starting a new piece of writing, a new project, a new research grant (and all of the entries include keywords, to make searching for writing on a particular topic easier). They can serve as a first step in upsetting and expanding who and what matters. They can open our eyes to new disciplines, emerging (or ignored) scholars, surprising studies and, perhaps most important of all, they can help us create new knowledge.

Jenny Hedström is a researcher at Umeå University, Sweden. She completed her PhD at Monash University Gender, Peace, and Security Centre in Australia, focusing on the role of the ethnic Kachin household in sustaining non-state armed conflict. Her current research explores the relationship between gendered relations of power and conflict, with a particular focus on everyday peace in Myanmar. She holds an MSc in Development Studies from the London School of Economics in the United Kingdom.

This article originally appeared in Tea Circle, a forum hosted at Oxford University for emerging research and perspectives on Burma/Myanmar.

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