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Meet the Burmese women tackling tradition and taboo

Burmese women (Photo: Wenying Seah/DVB)

“Most Burmese women can’t understand freedom,” says writer Pyo Let Han.

It is an arresting thought yet voiced without hesitation, just one idea in a long conversation. Pyo Let Han is discussing her decision to become a feminist writer – a rare job title in Burma.

“I wanted to be an author from a very young age,” she explains. “But my parents never encouraged me to write and I gave up my dreams when I was 16 years old.”

At the age of 25, Pyo Let Han was a wife struggling with public expectations. “I listened to society and I wanted to create a very happy married life,” she recalls. “But I couldn’t follow social standards. I loved my husband but I couldn’t be happy.”

Breaking with convention, Pyo Let Han wrote her first book centred on the love between two women. Two more publications ensued. The last is 95 Raining Days, the story of a young woman who leaves her male suitor heartbroken. “This character is very adventurous,” says Pyo Let Han. “She tries to stand on her own feet and so farewells the young boy.”

Pyo Let Han is now no longer married. So is it a case of art imitating life? “I created my characters with no intentions,” she answers. “But I’ve gradually come to realise that I created the characters to encourage women to break out of the norms.”

Just what the norms are bears some consideration. In a Theravada Buddhist society many customs limit women’s behaviour and functioning. Of particular significance is the Buddhist concept of hpone that places men on a higher spiritual level than women. It is abstract though manifest in various cultural understandings, like the idea that washing men and women’s longyis together causes men to lose their power.

“We say our menstrual blood isn’t dirty.”

Hpone grated on Pyo Let Han from childhood.

“We believed in hpone but I always questioned it,” she explains. “My uncles’ longyis were left to dry in front of the house but ours [female ones] weren’t out there. I started to research [the role of hpone in contemporary society] and I realised it wasn’t true.”

In the course of investigation Pyo Let Han may have come across the work of Dr. Khin Mar Mar Kyi, an expert on Burmese gender relations now based out of Oxford University.

Dr. Khin Mar Mar Kyi contends that hpone – dating back to the 13th century – only came to be considered integral to Burmese culture during the nationalist movement unified under General Aung San towards the end of British rule. “Nation state building always needs old traditions,” she says. “Hpone was one of the things that was recreated [by nationalist leaders] to give a sense of unity and identity [to the Burmese people].”

If hpone has been plainly inserted into Burma’s gender narrative, it seems nationalist leaders – who laid the foundations for the modern military – have a lot to answer for. “In any society, not just Burma, nationalisation and militarisation influence gender relations,” says Dr. Khin Mar Mar Kyi. “And the military is always a patriarchy.”

Decades of military rule entrenched masculine traditions and saw women regularly treated as second-class citizens. Little has changed in the last few years. On paper women have the same civil liberties as men and the government has ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The reality could not be more different.

Women remain severely underrepresented in legislative bodies and are routinely paid less than men for the same work. Maternity leave is currently a pipe dream, as women’s rights advocates are still struggling to convince people even that domestic violence is a human rights issue. Many women stay trapped in a cycle of low wage poverty and debt. And all this makes human traffickers start to look like the best route to earning a living – economic coercion into exploitation because no other viable options exist.

“We need to develop our own Burmese concept of feminism,” urges Dr. Khin Mar Mar Kyi. “It should be based on equality and the egalitarian values that existed before the military era.”

But when there is not even a specific word for vagina in Burmese, let alone gender equality, where to begin?

Ma Htar Htar is the founder of Akhaya Women, an organisation focused on challenging the gender status quo in Burma. “We don’t talk about equality under the topic of gender,” declares Ma Htar Htar. “We say our menstrual blood isn’t dirty.” Menstruation remains a taboo topic in Burma, helping to reinforce women’s social statuses as inferior to men. “Once [women] know this scientific, universal truth, then they can start to understand equality.”

“Male participation is important too,” says Ma Htar Htar. Like many other countries, gender equality has often been characterised as a ‘female issue’ in Burma – a battle to be fought by and for women. But Ma Htar Htar is clear: men must become active contributors if monumental change is to take place. “Male participation is really important. Men [supporting gender equality] should talk to men [who don’t] because [those] men never listen to us women.”

Really, gender equality starts at home and in communities. “If mothers can change the way they perceive things, the whole nation will change things,” argues Ma Htar Htar. Throughout adolescence sons are often granted more leisure time and freedom than daughters. Some boys even receive better food. This needs radical readjustment according to Ma Htar Htar. “We [need to] treat our girls the same way as our boys.”

Of course, it is not just about renegotiating relationships. Women must craft out identities independent from family and society according to Pyo Let Han. “They [need to know] what they want to do and what they want to become.” To that end, the writer is dedicated to helping women reach an individual meaning of freedom. “My definition of freedom is to know myself very well. I know what I want, not what my husband or father or mother wants me to do.”

A few years ago Pyo Let Han co-founded Rainfall, Burma’s first feminist magazine. “Rainfall is [a way for women] to find out about freedom, liberation, anything they want,” she says. Now onto its third issue, circulation is at 1000 copies and growing. “Rainfall can bring a world to our readers. They love stories on international women’s rights movements. They also like interviews with women MPs, political candidates and peace makers.”

With the new NLD-led government just weeks away from entering parliament, a sense of hope is palpable across the country. Many in Burma want large-scale social transformation. So is gender equality finally on the horizon? Pyo Let Han is cautiously optimistic at best. “Let’s wait and see. Many women won at the elections but we have a very, very long way to go.”

In reality, the challenge extends beyond government. If Burma is to achieve gender equality then every single person needs to get onboard. Ethnic, religious and socio-economic divisions must be forgotten. What should be remembered is that gender equality benefits all. As Pyo Let Han says: “I never believed men are better than women or than women are better than men. I believe in humanism.”