Decades of military dictatorship have taken their toll, but Burma's ancient commitment to sexual equality remains strongby Cheryll Barron / October 27, 2007 / Leave a comment
Published in October 2007 issue of Prospect Magazine
No one could have believed what lay in her future when I met Aung San Suu Kyi, the leading opponent of Burma’s military junta, at a London wedding in the 1980s. “Fragile” and “exquisite” were the adjectives that came to mind—a tiny, straight-backed Asian Audrey Hepburn floating in a close-fitting costume of plain gold silk that began at her neck and skimmed her ankles.
But it is apt that the unofficial head of Burma’s democratic movement should be a woman. Unlike Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan, Suu Kyi’s position is not quite as anomalous in contemporary Burma—even if the decades of dictatorship have been regressive for women’s equality (a small, token number of Buddhist nuns were the only women to join the recent demonstrations).
Because Burma has mostly been ignored by western academics in its decades of seclusion, most western analysis of its core culture—an Indo-Chinese melting pot—is old. But since the country is scarcely modernised, that research still reliably represents basic attitudes. Traditional Burmese or “customary” law, which modern statutes reflect, treats men and women as equals in virtually every respect, even if it is ignored, when inconvenient, by Than Shwe, head of the military junta, and his henchmen.