Decades of military dictatorship have taken their toll, but Burma’s ancient commitment to sexual equality remains strong
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.
The 1959 Encyclopaedia Britannica says that, “Burmese women enjoy an amount of freedom unusual in non-European races.” In fact, for centuries, they were actually more independent than western women—and even than women in other predominantly Buddhist southeast Asian countries, who benefited indirectly from the Buddha’s subversion of Hindu caste and other social strictures.
The position of women in Burmese society amazed 19th and early 20th-century European scholars and colonial administrators. The journal of John Crawfurd, a British envoy to the Burmese court of Ava, published in 1824, notes that, “to the Burmans… Women are more nearly upon an equality with the stronger sex than among any other Eastern people.” In Burma As I Saw It 1889-1917, R Grant Brown, a magistrate and revenue officer during the country’s six decades as a British colony, said that Burmese women’s independence was “more surprising in view of the subjection and seclusion of wives and daughters in the neighbouring countries of India and China.” George Scott, another colonial administrator, remarked: “The Japanese wife treats her husband as an idol, the Burmese as a comrade.”
During the country’s years under British rule (1886-1948), when it was treated as part of India, the viceroy’s executive council panicked about the growing numbers of Raj officials acquiring Burmese mistresses and sometimes, wives. In Race, Sex and Class under the Raj (1980), Kenneth Ballhatchet quotes one council member’s memo in 1894 attributing the trend to “the greater attractiveness and perfect freedom of Burmese women who do not regard such connexions as shameful liaisons.”
Something very like streamlined “no-fault” divorce, which California pioneered in the US in 1969, was long ago part of Burmese tradition. A woman retained her property after she married and after a divorce, when she also took half of the property acquired by the couple during marriage. Women’s inheritance rights were identical to those for men, and women neither changed their names nor started wearing any ornament indicating marital status. The one legal advantage granted to Burmese men capable of setting a western feminist’s teeth on edge—the right to have more than one spouse—was far less intolerable than in societies in which divorce was impossible or punitive for women.
The end of a marriage could reduce a man’s standard of living far more than his ex-wife’s, since it was common for women running market stalls to be the principal breadwinners for their families. In 1911, R Grant Brown, the magistrate mentioned earlier, reported that a typical Burmese wife “is usually a partner in her husband’s business, and as such has just as much right to sign for the firm as he.”
Harold Fielding Hall, who served as a top-ranking civil servant in Burma between 1887 and 1891, actually saw the equality of the sexes as proof that Burmese “civilisation is relatively a thousand years behind ours.” In A People At School, he went on to say that Burmese men and women were “not sufficiently differentiated yet… [which] is the mark of a young race.” His prescription for accelerating Burmese evolution was that “women must surrender their liberty in the interests of men.”
If Burmese women have been relatively more stifled than men by the lack of democratic freedoms in recent years, their 46 per cent share of average earned (household) income in 1998, according to UN estimates, was still strikingly higher than in the US (40 per cent), France (39 per cent) or Switzerland (32 per cent).
Still, connoisseurs of human quirks and inconsistency will hardly be surprised to learn that outside the law, in the social and family spheres, both sexes in Burma have traditionally accepted that men are “more equal” than women. The most important belief of a people for whom spiritual standing outranks every other kind, according to Mi Mi Khaing, author of The World of Burmese Women, is that, “Spiritually, a man is higher than a woman.” Convention dictates that in a sort of rite of passage, all Buddhist men enter a monastery in the course of their lives for at least a few days. But no woman could ever be a monk or aspire to “Buddhahood,” and the status of Buddhist nuns is far inferior to that of monks.
The key practical consequence of women’s status as spiritual underdogs is that for most of Burma’s history, they received at best a poor education. Historically, in this predominantly rural country, the village school was usually in the nearest monastery, and monks virtually owned all scholarship much as Jesuits, Talmudic scholars and Brahmins did elsewhere, at other times. Schooling for girls is still patchier than for boys, and in 2004, only 86 per cent of Burmese women were literate, against 94 per cent of men. If female students reportedly outnumber males at Burmese universities today, that is probably because so many young men are siphoned off into monasteries and military academies.
If Aung San Suu Kyi—whose atypical and elite education befits a child of Burma’s leading independence fighter—ever replaces the generals, she will have much to do to improve her countrywomen’s lot. They have had virtually no power or influence under a military dictatorship that has barred them from enrolling in the Defence Services Academy, officers’ training courses and officers’ technical training. Official bodies that are supposed to expand women’s career opportunities and investigate deficiencies in female healthcare and education effectively receive no government funds.
The steady deterioration of the Burmese economy, a victim of decades of abysmal mismanagement by the junta, has driven thousands of Burmese women into prostitution both at home and abroad—especially in Thailand, where over 30,000 of them have been estimated by Human Rights Watch to be working in brothels. The army is regularly accused by international humanitarian organisations of raping and sexually abusing its poorest and most vulnerable countrywomen.
Yet Burmese women are not lilies that wilt easily. It is unlikely that Aung San Suu Kyi would see as unique the courage she has shown as a political prisoner for 12 of the last 18 years. “Although theoretically men are considered nobler,” she has written, “Burmese women have never really had an inferior status… Secure in the knowledge of her own worth, the Burmese woman does not mind giving men the kind of respectful treatment that makes them so happy.”
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