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
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…