A new narrative about gender in Myanmar?
There is a prominent idea that Myanmar already has gender equality, but this may be changing. Over the last couple of years I have sat in a lot of offices and teashops and talked to people about democracy in Myanmar. Such is the lazy tea drinking schedule of a PhD student.
But one reflection that I have often heard is that Myanmar is inherently democratic. People observe that the country has no caste or class division like in some other places. And in particular they often highlight that in Burmese culture men and women are equal.
At one level I can see why this narrative has become prominent. Compared to neighbouring India and Bangladesh - which perhaps have more overt signs of gender inequality whether in terms of clothing or social exclusion - Myanmar appears on the surface to give women more opportunities.
And interestingly this is not just a new perspective but one that has endured for decades. Twentieth century Myanmar historians like Maung Htin Aung pointed to the inherent equality of Burmese gender relations. And even British colonial officials like H. Fielding Hall reckoned that Burma was starkly different from the rest of British India in having broad equality between men and women. (Though in a sign of the times Fielding-Hall felt that gender equality was actually a problem for Burma and to become an advanced country like England - men would need to be tougher and more dominant).
Of course it is tempting to think that such a narrative is repeated and perpetuated only by men, but that is not true. Several women I have spoken to have also supported this idea and it appears in some of Aung San Suu Kyi’s writings. Like any potent narrative in society, it can be defended by individuals whether they benefit from it, or not.
But in the week after International Women's Day I have been thinking about how there are now many people in Myanmar - both men and women - who are attempting to write a new narrative about gender. One which paints a different and often more critical picture – whether raising issues of workplace or domestic inequality, or violence against women, or deeply held discriminatory norms.
And I wondered what the next step may be in Myanmar and at what point the dominant story about inherent gender equality begins to fray at the edges.
Telling a story of your own country can be a powerful thing. And there are definitely reasons to celebrate Myanmar and its democratic intuitions. But narratives, like culture, are not static and their rejection or recreation is part of life.
The story of inherent gender equality in Myanmar has been a potent and enduring one. But unless it is adapted, it may soon be replaced.