Women in Burmese Society

   During the British colonial period, European observers were impressed by the apparent equality of the sexes in Burmese society, claiming, as James George Scott did, that "a married Burmese woman is much more independent than any European woman even in the most advanced states" (The Burman, [1883] 1963, 52). Women not only managed household finances but also played a major role in retail trade, their business acumen widely considered superior to that of the average Burmese man. This is still true today; for example, the wives of high-ranking military officers have made large amounts of money from private and black market businesses, while their menfolk, in Ne Win's words, "only know how to fight."
   Traditionally, Burmese women have been free of the stifling restrictions of the patriarchal family system, such as those found in China, India, and Japan. In patriarchal systems, the primary role of the woman is to provide a male heir for her husband's family, with whom she lives, largely severing her ties with her own parents and siblings. In the Burmese case, the family system is bilateral (descent through both the father's and mother's line, rather than the father's alone), and married women remain close to their own parents. Inheritances are shared between sons and daughters, rather than by sons only, and a divorced woman is entitled to take away from the failed marriage her own property, which even in traditional law was recognized as different from that of her husband. Burmese parents with several daughters but no sons would not be considered especially unfortunate; if the daughters marry well (e.g., a military officer), they can generously support their parents in their old age.
   Most fundamentally, there is none of the strong discrimination against the birth and upbringing of daughters in Burma that one finds in India or some East Asian countries, and female infanticide appears to be rare. According to recent UN statistics, there are 101 women and girls per 100 males in Burma's rural areas and 100 females per 100 males in urban areas, a natural ratio. In India, the ratios are 96 females per 100 males in rural and 88 females per 100 males in urban areas, reflecting the widespread practice of abortion of female fetuses and the overall lower survival rates of girls due to harsh treatment or neglect, compared to boys.
   In precolonial Burma, educational opportunities for girls were available at village monastery schools, although females could not (and cannot) become members of the Sangha (the practice of ordaining nuns having been lost to the Theravada branch of Buddhism). In the colonial and postcolonial eras, a large percentage of the student bodies at the University of Rangoon (Yangon) and other institutions have been women. They have freely entered the professions. For example, Daw Khin Kyi, wife of Aung San and mother of Aung San Suu Kyi, served as Burma's ambassador to India, and such women as Ludu Daw Amar have been prominent on the literary scene. However, the freedoms that Burmese women enjoy are not equivalent to 100-percent equality with men in terms of social roles. In the religious sphere, women are not only prohibited from joining the Sangha, but it is also believed that only men can achieve nibbana; women cannot enter certain holy places, such as the upper platform of the Shwe Dagon Pagoda or the space directly in front of the Maha Muni Buddha Image in Mandalay. The shinbyu ceremony for young boys entering the monkhood far overshadows girls' coming-ofage rite, the ear-boring (natwin) ceremony.
   Men are commonly believed to possess a certain authority or power (hpoun) that would be diminished if they find themselves placed in any situation where their inferior position to women is apparent, for example, sitting below a woman on a crowded bus or ferry boat or allowing their heads to pass beneath a woman's garments on a clothesline. Burmese women are expected to show deference to men, especially their husbands, even if this is only for show. A major reason for the strong antipathy that Senior General Than Shwe and other members of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) feel toward Aung San Suu Kyi is her insistence upon expressing her opinions frankly and interacting with them as equals. Her behavior is seen as very "Western" and antipathetic to traditional values, though she is also greatly admired for her courage. It is probably significant that during its long history, Burma has had only one major female ruler, the Mon Queen Shinsawbu.
   Military values and military control of the political system since 1962 have resulted in a decline in Burmese women's social status, compared to the parliamentary and even British colonial eras. Burma is one of the few countries (another being Saudi Arabia) where women at present hold no important government posts. Ethnic minority women have suffered worst of all from human rights abuses, including the apparently systematic rape of Karen (Kayin) and Shan women by Tatmadaw officers and men.
   Even in central Burma, economic stagnation and the deterioration of health and educational services since 1988 have had an especially harsh impact on women's lives. The recent growth in the sex industry, which previously had not been a major social problem, reflects the fact that for both ethnic minority and Burman women with families to support, few other types of employment are widely available. More than 40,000 Burmese women work in brothels in neighboring Thailand. Nongovernmental organizations have been established to deal with women's issues, some of which enjoy the patronage of the wives of SPDC generals, but for the great majority of women, facing a grim day-to-day struggle to survive, the freedoms enjoyed by their mothers and grandmothers are a distant dream.

Historical Dictionary of Burma (Myanmar). . 2014.

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