Myanmar’s Women Are on the Front Lines Against the Junta
Protesters are using the military's fear of women against it.
In recent weeks, Nandar has taken to cycling. Armed with a hard hat, a face mask, and a paper sign stuck to her bike showing the words “No to dictatorship, no to patriarchy,” the 26-year-old feminist activist spends most days traversing Yangon, Myanmar, as part of the massive protest movement that has erupted following the military’s seizure of power on Feb. 1. After night falls and she returns home, she joins her neighbors in banging pots and pans—a domestic practice traditionally used to drive out evil spirits that has been taken up as a form of anti-coup protest.
Nandar is among the many women linking feminism to Myanmar’s movement—and weaponizing gender to fight both the military and the patriarchy. Young women have made international headlines for protesting and dying on the front lines of the ongoing demonstrations. So far, over 50 people have been killed by the military in the escalating confrontations.
The male-dominated military explicitly links itself to the machinery of patriarchy. State rhetoric has used paternalistic language to refer to the junta and the now-detained leader Aung San Suu Kyi as “father” and “mother” of the nation. The military has also traditionally drawn moral legitimacy from its support of Buddhism, the nation’s dominating—and deeply patriarchal—religion. Buddhism in Myanmar espouses the concept of hpon, a form of spiritual energy that men are said to have more of, making them superior to women, and considers female nuns lower-status than male monks.
Since the very beginning, women have been hypervisible in the protests, which unlike previous movements have been widely accessible due to social media. On Feb. 10, young women caught attention for wearing ballgowns and marching in a “princess protest.” Some held mocking English-language slogans. “I don’t want dictatorship. I just want boyfriend,” read one. “My ex is bad, but Myanmar military is worse,” read another.
Protesters have also used bras, women’s undergarments, and period pads as protest signs and picket lines, draping them over military posters to symbolically counteract masculinity. They’ve strung up women’s sarongs, called “htamein,” to protect protest zones, knowing that men would be disgusted to walk under them. This is because women’s clothing—being close to the “dirty” female body—is seen as something that can “stain” hpon. Female garments are typically washed separately and hung out of sight. Recently, male protesters have started to wear htamein as hats during demonstrations to show solidarity with female activists. Junta leader Min Aung Hlaing commented on protesters’ “indecent clothes” being “contrary to Myanmar culture” in a state publication this week.
Many young women on the front lines are from relatively privileged upper-middle-class backgrounds, but they’re not the only ones. Rural female activists, drag queens, ethnic minority women in traditional clothing, female garment workers, Rohingya women, LGBTI community members, and gender minorities from other marginalized groups have also joined the anti-coup movement. Feminists have also handed out safety helmets to women workers, bridging class divides. The visible involvement of women from all walks of life firmly cements their place in the political sphere—an act that pushes back against the expectation that women stay within the household.
“In Myanmar, feminism is full of negative connotations. People think it’s a Western ideology that we don’t need,” said Nandar, who heads the nonprofit Purple Feminists Group. “But democracy is not our language as well, so why are we dying and going to jail for it? I would compare the dictatorship to the patriarchy, and democracy to feminism, to help people understand.”
Myanmar has long struggled to foster an intersectional feminist consciousness. As far back as the colonial era, gender advocacy efforts have been constrained by historical representations of Myanmar women as being powerful and equal in status to men—beliefs based on the customs of the Bamar, Myanmar’s biggest ethnic group.
This myth became a part of national, cultural identity and caused genuine inequality to become overlooked, Tharaphi Than, an associate professor of world languages and cultures at Northern Illinois University, told me over Skype. The image of a “secure” woman with “equal status” became a source of Myanmar’s pride and nation-building, and women who fell short of this were silenced to protect it. “It wasn’t safe to talk about [gender inequality] because you’re attacking the national image,” she said.
The myth was also cited by British colonizers as a measure of the country’s level of civilization, with gender equality seen as a sign of progressiveness. In turn, during the fight for independence, it was utilized as a form of colonial resistance for Myanmar patriots, who argued that the nation was already “civilized” and did not need to be “liberated” through colonization.
When Westerners visited in the 20th century, they were shocked by the presence of female market traders, Than added. They cited this as proof of equality—despite the fact that female labor did not translate into autonomy or liberation.
Gender inequalities persist today. Women are subject to double standards when seeking employment or educational opportunities, they are cited as “dependents” on national cards and household registration lists, and the name of a girl’s father is prioritized over her own for school enrollment. On the 2020 Global Gender Gap Index, Myanmar ranked 114th out of 153 countries. Only half of the working-age female population is represented in the labor force, while the male labor force accounts for around 80 percent of the working-age male population.
Despite this, the myth of equality remains. Many cite Myanmar’s equal gender levels in education, the fact that women can keep their names after marriage, the relative independence of Myanmar women in contrast to some of their counterparts in other Southeast Asian countries, and the achievements of privileged women such as Aung San Suu Kyi as evidence.
Elite women have also often perpetuated such norms and framed those who highlight gender issues—particularly marginalized women—as insecure or dissatisfied with their status. Such sentiments, activists say, have also been co-opted in nationalist and military agendas by those in power to push back on human rights work and so-called Western influence, framed as an intervention by outsiders in a society that doesn’t need it.
Decades of military rule strengthened patriarchal ideas. Although the junta in 2014 changed rules to allow women to serve in the military, there are tight restrictions for candidates, including such physical requirements as being no heavier than 130 pounds and at least 5 feet, 3 inches tall. Not all positions are open to women, who also graduate from the academy at a lower rank than men. Insurgent groups fighting for greater autonomy such as the Arakan Army have capitalized on the junta’s lack of inclusion, aggressively recruiting women to their cause with promises of training, education, and upward mobility. Yet women in these ethnic armed forces are also relegated to subordinate roles.
With the military present at every level of power even after democratization, the army’s culture of hypermasculinity and sexism continued to pervade both political culture and broader society. Women were excluded from key stages of the democratization process and barred by the 2008 constitution—which made no mention of improving female political participation—from taking up certain positions, which were reserved for men and the all-male military. Feminists have also linked the ease of the recent coup to Aung San Suu Kyi being a woman, arguing that she may have been perceived as weaker and less challenging to depose than a male leader.
“In the 2008 constitution, the army is right at the center, the Bamar group is right at the center. That elephant in the room was conveniently ignored,” Than said. “There was a push by international donors to work closely with government institutions. Feminist groups were sidelined, labeled as radicalized or militant groups. Instead of changing the government’s mindset, donors worked around it.”
In 2015, the military-backed government introduced a package of “Race and Religion Protection Laws” that include racist and sexist provisions, for instance ones restricting marriages between Buddhist women and Muslim men. While feminists in Myanmar have fought to reverse the laws and pass progressive legislation, including through advocating for a Prevention of Violence Against Women Bill since 2010, such efforts have been stalled. At present, Myanmar does not specifically criminalize domestic violence.
Sexual violence, particularly attacks on ethnic minority women at the hands of the military in conflict areas, has also persisted, exacerbating widespread gender discrimination and a culture of victim-blaming. While #MeToo has influenced some women to speak out against sexual harassment and violence, the movement did not take off in Myanmar. In early 2018, just months after #MeToo began globally, the Ministry of Home Affairs released a report on rape cases that blamed victims for the attacks they suffered, listing reasons such as victims’ “drunkenness” and urging women to “dress modestly.”
“We had a quieter version of #MeToo,” said Nandar, who in 2018 spearheaded the first performance of The Vagina Monologues, a 1996 play by the feminist activist Eve Ensler, in Myanmar. Sex remains a taboo topic, in a country where even the word “vagina” does not have a straightforward translation. While there is a scientific word for genitals, it does not directly refer to the vagina, which is often spoken of in slang terms that can carry crude or sexualized connotations.
When Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party won a landslide victory in the 2015 elections, bringing an influx of female lawmakers into the new semi-civilian government, there was a glimmer of hope that women’s political participation would become a bigger priority. Yet it soon became clear that the party would simply pay lip service to gender issues, while continuing to undermine genuine feminist efforts. The party’s top ranks also continue to be dominated by men.
Despite making promises to foster female inclusion, the National League for Democracy only listed 150 female candidates, about 15 percent of the party’s total candidate list, in the 2015 elections, a significant drop from the 30 percent put forward during the 2012 by-elections. As of last year, women occupied only 11 percent of parliamentary seats and 4 percent of ministerial positions.
Even when women take positions of power, there’s no guarantee they will help advocate for gender issues. Aye Thiri Kyaw, a feminist researcher, cited the recent appointment of Thet Thet Khine as minister of social welfare, relief, and resettlement as one example of this problem. “She doesn’t indicate understanding about gender inequality. If she sits in the office, discussions can be sidelined,” she said. “Even women on senior levels disagree with suggestions from women’s groups. They see it as a threat to male superiority, they disagree on issues raised by women’s groups like marital rape.”
While women’s visibility in the protests has helped foster conversations around feminism, it comes with a dark side: sexual harassment and violence. Photos showing police manhandling female protesters, yanking their clothing and revealing their breasts, have been widely circulated. Khon Ja, an ethnic Kachin activist in her late 40s, said in a Facebook post last week that women were targeted by officers in Myitkyina, who reportedly arrested 46 people including 39 women and four under the age of 18. Male protesters have also been caught making misogynistic comments, there have been reports of rape threats and harassment against female protesters, and some demonstrators have held anti-coup placards with sexist phrases comparing military leader Min Aung Hlaing to intimate parts of women’s bodies.
As the violence escalates, the cost of protesting can be fatal. On March 3, the protests saw its bloodiest day of crackdowns, with security forces killing at least 38 people, including three young women who were shot dead. The first death reported in the crackdown was that of a 20-year-old woman who was shot in the head on Feb. 9. With more women on the front lines of the protests and volunteering as medics at the site of intense clashes, many fear the violence against them will only intensify.
For Nandar, the sadness can be overwhelming. Yet she will continue to speak out and align herself with the movement, which she says has evolved from an anti-coup protest to a broader revolution tackling not just the patriarchy, but all oppression in society.
“They’re killing us, killing our dreams. We could be fulfilling our dreams, taking classes, instead of protesting. We could be at our favorite restaurant. But because of this injustice, we spend our days and nights worrying about our future,” Nandar said. “Women would rather speak up and face the consequences than do no change. It sets the record that women matter, and our voices matter. And that’s very empowering to witness.”
Correction, March 12, 2021: The subheading of this article has been changed to correct an editing error. A previous version of the subheading misstated the number of women killed in the recent wave of protests.