Ever since I was able to speak and became conscious of my own actions, I remember telling my mom that I wished I were a boy. This wasn’t astonishing because you would always find me as the only girl among the boys, playing games only boys would play. Besides, most of my close friends and playmates were boys. My parents happily allowed this until I started middle school.

Then, my mom began teaching me certain behaviours a girl must follow, telling me that I couldn’t just act like a boy any more, and then the nightmare began. I was restrained from playing with my close male friends unless there were some girls in the group. When I asked why, I was lectured on how girls were different from boys, how “good girls” must not mingle with boys, and how girls must always conform to feminine customs. I habituated myself to most of these traditions, as I did not want to become an outsider.

I was raised in a very conservative way, like any other girl in Myanmar. There were many unanswered questions inside my head as I grew up, but I always stopped myself from asking them because I knew I was going to get the same old answers. Then, I went to study abroad in the United States, just before I turned 18. A couple years ago, I remember arguing with a friend of mine. He was telling me that men were smarter and more successful than women. I disputed that it was just a stereotype. He finally argued, “Most leadership positions are in the hands of men. Even the world’s most famous chefs are men, though cooking is a woman’s task.” I wanted to disagree, but I didn’t know how. But I was provoked.

Last year, I realised for the first time that I was a feminist after reading Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In. The more I explored the subject, the more I became aware of how much our culture privileged men. Scrutinising the ways I was brought up, I observed how deeply misogyny was embedded in our culture. Recently, seeing how people address gender inequality makes me a lot more hopeful and encourages my desire to share my knowledge. We are on our very first steps toward a feminist revolution, yet we can’t deny that many men and a few women are unhappy with the change. It is understandable that some men are unsupportive of the movement toward equality as they do not want to relinquish their privileges. On the contrary, it always surprises me when some women declare that they are not supporters of feminism as men and women are already equal. This is how invisible male privilege is, and I believe we all bear a responsibility to help them understand what the feminist movement is really about.

Marriage and relationships

As I grew up, I have learned the most daunting concept of all, which is the requirement to fit the expectations of society. In Myanmar, expectations for a girl or a woman are pretty high. In most households, raising a girl is about finding her a good husband, not about raising her to be independent. Girls are taught to invest so much in being “liked”, and in becoming a “good girl”, so that boys will marry them. For girls, virginity is expected before marriage, yet the same does not apply to boys. Having a boyfriend before marriage violates the good-girl image and in cases when girls do, they’re expected to marry him. If a girl has had more than one boyfriend in her life, she’s considered a slut, and the society will see her as a disgrace despite the fact that boys are applauded for doing the same. Worse, arranged marriage is still taking place countrywide, even in the cities, because it is seen as a deep personal failure if a girl is unmarried at a certain age.

School and education

Apart from these marriage and relationship norms, girls’ dreams are destroyed from the first day they go to school. The automatic understanding that a class monitor or team leader should be a boy has led us to think that it is “natural” for boys to be leaders. The fact that girls are called bossy when they take leadership positions is still permeating our society, which means that no one will speak up. There’s one issue that I find genuinely unjust: the two different scoring systems for different sexes to enter college/university. To get into medical school in Myanmar, boys only need a score of 460 while girls need 500. I presume the idea implies that things are easily achievable for boys, but girls have to try harder.

Despite the fact that education plays an important part of everyone’s lives, it’s a totally different situation in the villages. Literacy rates in Myanmar are much lower for girls than for boys. There are countless stories of young girls having to give up their education for their brothers because tradition suggests that it’s OK for girls to be uneducated as they’re going to get married. We also hear, “As a girl, you don’t have to be that educated.”

Daily life

Unsurprisingly, the primitive notions connected to deep-rooted sexism permeate everyday life. Ideas about women belonging only in the kitchen are utterly pervasive. It’s really disturbing when I get comments like, “You should learn to cook because you’re a girl.” I’m not implying that women should not learn how to cook. I just don’t believe in a doctrine that demands everyone perform distinct roles according to their gender.

What’s more, it’s truly sad to see women dumping their careers once they get married. This further promotes male power – when men are the only ones with the financial authority in the household, they become dominant. As a result, women rarely report problems in their marriages because they have no idea where to go or what to do when they lack financial resources. Besides, divorce is still seen as a “shame” nationwide. Women end up getting stuck in unhappy marriages for life.

There are exasperating superstitions regarding clothes too. In Myanmar, we hang clean clothes in the sun to dry them. Beliefs such as that women’s clothes must always stay hung below men’s are entrenched in society. Insults such as “Go wear a htamein [a traditional woman’s garment]!” are widely used among men, connoting that women’s clothes are of lower status.

Religion or culture?

A country’s religion is linked to its culture, and Myanmar’s population is 89 percent Buddhist. But being a female in this country is never easy as long as male chauvinism is omnipresent. Religion is used to build an ideology of discrimination against women, who are often told to wish to be a male in the next life because being born female is a result of wrongdoing in a past life. “No Women” signs at the pagoda restrict females from entering certain areas inside. Men (and even women) believe men have higher status. When I asked why, I was told about fairytales in which women went to hell for disobeying these beliefs.

I lived with this for 18 years. Though I found these beliefs irritating, I didn’t think they were wrong. Schools just taught us facts, but never taught about rational or sceptical thinking. I’m convinced that most of us never really reflect on the religion we practise. Do we actually believe that this situation is informed by Buddha? If so, Buddhism endorses gender discrimination and inequality, but I refuse to believe that Buddha ever promoted this. Buddhism started in the 5th century BCE. Sexism has existed ever since men were around, which was at least millions of years ago. Religions are created by men, therefore sexism has been playing a role since at least the time of Buddha.

Rape and harassment

Myanmar is ranked 49th in a list of the most dangerous countries in the world, according to the 2016 GPI. Our country is known, among tourists, for only two things: for its beauty and pagodas, and for the lack of basic human rights. Growing into adolescence, one of the things I hated the most was to walk down the streets alone because boys would hiss or make catcalls at me. They would stare at me and start singing random song lyrics at me. Parents ban girls from going out alone at nights because the outside world is too dangerous for a girl alone. Freedom is an unthinkable sentiment for girls and women. Rape is still common although it does not happen as often in the cities as it does in rural areas. Victims of rape are often ethnic minorities, and most of the rape crimes are committed by soldiers with the intention of dividing the country. Rape is used as a weapon of war against minorities in Myanmar. When the crime is reported, the fact that government ignores it only ignites conflict between the government and minorities. What is more sorrowful is that the majority of rapes are never reported because of the country’s intense honour-shame culture. Being raped is still considered a humiliating tragedy, and victim-blaming is ubiquitous. The public criticises the victim for mingling too much with boys, or for her flirty personality.

Myanmar endured military dictatorship for more than 50 years, and just recently transitioned to a democratic nation. Still, we can’t deny that the exploitation of the dictatorship is still in the core of our people. Yet it’s not just the government’s responsibility but also the citizens’ to gain the true democracy we demand. We are still far from democracy until we eliminate the male-dominant system in our households and workplaces.

The author of Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi, said, “The enemy of democracy is patriarchal culture. As with the family, where the father has the last word, so a dictator is the father of the nation.” We want a truthful democracy where everybody has equal rights and freedom, and the weak don’t have to fear the strong. We have a long way to go. It will take generations to completely abolish the patriarchal system, but nothing is unachievable in the face of determination and persistence.

Movement toward gender equality should be everybody’s responsibility – not just women’s

I often see people criticising feminism, asserting that there are far more important concerns in the world. However, gender violence is very significant, and is rising at a pandemic rate. Poverty is a gender issue, as poverty rates are higher for women than men in all racial and ethnic groups. There is no country in the world where women are paid the same as men. Gender violence normalises domination and supports dictatorship. It creates wars. According to Gloria Steinem, one of the cofounders of Ms Magazine, gender violence is where the concept of any violence is initiated because violence against females is what we see first within families. The whole idea that it’s OK for one group to dominate another becomes normalised. I don’t believe we should think of the problem as “less crucial” than other issues.

Some say feminism is anti-men. Feminists do not hate men. The very definition of feminism – the belief that men and women should have equal rights – excludes hatred of men. Certainly, there are always people who want to kill the messenger, and they come up with words like “man-hater” or “feminazi”, but this is simply because changing the status quo is never comfortable, and men don’t like it when people challenge their power. One quote goes, “When people comment against feminism, there is no doubt they are supporting sexism. There is no sitting on the fence. You are either a feminist or sexist.”

Gender issues are not just women’s issues. Fighting for equal gender rights is the same as fighting for human rights. In a recent TED talk, Jackson Katz analysed how the gender issue became synonymous with just women’s issues. He said we think of groups other than “white” when someone mentions race and we think “sexual orientation” refers to gay, lesbian or bisexual people. The same notion applies when we hear the word “gender”: We think it’s just about women. Katz said, “It’s as if white people don’t have racial identity or belong to some racial category or construct, as if heterosexual people don’t have a sexual orientation, as if men don’t have a gender.” This is one of the ways dominant systems maintain and reproduce themselves. It is how the characteristics of power and privilege develop the ability to go unexamined. In the case of gender violence, the issue becomes just a women’s issue when it should be primarily a men’s issue.

The idea behind feminism is remarkably broad. We simply understand it as fighting for gender equality, but in a country like Myanmar where the patriarchal system is entrenched, I can relate much more with another definition which is, according to Amandla Stenberg, “Liberating people from any type of discrimination caused by patriarchy.” We all suffer these discriminations every day and it’s not just women. We tell little boys that men don’t cry or show emotion. We tell men that they’re failures if they can’t support their families. We see men as weak if they are too kind. None of us had a choice of gender when we were born.

Just imagine a world without gender stereotypes. If we can dream it, we can achieve it. We owe this duty to the society we were brought up in and the world we live in. We also owe it to our future generations so that they won’t have to live with the level of hardship we deal with on a daily basis. However, we are often silent about situations we could make better, if only we spoke up. Do we really want this sexist system to be perpetuated? Do we really want to experience the same old gender injustice every day? Last of all, do we really want our sons and daughters to live through the exact same experiences of gender-biased prejudices that we are facing now? Fighting for equality requires relentless vigilance and perseverance, but before all this, we must raise our voices for a better, fairer and an equal community.

I would like to end with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr: “In the end, what will hurt the most is not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.”

It is really time to stand up and act. Later will be too late.

– This article originally appeared in Tea Circle, a forum hosted at Oxford University for emerging research and perspectives on Burma/Myanmar

Ei Thandar Myint was born and raised in Myanmar. She is currently studying hospitality management at University of Nevada, Las Vegas and gained associate degrees in business administration and psychology from Butte College in 2015.

Link: http://www.mmtimes.com/index.php/opinion/23246-myanmar-women-s-rights-breaking-the-silence.html