Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Women Land: avowal and contradictions

In our junior school years, Burmese Socialist Government prescribed history textbooks for us that were flatter than the slate of a modern Apple’s proud product, the iPad Mini. Fearing the dividend to my knowledge of history delivered by these lovely minions of the government’s curriculum was distorted, I explored beyond the fences and intellectually wandered in different directions, learning a number of dense history books written by private historians.
 My interest at that time was the detailed history of Burma’s independence movements against the British Raj. It was particularly fascinating to read Thakin Lay Maung’s Burma’s Political History that narrated the story of Burma’s final separation from India in 1937. Burma had a general election in 1932 for its people to determine whether they were willing to remain as a province in India or become a separate nation. Some Buddhists, steeped in textual studies emphasized that the Buddha was an Indian and that our Burmese’s ancestors were related to the blood of the Buddha, Kshatriyas, the caste of India into which Buddhas are born, supported the vote that Burma remain a part of India. In opposition, the separatists’ campaign emphasized the distinct social status of Burmese women from their Indian and Chinese counterparts. If Burma were to remain with India, the superior social status of Burmese women, even a higher status than in the democratic West, would be downgraded. 
I felt proud to discover our nation had a distinct idea – that of the very high social status of women. “Burmese guys are gentlemen to treat their ladies as their equal”, I believed. I had brave Arab lady friends who were fighting for women’s rights in their doctrinaire nations. I often made them feel jealous by saying:” our Burmese housewives are exchequers in their married life. The guy has to give all his monthly income to the lady and she authorizes his daily expenses. The ladies are the higher sex in our tradition”. In my simple assumption, I thought the higher social role of Burmese women compared to Arabs-Muslims, Chinese-Confucians and Indians-Hindus was significantly correlated with our Buddhist tradition.
 A closer examination can reveal that this assumed correlation could be highly confounded with the inelastic military rule that generally laid down protective walls for its social classes. The change into a democratic system got rid of these walls and in the middle of last year, along with the response of Aung San Su Kyi to Wairathu’s proposal of restricting interfaith marriage of Buddhist women, “You can not treat women unfairly like that, ” the evidence of the fall of the military’s protective wall for the women became evident.
 In particular, when a large number of Buddhist monks become involved in the mass campaigns for supporting Wairathu’s proposal, it is a time to reconsider our assumption of the higher social status of Burmese women that we think it is being privileged from our Buddhist tradition.
 My observation is that this assumption is at the least inconsistent. The point raised by Ma Khin Lay, a former political prisoner and gender activist, illuminated this inconsistency, “ Burmese women were discriminated within our Buddhist tradition. We are not given access to the upper square of the pagodas as our male counterparts do,” she said in her recent interview with the Irrawaddy. In contrast, Chinese temples allow women equal access to any public place.
P Moe Ninn, the leading thinker of our colonial time, contrasted the married life of a Chinese wife and a Burmese wife in this way: “when Chinese husbands go back home from work, he does remember to purchase food to feed his wife and children; Burmese husbands, these would-be-Buddhas, getting drunk in coming back home, beat his poor wife for she does not know how to cook good food for him”.
In our ‘Buddhist’ tradition, “inferiority” of women was widely acknowledged. The Buddhist scriptures laid down a monastic rule that a female disciple can never be raised to the status of the Bhikkhu (venerable monk). This rule has become relaxed, in some ways, in Sri Lanka and Thailand but the State Sangha Council of Burma so far has enforced that no woman can be ordained as a Bhikkhu in Burma.
 The scholarly Buddhist literature demanded that girls should ask their patrons for permitting their marriage and accordingly, even her younger brother has his ‘Buddhist’ legitimacy in imposing the ban on her marriage with a person he doesn’t agree. Not surprisingly, Buddhist monks feel their legitimate role for taking part in current anti-miscegenation campaigns. In their formative education period, they have been ingrained to think women, being of inferior sex, seriously lack of the judgmental capability to choose what is right for her.
Perhaps, the strongest evidence of discrimination against women for their ‘poor’ judgmental ability was the rise of anti-miscegenation movements during the colonial period and their current resurgence in modern times. The popular literature published in 1930s had a number of discussions to condemn the ‘degenerative’ marriage of Burmese women to Indians. Most discussions had a similar theme that Kalars (Indians) were seducing Burmese women. Lacking capacity to resist the seduction, a Burmese woman chose to marry a Kalar. Her children were all half-caste, and these ‘impure’ children would degenerate the race and tradition.
During the colonial period, Buddhist monks were high-handed in treating women. They were used to wandering about, holding sticks with a hook in them to tear down the clothes of women in public places if they were not wearing ‘safely’ according to the Burmese tradition.
These colonial features offered us strong counterfactual evidence to the 1930s politicians’ claim of “freedom of Burmese Buddhist women”. While it might be true that Burmese women have enjoyed some equality status in their education and profession, the above examples demonstrate convincingly that they are not necessarily related to our Burmese ‘Buddhist tradition’ and Burmese women don’t have a real higher social status as many have been deluded to believe.
 In fact, our past sentiments against “Indianization” of Burma by the British made our anti-colonial politicians claim that Burmese women are much more equal compared to their Indian-Chinese peers. The alleged superiority of Burmese women had become their testament to claim to autonomy of Burma from India. It also reaffirmed anticolonial politicians a legitimate feeling for the particularity of the “Burmese Buddhist Tradition”. As evident, the claimed particular superiorities are fictional rather than practical accomplishments.
 The modern Burmese monks, following the similar fictional reasoning line, warrant their current anti-miscegenation movements to preserve their “particularly accomplished tradition” that ‘protects’ the freedom of Buddhist women. I found two imminent problems in this fictional superiority of our ‘race’ (Amyo), ‘religion’ (Batar), and ‘tradition’ (Sasana). The first problem is we are ignoring the real huge challenges in society, like the long-established discriminatory practices against women and pretend as if our Buddhist tradition has addressed all problems that our foreign societies are still struggling to achieve. The second problem is while modern Burma is a nation of diverse multi-ethnic groups, and it indeed is a country composed by considerably large groups of Indians (Kalars) and Chinese (Tayoke) migrants, we like to exclude these other groups in our socio-political scenarios solely based on the reason that we have a particular superior tradition compared to “bad” traditions of those people.
            During the decades of her house arrest, the military government launched numerous attacks on the Lady’s personal life. Their accusation was mainly based on her “woman-ness” and marriage to Michael Aris, a British Buddhist scholar from the University of Oxford. “Suu Kyi failed to safeguard her own race, after she has married a British foreigner. Not only her, but her future generation is the ones responsible for the ruination of our race and our tradition”. Currently, we can also observe Wirathu’s line of reasoning to retain the Article 59(f), has its consensus with the military’s past justification of protecting against the ‘unhealthy’ children’s ruination of our “superior” tradition.
 My conclusion is that we, the people of modern Burma, have imprisoned ourselves in the fictional accomplishments that the past anti-colonial politicians created and consequently we have failed to observe the real challenges of our imminent discriminatory practices. This fictionally accomplished  “tradition” has spoiled us in a sense that we fail to see our multi-racial and multi-traditional diversity as strengths of the nation. Instead we Burmese have come to mistrust all “other” people, or whoever is from a foreign tradition.

            A saying by Confucius is “ how can I talk with such a person who claims himself as superior-minded but he does not want to speak in the same table with the person in poor clothes?” I think our democratic reform process has to overcome this psychological barrier of condescending the others that Confucius alerted.  We shall no longer be moonlighting by making our avowal of superior accomplishments in our tradition and retaining the contradictions of our prominent discriminatory ailments. We shall drop our infatuation for the fictional achievements and we need to develop an extensively inclusive socio-political tradition in Burma.

         [Please check out the abridged version at ]

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