Burmese women show a new way out of the military darkness

The military coup threatens to escalate Myanmar’s long history of oppression and armed conflict into a full-scale civil war. But Myanmar women have activated their traditional skirts to challenge the patriarchal culture of domination that has long characterized the military's self-understanding.

Photocredit: Benjamin Small

Hannah Russell and Tomas Max Martin 

SINCE THE MILITARY COUP on February 1, the streets of Myanmar’s cities have been transformed from the organized chaos of small tea shops, vegetable stalls and street vendors into a battle zone. Barricades that people have put together to protect themselves from the army and police in the streets from replaced the otherwise familiar buzz of taxis and motorcycles. Yet in early March, the many barricades of sandbags, rocks and junk were supplemented by endless rows of ‘htamein’ – the colorful skirts traditionally worn by women in Myanmar. In a feminist battle cry, these dresses were hung up on roadblocks and flags etc along with tampons and sanitary pads.

Myanmar’s army is well equipped with modern weapons technology, thanks to the ongoing supplies from China and Russia, but the military is also a deeply superstitious institution and anchored in an extreme patriarchal culture of dominance. Domination by Buddhist men in Myanmar is partly based on the notion of ‘hpon’, which is the source of man’s power, accumulated through good deeds in past lives (Khin Mar Mar Kyi, 2013). Women submit to the dominance of men by following the customs and regulations, which for instance stipulate that their bodies and possessions must be placed lower than men’s. Thus, if a woman hangs laundry that they carry on the lower part of their body on a clothesline over a man’s head, she can reduce his hpon.

In the streets of Myanmar, women have used their skirts as weapons and hung htamein on military vehicles and across streets as protective barriers and on signs and banners of the protest movement. This non-violent protest has great symbolic value, but it is also an effective tool that actually impedes the advance of the army in practice. Social media has flooded with pictures of soldiers who wield long sticks to try to pull rows of htamein down from trees and lamp posts, while the police are hesitantly watching in the background.

On March 7, the military passed an emergency law banning the hanging of women’s clothes in public on the grounds that it was a disrespectful act against the country’s monks and that it defiled the teachings of the Buddha. The next day, seven protesters were arrested for hanging their dresses in Sanchuang, a district in the capital Yangon that has been at the epicenter of popular protests.

In solidarity with the women activists, many young men have posted pictures on social media where they have wrapped a htamein around their heads to challenge the taboo and show that they do not feel threatened. The fear of the skirt seems to be a thing of the past and may – like the patriarchal system of which it is a part – no longer have a future in Myanmar.

This is not the first time that women’s clothing has been activated politically. Aung San Suu Kyi, who is again imprisoned by the military, has a long tradition of strategically wearing dresses and suits from the ethnic minority communities to show her nationalism and to stand in contrast to the many uniformed generals. But the feminist opposition to the junta seems to be particularly strong right now.

Since the first days of the coup, women have been at the forefront of the democratic protests, challenging the prevailing patriarchal view of the obedient mother, wife and daughter. Women in the clothing industry led the popular strikes during the first weeks of the coup and organizations such as the Gender Equality Network, the Women’s League of Burma and the Karen Women’s Organization have drawn significant attention to the new junta’s abuses of women’s rights. 

20-year-old woman Mya Thwe Thwe Kaing was the first to lose her life during the popular protests. And the killing of protester Ma Kyal Sin – better known by her nickname ‘Angel’ – became iconic for the uprising when her t-shirt with the words “Everything will be OK” became a protest slogan overnight.

In the fight against the junta, the women risk being arrested, assaulted, raped and killed. Death tolls, imprisonments and torture continue to rise, with up to 600 killed and more than 3,000 illegally detained since the coup (AAPP April 2021). The coup is in many ways a repetition of well-known atrocities, but against this bloody background, activists in Myanmar are also showing a new way forward. Htamein activism delivers a deep blow to the military’s violent and patriarchal hegemony and signals a potential breakthrough against sexism and discrimination.

Strikes, peaceful demonstrations, art, online activism and creative weapons such as Htamein continue to dominate the resistance of young people and civilians, including a wealth of Facebook photos of Easter eggs painted with calls for and support for democracy and a sea of shoes with flowers in, as people take to the streets to pay homage to the fallen and the small steps towards freedom.

The military darkness is gathering in earnest around the protesters right now in a fight that many say they cannot or will not lose – at any cost. And the army’s persistent brutality is pushing Myanmar closer and closer to a situation, where the ongoing civil wars in the ethnic controlled areas will escalate into a full-blown armed uprising across the entire country. The violence intensifies and the military had probably not expected such fierce popular resistance. The generals are now also already pulling ashore in relation to their original guarantees of a new election in a year. Three months after the coup, the army spokesman stated that it might be necessary to extend the announced state of emergency by another year if the army could not ‘stabilize’ the country (Southeast Asia Globe April 2021).

But it is not just the military that is stepping up its efforts in the fight for Myanmar’s future. Initially, the protesters demanded the release of democratically elected leaders so that Aung San Suu Kyi could form a government after NLD’s landslide victory in November 2020. Now, the new National Union Government and the civil protesters demand for a new federal democracy with real autonomy for the country’s ethnic groups and without the 2008 Constitution’s deeply problematic division of power with the army, which has repeatedly undermined the democratic process in the past decade.

In the streets of Myanmar’s cities, people have painted the asphalt red as a testament to the blood that has been shed over the past months. The local and innovative struggle against the coup plotters continues despite the great human cost – a struggle that seeks to break with institutionalized ethnic discrimination and ingrained patriarchal militarism. Few had foreseen the coup, and fewer will be able to predict where it will lead, but one thing is certain: the central role of women in the struggle for democracy is assured.

[This commentary was published in Danish in Ræson 15 April 2021]

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