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Myanmar girls and the political blockade

Sonia Lim

“Medicine.” nodded my first female cousin, as did my second, my third, my fourth and so on, when I asked them what they studied at university. It was the same with my female colleagues at school. In fact, the majority are studying science so that they can pursue medicine in graduate school. I was utterly disappointed, as I have yet to find one Myanmar politics student at my school, let alone a female.

Sure, parents encourage or even demand, that their daughters go into medicine; that job is secure, stable and prestigious. Only a small number of adults would want their girls to go into the arts, let alone politics, a field widely perceived as “scary”. And it is understandable; most of the female political leaders are from the 1988 student demonstrations and were therefore former political prisoners. They sacrificed a lot to be politically active about everything from labor rights to democratic rights. Of course, no parent would want their girls to have to struggle through hardships like that. It isn’t a bad thing that many Myanmar girls go into the health sector, as this field needs a lot of development. But considering the lack of diversity in politics – though 51% of Myanmar’s population are women – this eschewing of careers in politics, or even interest in politics, isn’t a good thing, either.

As Myanmar’s democratic icon Aung San Suu Kyi once observed, “ Women are underrepresented in politics.” This view is supported by United Nations findings, which state that only 4.4% of the seats in the national parliament are held by women. These statistics are very low compared to other South East Asian countries like Laos or Cambodia, where women represent up to over 20% of the parliament. In addition to parental discouragement, another important factor preventing girls from getting into politics is the “no-questions” culture and education system that presently pervades Myanmar.

When I volunteered to teach English to young students aged 7 – 9, I noticed that this “no-questions” cultural issue was evident. I taught one student how to identify the word “pig” with the picture of a pig and “cow” with the picture of a cow. I then asked her to draw the associated animals and write the words beside it as she spelt it out. Then, I tested her by stating that the cow is in fact a pig and asked her if she was right. She hesitated for a while and when I nodded, she obediently nodded as well.

I could totally relate to her experience, because I myself was taught in a similar way at school. When the teacher said something about a topic, it was encouraged that as a student, I asked no questions. It was, and apparently still is, considered rude to ask questions in class. At public schools, moreover, students are made to memorise texts they were given in task and regurgitate these materials in exams. And as always, they are expected to nod obediently at what the teachers dictate in class.

So young girls are not only reprimanded for questioning what ‘authorities’ say at home, but also at school, which is supposed to be a place of learning. When I was in Yangon last summer, I asked a local fifth grader at a public school what she learnt about in history class. She recited whole paragraphs, but when I asked her, “What do you think about it?” and, “What does it really mean?”, she smiled and said, “I don’t know”.

That’s where the problem lies: it isn’t simply the fact that young girls are taught to nod silently at what their teachers and parents say. The problem is that they don’t seem to mind not understanding, and don’t question why they’re told to do what they’re told to do. And sadly, they don’t see this as a problem at all. Myanmar girls are therefore dissuaded from their own ambitions, taught obedience and for and are forbidden to confront authority.

This ‘obedient’ culture did not happen for no reason. Ever since numerous students got involved in the major political unrest that took place in 1988, the military junta had closed down schools and reduced funding to the education sector. They clearly do not want students to revolt again. Thus, the “no-questions” culture was not only evident in the way they ruled the country, but also in the culture and educational system that they shaped throughout the years.

Thus, the “no-questions” culture, coupled with strong parental discouragement to join the field and social disapproval of girls who question authority, presents itself as a blockade for young girls to pursue politics as a major at university, let alone become a politician. When parents say “no” to politics, young girls are inclined to obey, simply because listening to their parents is seen as the right thing to do. It wouldn’t even matter whether they wanted to study it or were merely interested in it. When they ask questions, they are so often reprimanded for doing so.

The final factor concerning the underrepresentation of women in leadership roles is the way in which women are treated. As Myanmar feminist writer Pyo Let Han said, “ Culturally, a country dominated by the military will always look down on women. They always think we’re not ready for leadership.” She also added that women politicians and activists are almost always at the receiving end of sexism.

Perhaps most damningly, there is also the idea that girls do not really need to be “too educated”, because at the end of the day, they are just destined to become housewives, anyway. They are therefore expected to focus their energies on beautifying themselves, and behaving appropriately at all times so that they might find a good husband by their mid-twenties. This culture teaches young girls that intelligence and talent aren’t that important, and that their education is secondary to their pursuit of a husband. As a result, it is tempting for young girls to give up on their ambitions, and instead strive to be proper, obedient Myanmar ladies. Conflictual, intimidating, male-dominated fields such as politics are rendered inaccessible in this culture.

With so many factors – cultural and educational – that block women from politics, it is not surprising that there is a very low representation of women the field. It is imperative, therefore, that young girls question what they are being told or taught to do, embrace and defend their desire for political leadership and, most importantly, learn to be resistant to hostile treatments. This can be achieved by practicing and actively participating in leadership roles that would best prepare them for politics and any workforce, because at the end of the day, if you are really good at what you do, hurtful, sexist or condescending remarks – so often the product of insecurity – don’t matter at all. Cheers to the future young women of Myanmar!