The Women of Burma

A tradition of hard work and independence
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To people who come to Burma for the first time there are two things about the status of our women that seem to impress them with particular force. My foreign friends have often told me that they are surprised to see an ordinary Burmese woman sitting at her stall in a bazaar, dressed in the usual htamein and jacket, her hair arranged on top of her head in the traditional manner, often smoking a cigar—and handling her trade with all the hard-headed business acumen of a man. Or, in an agricultural family, the wife may be helping with the planting, the reaping, the winnowing. If her husband is a cartman, a Burmese woman may perform her share of the labor. You can see her in business houses, signing contracts and making decisions for the firm, or find her in any of the professions or in parliament. It all seems quite different from the familiar picture of the down-trodden, backward Asian woman.

Yet on a social occasion you will often find that the Burmese women cluster together on one side of the room and leave their men to talk to each other in a group of their own. You will see, at a meal, that the men are served first, that their wives offer them every deference within the home. On a street there is nothing unusual in the sight of a man walking ahead while his wife follows a few paces behind carrying the bundles.

The apparent paradox of these observations is, in fact, quite an accurate indication of the rather special place that Burmese women occupy in our society. For centuries —even before recorded history, from all we can deduce—Burmese women have accepted as their right a high measure of independence. The Buddhist and the Hindu influences that came to our country at a somewhat later date may have modified the social status of women, but we have always retained our legal and economic rights. In my own research work in the village system of Burma I have even found vestiges of a matriarchal system which must have flourished here at one time. The inheritance of certain oil wells, for instance, belonged exclusively to women; in some cases the inheritance to the headmanship of a village was through the female line. To this day we have no family surnames in Burma and a woman keeps her own name after marriage.

Our more recent history has done little to diminish our ancient rights. During the days of the Burmese kings, women were frequently appointed to high office and became leaders of a village, chieftainess, and even ruled as queen. And in a series of Burmese folk tales concerning wise and remarkable decisions in law, which have been collected by Dr. Htin Aung, the judge in each of the stories is a woman called "Princess Learned-in-the-Law." All these fields of administration, government service, law, medicine or business are always open to any Burmese woman who wishes to enter them.

In most of Asia women have had to fight for equality with men primarily on three matters: marriage, divorce, and inheritance. In Burma we have been singularly fortunate in possessing this equality even before we knew it was a problem. The "arranged marriage," customary in so large a part of Asia, is still to be found in some segments of our society, but with this essential distinction: that the parents cannot choose a partner for their daughter without offering her the right of refusal. Most of our young people now marry for love — or at least choose their own partners — and a girl can insist that her parents accept her betrothal to the man she prefers. Even after her marriage a girl can decide, if she wants, to remain in her own family for a while. The marriage itself continues this principle of independence and equality. The wedding is not a religious ceremony but a civil contract — in fact no ceremony is necessary at all; a man and woman can simply make known their decision to "eat and live together."

If, by any chance, either partner of a marriage should wish to terminate their contract in divorce, this, too, is possible and acceptable under Burmese law. If there is mutual consent to the divorce, if the husband and wife both decide — for whatever reason — that they cannot live together, they simply announce the end of the marriage to the headman of the village or to the heads of the two families. But even without this amicable arrangement, a woman can divorce her husband for cruelty, serious misconduct, or desertion, regardless of his consent. If she leaves him for a year and takes no maintenance from him during that time, he can claim a divorce. A man, on the other hand, must leave his wife for three years before she can get an automatic divorce. The reason for this difference of time is, of course, that business or professional duties are more likely to keep a man away from his family for long periods, but Burmese women often joke about how this just shows that a woman can make up her mind two years faster than a man.

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AS IN many parts of Asia, polygamy is accepted by Burmese society—but with one important difference. A man cannot marry for a second time without the consent of his first wife, and he must abide by her decision because otherwise she can sue for divorce and a partition of the property. Polygamy is not practiced very much nowadays, especially among educated people, but I remember hearing about the days of my great-grandparents and how government officials who were sent on a tour of duty to the provinces would keep one wife up-country and one in town. Now one seldom hears of such things on that level of society, though the practice still continues in the lower economic groups. My cook's husband, for instance, has three wives, and another of my servants two. Sometimes, in the villages, if a farmer has enough property, he will take more than one wife, but in the towns and among people with a higher standard of education polygamy is increasingly rare.

In Asia a woman's right of inheritance has, perhaps, occasioned more acrimonious argument and fiercer resistance than any other single aspect of women's status. Political rights and franchise have come to Asian women comparatively easily — with less opposition, in fact, than Western women found — but the question of equality in inheritance is still hotly debated in many parts of Asia. Here too, Burmese women find that their traditional law recognizes them equally with men, and all through our history we have had full inheritance rights. These rights are ensured by the rather odd fact that under Burmese Buddhist Law neither a man nor a woman can write a will. All property must be handed on according to the laws of succession. This means that during a marriage a husband and wife are joint owners of all property acquired during their marriage. If the man dies first, the woman automatically inherits — and, besides, she becomes the head of the family with full authority. In the same way, if a woman dies first, the man inherits. If he has more than one wife, there are laws laid down to deal with the complications of inheritance that this situation might raise, laws, that is, which decide which part of the property was accrued before marriage, which part during the marriage, and how it should be divided. Only when both the parents die do the children divide the property among themselves, and then, too, sons and daughters inherit equal shares.

With this background of history and custom in Burma, it is not really surprising that Burmese women have accepted their place in public life as a natural part of their status in society. On landed estates in the past it often happened that a woman, after she had been left a widow, more than doubled or trebled the family property through her own efforts. Before the war, businesses were mostly in the hands of foreigners, but in postwar Burma, as business opportunities arose for Burmese, the women as well as the men took advantage of them. The idea of big businesses, of import-export firms, of offices or shops being run by women (which so surprises the foreigner) seems perfectly ordinary to the Burmese. Equally, women have responded to the educational openings in postwar Burma. For example, at the last university convocation that I attended, about half of the graduating class in the school of medicine were women.

In politics we have never had much of a feminist movement because in our society the problem of equal rights had never arisen. However, under British rule Burma was considered part of India and we were governed according to the same constitution. In 1927, therefore, we did have a little bit of a feminist movement to abolish the clause which provided that women could not stand for election to the Legislative Council. We Burmese women took it for granted that this disqualification clause should be deleted, so we thought we would have a token demonstration. About ten of us sent out an appeal to the women of Rangoon to join in showing our support for a resolution introduced in the Legislative Council for the deletion of the sex-disqualification clause. More than a hundred women came to the office of the Rangoon City Corporation (of which we were allowed to be members) and we marched with banners and placards to the Legislative Council, followed through the streets by a large crowd of spectators.

We were amazed to discover that the British officials were not very keen about women getting into the Legislature. We assumed that it must be the British Government that made the objection because they knew that the women who would seek election were bound to back the nationalists. Several of us were warned against joining the demonstration. I was called up twice by certain officials and was told that it would be to my detriment to make this protest. When our procession set out we found the streets were heavily guarded by mounted police. The Secretariat building has four gates, and when we reached it we found that three of them were closed, chained and padlocked. At the fourth a mounted policeman gave us a letter from the Commissioner of Police telling us to disperse. We broke up quite peacefully, certain that we had made our point.

I think that ours was one of the first political demonstrations in Burma, and although we were not immediately successful, our feminist feeling lasted only two years. In 1929 a woman was elected for the first time to the Legislature. Since then we have had no trouble, and at the present moment we have six women members in parliament.

 

3

WITH this degree of freedom and equality in our public life, how does it happen that Burmese women seem, within the family, to accept a subservient position? In this I think, perhaps, that appearances are rather deceptive to the foreigner. In Burmese society we have never had the kind of parties and entertainments that are usual in the West. We have, of course, our own amusements — a shinpyu ceremony or a big wedding party or something like that — at which we meet. In the cities, especially Rangoon, where "Western-style parties" are beginning to be part of our life, we are apt to carry over our own social habits. The men will sit together and the women will sit together because it is assumed that they have more to say to one another. At a big dinner party or an informal picnic, it is quite customary to feed the men first because we know that on the whole they are the busy ones who may have an appointment or work that they must fulfill. We take this still further — even if a woman has a job or a profession, when her husband is transferred to another place or post, she will leave her work and start again in the place where he is assigned. We like to give precedence to our men in our own homes because we acknowledge them, until their death, as head of the household. Possibly we can afford to offer them this courtesy because we are secure in our rights and status. But part of the deference we offer them stems from the influence of Buddhism in our country. We believe that when a new Buddha comes to the world it will be as a man (though, to be sure, one of us who is now a woman may, in a later life, be born as a man and eventually progress to Buddhahood). We feel that this gives men an inherent superiority: mentally, they can reach higher than women.

However, much of what appears to be a retiring attitude among Burmese women in their social life is actually explained by the difference of Burmese manners from Western manners. In the West the tradition of chivalry (in however diluted a form) dictates many of the surface attitudes to women. We have no such tradition in Burma, but I don't think that our women feel inferior as a result. They have considerable authority in the home — they usually handle the family finances, for instance —and in many ways more freedom than Western women. Because of our family system, there are nearly always cousins or sisters or aunts or other relatives who live in the household. This means that there is always someone in the family to take care of the children and the mother is free to have a job or profession outside the home. The children, meanwhile, are taught at an early age to help in the house and in their mother's work outside. You will, for example, often find a girl of seven or eight sitting with her mother in a shop, learning how to sell the goods or helping out during a busy time.

As the girls grow older, it may seem to a Westerner that they lead a rather restricted life. It is not customary among us for a girl to go out alone after she is sixteen or seventeen. She will go out with her aunt or her mother, or she may go to the pictures with her friends, but there will be no question of "dating" in the Western sense. In the universities the boys may pay calls on the girls in their dormitory, or a group of them may go for a walk together, but even this is considered a Western institution. However, in our own terms, a Burmese girl has a good deal of freedom before marriage and we have no form of purdah for our women. Naturally there would not be the high percentage of love marriages that we have in this country if the boys and girls had no opportunity to meet and get to know each other.

In the old days — before we had clocks — we used to have special names for different moments of the day. The early morning was "the cock-crowing time," or we would speak of "the sunset time." In the same way the late afternoon was "go courting time." It is clear from this that the courting system is an old one in Burma, and, as in just about everything else, the Burmese woman has, by tradition, been accorded certain rights and privileges n this matter too. Even now it is a custom to go courting. Two or three boys will go together to a girl's house where she will receive them. They will eat some fruit and sweetmeats, or have tea and a smoke — and talk. Then they may go off to call on another girl in the same way. Introductions can be made in this manner and friendships can grow. Besides this, there are plenty of appropriate occasions in Burmese social life for boys and girls to meet. There are pagoda festivals and big picnics, there are family visits to other houses and there are sports. Apart from foreign sports like tennis and golf, and international sports like swimming, there are many Burmese games. In the villages, particularly, you will see boys and girls playing together the old games such as Phan-gon-dan, a kind of leapfrog, or Gonnhyin-tho-de, which is played with a big seed. After they have outgrown the childhood games they continue to meet at the kind of sport that we have specially for full moon nights when the groups divide into two sides, draw lines on the ground and then try to catch each other whenever anyone steps into "neutral territory."

Altogether, in our social life as well as in our public life, we feel that we, as Burmese women, occupy a privileged and independent position. It is a position for which we are trained — almost imperceptibly, and with love and security—from childhood. It is a position which is not limited either by marriage or by motherhood, and which allows us, eventually, to fit ourselves into the life, the work, and all the rewards that our country has to offer equally with our men.

DAW MYA SEIN, born in 1904 in Moulmein, is of Mon and Arakanese stock. Her distinguished career typifies the increasingly active role of women in Burmese public life. Mother of two children, she has still found time to be headmistress of several schools, editor and broadcaster, first roman elected to the Rangoon City Corporation, delegate to the London Round Table Conference of 1931 and the Paris UNESCO Conference of 1946, President of the National Council of Women, and a leader in social work. She is Lecturer in history at Rangoon University and has made two lecture tours in the United Stales.
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