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.
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.