Role of Women in Burmese Culture

By Dr. Miemie Winn Byrd

It was quite fitting that the Mandalay Gazette has asked me to contribute an OpEd piece on women’s rights in Myanmar just as I was finishing Chie Ikeya’s book on Refiguring Women, Colonialism, and Modernity in Burma.  I highly recommend this book.  She used multiple Burmese-language historical sources to analyze the role of women in shaping the Burmese society, especially during the colonial era.  Her study confirmed some of my own observations and existing knowledge, but it also afforded me new historical perspectives on the important role Burmese women played in shaping the society.

The Burmese women, unlike their counterparts in other Asian cultures, have always received the same legal rights as men within the society.  The only area where women are considered inferior is in religion.  The Burmese Buddhists believe that only men can obtain an opportunity to reach Nirvana; Women have to be reincarnated as men to have such privilege of attaining Nirvana.   The Burmese Buddhists believe that only man can obtain the Buddhahood.  The female nuns are traditionally considered to be lower than male monks.Therefore, women in Burmese society are commonly associated with the worldly sphere of desire, activities, and affairs while Burmese men are allowed to concentrate on achieving spirituality.  This cultural attribute afforded women with autonomy and power as they were expected to actively participate in trade, commerce, finance, and political affairs of the family and the larger society.    Sir James George Scott (aka Shway Yoe) noted in his 1882 book, The Burman: His Life and Notions, “a married Burmese woman is much more independent than any European even in the most advanced states.”

Sir James George Scott’s observation in 1882 of Burmese women’s rights and freedom continued well into the British colonial period.  History has shown that Burmese women actively participated in anti-colonial movements during the pre-World-War-II period.  Chie Ikeya pointed out every nationalist organization at the tail-end of the colonial period in Myanmar was accompanied by a respective women’s branch.

Although the Burmese women emerged together with their male counterparts as aspiring movers and shakers in colonial Burmese society, there was a twist to their role which was different from men.  Burmese women were expected to protect and preserve the purity of Burmese-Buddhist culture.  This latter expectation led to oppression of women through the stigmatization of interracial marriages and societal enforcement and imposition of traditional behavior on Burmese women.   The colonial experience had stimulated a sense of loss for Burmese culture to foreigners and colonial masters.  Colonial experience seemed to have marked the beginning of the decline of women’s independence and empowerment as the Burmese society strived to maintain the traditions of Burmese-Buddhist culture.  This loss was further exacerbated by the post-colonial military regime as it set out to create a cultural sovereignty which, in turn, eroded women’s autonomy and liberty within the Burmese society.

After 60 years of military rule, women’s legal rights continued to be equal to that of men’s despite the regime’s dismal records of human rights.   However, women suffered far more loss of their freedom and authority in terms of their cultural standing over the last 60 years.  The Burmese women are bounded by a narrow cultural expectation of their roles and responsibilities within the family and society.  Today, only a small fraction of women hold leadership positions within the government bureaucracy or in Parliament.  If Myanmar is to develop and catch up with the modern world, we must remove the shackles of the colonial legacy and broaden the role and responsibility of 50% of Burmese society.  It’s time for Myanmar to reclaim and unfurl the unlimited potential in its female population for progress and growth.


မွတ္ခ်က္။  ။ ျမန္မာ့ဂဇက္ (ေအာက္တိုဘာ-ႏို၀င္ဘာ)ထုတ္တြင္ပါျပီး OpEd ျဖစ္ပါသည္။

အထက္ပါOpEd တြင္ မ်ဥ္းျဖင့္တားဖ်က္ထားေသာ အပိုဒ္မွာ မူရင္းစာေရးသူမွ Bold လုပ္ထားေသာ စာႏွင္ျ့ပင္ဆင္၍ ျပန္လည္ေပးပို႔ျပီးျဖစ္ေသာ္လည္း ယခုလပံုႏွိပ္ထုတ္ေ၀ေသာစာတြင္ ဖ်က္ထားေသာအပိုဒ္မွားယြင္းပါသြားပါသျဖင့္ စာဖတ္သူမ်ားႏွင့္ မူရင္းစာေရးသူ ေဒါက္တာမီမီ၀င္းအား ေတာင္းပန္အပ္ပါေၾကာင္း – တာ၀န္ခံအယ္ဒီတာ


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Editor - The Myanmar Gazette || First Amendment – Religion and Expression - Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

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