The women of Myanmar: ‘Our place is in the revolution’
Some 60 percent of protesters against the military coup are women who fear their hard-won rights hang in the balance.
Every day at sunrise, Daisy* and her sisters set out to spend several hours in the heat cleaning debris from the previous day’s protests off the streets of Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city.
Protests have erupted around the country since the military seized control of the government after arresting democratic leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, on February 1, and declared a year-long state of emergency.
According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), a non-profit rights organisation formed by former political prisoners from Myanmar and based in Thailand, 715 civilian protesters have been killed and more than 3,000 people have been charged, arrested or sentenced to prison for taking part in protests. March 27 marked the deadliest day of the anti-coup protests so far, with more than 100 deaths in a single day.
Daisy, a 29-year-old elementary school teacher, has been out of work since the first week of February, because schools have been closed as a result of the protests, but is the sole earner and carer for her two younger sisters, aged 15 and 13. Despite this, she spends a portion of whatever money she has left to help feed hungry protesters.
The military makes use of dalans – local people who are forced to spy on their neighbours and, in particular, to target women living alone whose homes are easy targets for looting and harassment. As a result, Daisy and her sisters have been forced to move home three times and are now in hiding with relatives.
“The military are preying on vulnerable women, breaking in and raiding where we live to seize our belongings and lock us up for no reason,” Daisy says.
But despite having little financial security, Daisy continues to help with the protests. “As women, we are the most at risk under the military but however large or small, our place is in the revolution.”
Outrageous displays of ‘profanity’
Across Myanmar, women protesters have lined the streets with vibrant traditional women’s clothing and undergarments in the hope of challenging a long-held taboo around women’s clothing.
“Htaimein – Burmese for sarongs and intimate women’s wear – are perceived as ‘unclean’ in traditional Buddhist belief and thus considered inferior in Burmese society,” explains 25-year-old Su, an activist and university student who does not wish to give her full name for fear of reprisals. Su is originally from Dadaye, a town in the Ayeyarwady region of southwest Myanmar. “Coming into contact or walking under these is believed to bring bad luck, reducing one’s hpone – masculine superiority – in Buddhist belief.”
She says hanging up sarongs has been an effective deterrent to keep the military from attacking the protesters as their staunch beliefs will not allow them go anywhere near the orchestrated clothing lines.
Women are also using their sarongs to create flags and hats for men to parade alongside banners that read “our victory, our htaimein” to celebrate wielding a degrading superstition about women as a successful defence strategy.
In a similar vein, women have been hanging sanitary towels drenched in red paint to emulate blood over photos of the military general, Min Aung Llaing. “For a society where men, including Min Llaing, detest the idea of menstruation, smearing his face with what he finds the dirtiest is unimaginably humiliating,” Su explains. “Sarongs and sanitary napkins are symbolic of the women in Myanmar and how they are regarded as inferior to men in society.”
By weaponising these displays of “profanity”, women say they are reclaiming their status against the same patriarchal attitudes that perceive them as lesser in society.
Civil disobedience as a means of resistance
The Women’s League of Burma, an organisation which seeks to increase women’s participation in public life in Myanmar (which was formerly called Burma), estimates that 60 percent of those protesting are women, while the AAPP says women make up almost 40 percent of those arrested.
The Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) has brought the country’s public services, including healthcare, schools and banks, to a halt. It is also behind efforts to deprive the military of its income by boycotting military-owned services and products such as tobacco, alcohol, coffee and oil, and refusing to pay government taxes.
Chit*, a 26-year-old doctor-in-training from Yangon, has been part of a group of female medical volunteers tending to the wounded during the protests. She believes providing medical care to protesters is a duty for all doctors. She says she has heard of one female doctor who was shot by the military while trying to aid a patient. “As women, we are expected to stay in ‘safe’ areas of the protests but we know our place is wherever help is needed.”
Female lawyers and bankers have formed an informal group to offer legal and financial advice to civilians, especially those trying to flee the country. “We want to offer our services to those in general need of legal routes or financial advice. We know the public have been put in a compromising position given a pandemic then a coup so free verbal consultations, advice, and going through documents with them is an extension of our efforts against the military,” explains Min Thwaw, a private lawyer practising in the capital, Naypyidaw.
“Many white-collar workers have lost their jobs and those females workers continue to be threatened by authority figures but the military need us [the workers] more than we need them. Without us, the banking system will collapse soon and economic crisis will remain irreversible – a price we are willing to pay to cripple the military,” she adds.
Economic uncertainty caused by the military takeover is likely to have a negative effect on the country’s $6bn garment and footwear industry. As a result, thousands of garment workers, predominantly young women, have taken part in demonstrations, urging the multinational companies they work for to denounce the coup and protect workers from being fired or even killed for protesting.
While some Western brands have remained silent over the military takeover in Myanmar, The Benetton Group, H&M, Primark and Bestseller all suspended new orders from factories there until further notice, following pressure from within and outside Myanmar. Despite this, trade unions in Myanmar stress companies are not doing enough and are demanding more “concrete action” like documenting and addressing human rights abuses with their respective governments and committing to partial payments of orders.
Many garment workers have left their family homes for the safety of other family members in order to participate in the strikes. They include 27-year-old Jasmine (who did not wish to give her full name) and five of her colleagues. They live together in a 250-square-foot flat in Yangon, surviving on food donations from the wider community as well as community money handouts – funds raised by local and international supporters of the CDM to finance the movement from afar – a portion of which they need to send back to their home villages to support their families as well.
These young women march defiantly together in large human chains with arms interlocked. Jasmine says this is an effective tactic adopted by garment workers who are protesting to ensure the police do not separate them from each other. “They yank protesters away to break the chain then abuse those they capture in jail or publicly.”
On February 18, about 1,000 garment workers producing clothes for Primark were reportedly locked in GY Sen Apparel Company’s factory for taking part in the protests by supervisors who sympathised with the military.
Upon breaking free after several hours, many of them were fired. Jasmine also says that she and her colleagues have been intimidated with verbal abuse by factory owners, who confront the women physically, they say, and who have been trying to fire them for protesting. For now, Jasmine still has her job, although many of her colleagues have been laid off. “These are the challenges we are faced with on top of a coup; borderline starvation and no pay. We need the companies we work for to denounce these heinous acts, recognise what we are going through and protect us,” she says.
Since the women live together, they have been easy targets for the military and factory owners. During the day, the workers liaise with activists to gather information about locals collaborating with the military by providing details about people’s whereabouts and public gatherings. This way, they can find out about potential morning break-ins into workers’ homes and abductions by the military and police carrying out military orders. As the evening sets in, workers quietly gather in one house to make plans for the next day’s protests. The military blacks out the internet every night from 1am to 9am and has banned all social media to stop protesters from informing each other about arrests or possible military targets. It is meticulously tracking telecommunications. It also imposes a strict overnight curfew and deploys soldiers with orders to shoot on sight anyone who breaks it.
Jasmine and her friends have heard frightening rumours about people being shot or abducted if they are found to be breaking curfew. The women, therefore, move carefully on foot from one house to another in the dead of night to relay crucial information regarding potential break-ins, abductions and to make plans for protests.
“We cannot afford to risk brushing off anything heard through the grapevine as hearsay. Nobody is here to protect us but ourselves,” says Jasmine.
The LGBTQ community
The LGBTQ community has also participated in the protests, marching with rainbow flags.
“We know they despise our identity so we offer them the highest form of indignation, standing united and proud in the skin we feel most comfortable [in],” says 30-year-old trans woman Diamond.
Diamond believes that the LGBTQ protests have encouraged more people to come out as gay or trans.
“People come up to join marches then disclose this is their first time being publicly trans or gay because it is an opportune time to be true to who they always have been.”
However, the LBGTQ protest efforts were cut short at the start of March when the military began a crackdown on the community by raiding homes and detaining members.
Out of fear of surveillance and arrests, Diamond and several of her friends from the transgender community have either fled the country or gone into hiding.
“As a trans woman, I want the future generation of Myanmar to know the LGBTQ community risked everything and stood valiant against the military,” she says.
Sexual violence as a military tactic
Protests against a male-dominated military that has no women at all in its senior ranks and very few (0.2 percent) in the rank and file, have come at a great cost to women. Activists say that military and police have manhandled, groped and sexually harassed female protesters.
“If you’re leading a large crowd, they will try to grope your breasts from behind to physically remove you or, at the very least, will try to unbutton your blouse with their baton,” says Daisy. “Women who have gone into custody have been subjected to unnecessarily prolonged strip and search, as well as groping.”
Sexual violence is nothing new in military operations in Myanmar. It has been used to crack down on the Rohingya Muslim population since 2017. Instances of gang rapes by soldiers, forced public nudity and humiliation, and sexual slavery in military captivity have been reported by the Rohingya population, according to investigations by the UN.
With violence against protesters escalating – and no sign of the protests stopping – Daisy says she fears the military will use mass rape tactics “as a last resort tool any moment now”.
Nandar, a 26-year-old feminist activist from Shan State, claims Myanmar is culturally a deeply patriarchal society where the military sees itself as the “father” of the nation, assuming the “dominant and masculine role”.
“By nature of a patriarchal system, social hierarchies are formed through hyper-masculinity and deeply conservative views that consider women subservient,” she says.
The lack of women in the senior military ranks, she says, indicates the absence of women’s voices in the political sphere and further marginalises them, reinforcing stereotypes and transferring a woman’s importance in the political space to passive social roles instead.
Nandar, who does not wish to give her full name for fear of reprisals, says: “The progress feminism made [under democracy] allowed women to see the value of their participation in every sector, moving the country forward. But under a misogynistic military which renders women entirely invisible, we will enter a dark future. Democracy took us one step forward but returning to dictatorship is taking us five steps back.”
Despite all the odds, women have used their momentum to vocalise their opposition to patriarchal control and the lack of democratic freedom in the country. They have been the backbone of the protests and are promising not to back down.
*Names changed to protect identities.