Category Archives: Religion

Pyone Thet Thet Kyaw on the State of Women’s rights in Myanmar (Interview: part 3)

Pyone Thet Thet Kyaw can be found at the British Embassy, working for the Department for International Development (DFID) in Yangon from 9-5, and leading her own dressmaking start-up, Virya Couture, on 39th Street every evening, juggling two completely different careers but pursuing one dream.

Pyone spans sectors while securing rights for her fellow women and financial stability for her family. As the founder and head designer at Virya Couture, Pyone acts as a leader to women in both private and public sectors. Through her dressmaking shop she teaches vocational skills and employs underprivileged women, helping them overcome poverty in a country rife with change.



If I am a girl and I get the same score as a boy in my class, and we both apply to the same medical university, then the entrance requirement for women is higher than for men. There are so many more women at higher education institutions than men, and they want to balance it.



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Downtown Yangon, Burma (Myanmar), January 2017 © Cas Sutherland

 

What is your favourite thing about being a woman in Myanmar today?

Favourite thing? It is that you can actually wear those very vibrant colours, you know. I think for men, there are much more limited options out there. For women it is very vibrant. You can be very fashionable, very colourful.

Also, throughout my network if you don’t mind your age, you can influence your male friends by being professional, and by being like a mother figure (even though I don’t think I am motherly).

What are the best and worst things about the state of women’s rights in Myanmar today?

Well, the privileges that women have are different depending on social status, age, and educational background. For example, I feel that our leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, can be who she is because of her family background. Because her father was the national hero, people tend to accept her more even though she married a foreigner. People are still okay with that fact.* You can talk about constitution, but that’s another matter. In terms of general social acceptance, it is okay that she married a foreigner. It doesn’t matter much for the majority of the people, they still love her, because of the family inheritance. Whereas if a normal, ordinary person, married a foreigner, then that becomes a social problem. That would be one issue. So it depends on where you come from, and your family background and social status, and so on.

There are hidden things, too. In religion, a woman can’t actually be equal to monks as a nun. Women can’t actually go up to the highest part of the pagoda. I mean, I don’t want to say that’s the worst part, but people tend to actually forget that it’s a problem. Even religion is gendered.

Education wise, I am not sure we’re in a bad position, because a lot of the young women are very hard working and they tend to do better than a lot of the young boys. But that’s the justification for previous policy-makers creating gender-biases in education too. For example, if I am a girl and I get the same score as a boy in my class, and we both apply to the same medical institution (university), then the entrance requirement for women is much higher than for men. This is because there are so many more women at higher education institutions than men, and they want to balance it.

The entry requirements for women are higher than men, because the institutions have a gender quota to adhere to?

Yes. The woman’s test scores need to be higher if she wants to qualify for entry to the same university. Still, there are a lot more women in higher education.

There are still so many areas in which women and men are unequal. For example, in the military, there are still some positions women cannot take. That’s a societal, gendered projection of where women and men can take roles.

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These machines whirr away day and night as Pyone’s team at Virya Couture churn out unique, handmade clothing in downtown Yangon, January 2017 © Cas Sutherland

What’s the best thing to have happened nationally in recent years?

Well, definitely the elections. The 2015 elections was the best thing that has ever happened. And the period following the successful election of the NLD. Because even when there was as successful election and a landslide victory in 1989-90 elections, even when the opposition party won the elections, the people in power refused to hand it over to the winning party. That created a very nerve-wracking time after the elections: “NLD won, but so what? Will they actually hand over the power?”

Well, it actually happened, and in March-April 2016, we had a new parliament, new government. Yes, there are still a lot of challenges. But still, that was the best thing ever, and there was a lot of adrenaline, a lot of energy. You could see the people really felt emotional about it. Its more than forty years of struggle since the military coup of 1962, and in that time we never had a majority civilian government. It’s not yet 100% civilian government or civilian legislature, but still it is really good.

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Renovations across downtown Yangon coincide with a newfound energy post-elections, January 2017 © Cas Sutherland

There’s a new energy everywhere. On Monday this week , Yangon regional government transformed the public transport system. If that had been done under the previous government, there would be restrictions, it would be really resented, and people would not go out on the street for fear of being arrested. It would be a completely different situation. But now, local people are really invested in this change, they really want this transition to work. So what they do is go out there and help people, make sure people get the transport they need. There are a lot of volunteers out on the street helping people use public transport. You can really feel the commitment and energy out there.

What are your major hopes for Burma (Myanmar) for the next 5 years?

I want our country to have a working government, with the ability to deliver quality services for our people, especially for our poor people in the poorer regions. That would be one thing, because I feel that our country lacks services. Not even quality, lack of services themselves in some areas. It really is bad for some people, I feel. I hope the coming round of elections go well.

Economic development, of course. I think some parts of the country will continue with the conflict if they cannot compromise with each other and with the central institutions, but still, I think that the rest of the country will go ahead with economic activities. We’re actually going through multiple transitions now: economic transitions, social transitions, political transitions, you know. We’ve got all of those things going on. So economic development must go ahead so that people get jobs and can afford to become decent individuals with confidence, jobs and ability to earn money.

 

 

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Hands-on with Pyone at Virya Couture, Yangon, January 2017 © Cas Sutherland

There will be by-elections held in April. Are the candidates going to be existing parliamentarians defending their seats? 

Yes, by-elections are coming up in about twenty townships. Some of the areas are places that the previous election did not take place because of the conflict. So with the ceasefire discussions going on, elections will happen in some parts. Other parts are holding by-elections because existing parliamentarians are now deceased, or because of ministerial appointments.

These by-elections are happening just a year and a half after the national elections. Do you think this is a positive thing?

Yes! I see this election as an opportunity for the current government in power to see and build on. For example, the Union Election Commission, can actually try and test their abilities ahead of the 2020 elections. That’s a technical point of view. But also for the NLD, to actually keep the momentum going. If, during the by-elections, they lose all the seats then that will be an alarm call for 2020. So they would at least jump and think, “ok, we’ve got to do something about this.”

November 2020 is the next national democratic elections. Here the election is always on a Sunday. There are a lot of my friends who contested for the 2015 elections, and I think a lot more will become in 2020. So, there’s a different feeling now. More competition and energy in the political system, which is great.

A lot of the foreign ministers who visit, they come and they are actually very shocked by the positivity that people have here about politics. Because we’re still very new here.


* Aung San Suu Kyi married British citizen Michael Aris in 1972, and they had two children, Kim and Alexander. This fact prevented her taking office as President of Myanmar, due to constitutional clause created by the military government in the early 1990s, stating that anyone with foreign children cannot be President.

 

Read on

Pyone Thet Thet Kyaw on Leading the Ethical Fashion Trend in Burma (Interview: Part 1), ZhendeGender

Pyone Thet Thet Kyaw on Developing her own Fashion Brand in Burma (Interview: part 2), ZhendeGender

 

 

How did gender, culture and politics balance out in 2016?

2016 was characterized by sexism across the board, from President-elect Trump and Duterte to the Olympics and the music industry. We’ve lost a bunch of significant icons for women’s and LGBTQ+ rights. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who’d would rather forget all about it, for one night at least.

But the world has made some serious strides towards equality and liberation in 2016, with female heads of state taking power worldwide, and women standing strong together in the face of adversity. Here we take stock of the year to recognise how we’ve continued to move forward.

 January

Taiwan elected their first female President, Tsai Ingwen, who is leader of the Democratic Progressive Party. Tsai has since vowed to reduce Taiwan’s dependence on mainland China, which considers the independently-governed island as a Chinese territory, desiring eventual reunion.

English musician David Bowie, who consistently challenged social norms of gender and sexuality with his androgynous appearance, music and performance, died of liver cancer. After his death, he was remembered as a unifying force: “a human bridge between the queer and the hetero-normative.”

February

American musician Kesha sued Dr. Luke, her music producer, for over a decade of sexual abuse which “put her life at risk”, including drugging and raping her. Sony refused to release her from her six-album recording contract, signed in 2005.

During proceedings, talk-show host Wendy Williams victim-blamed Kesha for not simply filming the abuse, stating: “business is business, and it sounds like it’s fair. If everybody complained because somebody allegedly sexually abused them … contracts would be broken all the time.”

Female stars, including Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga, stood in sisterly solidarity with Kesha, with Swift donating $250,000 toward legal efforts to #FreeKesha

March

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The Feminist Five (top left to bottom right): Li Tingting, Wei Tingting, Wang Man, Wu Rongrong and Zheng Churan | image from: NYT

Police removed bail conditions on China’s Feminist Five who were arrested and detained last March for planning a protest against sexual harassment on public transport. One condition of the lifted bail was no travel outside their legal place of residence. However, police have not dropped the case and these young women could remain suspects indefinitely, despite committing no crime.

April

Aung San Suu Kyi took office as the first female political leader of Myanmar, after her National League for Democracy won a majority in the November Elections. The Lady became Myanmar’s first State Counsellor – the de facto head of government – a role created to counteract a constitutional clause preventing her taking office.

The death of American musician Prince, who famously defied categorization of race, gender and sexuality, shook fans worldwide. The Los Angeles Times called Prince “our first post-everything pop star, defying easy categories of race, genre and commercial appeal.”

Female Judge in New York, Judge Shirley Kornreich, ruled against Kesha’s motion to end her contract with Sony, even after attorneys argued that it was “slavery” to force her to work with companies associated with her rapist and former producer, Dr. Luke. Kesha stated: “All I ever wanted was to be able to make music without being afraid, scared or abused.”

Kesha Makes An Appearance At New York State Supreme Court

May

Tsai Ingwen became the “most powerful woman in the Chinese-speaking world” when sworn in as President of Taiwan, when she vowed to promote democracy and freedom, and refused the idea Taiwan was part of “one China”.

Philippine citizens elected “proud womanizer”, Roderigo Duterte, in the Presidential election. He began as he meant to continue: by wolf-whistling and serenading a female journalist in a nationally televised press conference before taking office. Since his election, he has pursued the brutal execution of drug dealers, with a death toll of 6,000 in six months.

June

Despite all hopes (and votes) of the British youth, the island nation voted to leave the European Union in the national referendum. Brexit voters, many of whom were among the elderly population, were disappointed to learn they’d been lied to during the long campaign. The promise to re-route large sums of money into the National Health Service was immediately refuted by UKIP party leader and leave-campaigner Nigel Farage, who promptly resigned. Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron, also resigned, leaving the country to wonder why he’d proposed this referendum in the first place.

July

Amid the post-Brexit chaos, Britain’s second female Prime Minister, Teresa May took office after all the male contenders played themselves out. British media ironically embraced sexism by reporting on the PM’s husband’s attire on the day they moved into Number 10.

Hillary Rodham Clinton won the Democratic nomination, making her the first female Presidential nominee of a major party in US history. Her opposition, Bernie Sanders, called for a unanimous nomination, and civil rights leader John Lewis said: “Tonight we will shatter that glass ceiling again.”

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China’s reclamation project | image from: NYT

China overstepped it’s bounds in the South China Sea, by creating artificial islands with military runways on reefs in territories claimed by other countries, inviting major international dispute with the Philippines. The issue came to a head when an international tribunal favoured claims from the Philippines and China refused to acknowledge the ruling. In an October visit to Beijing, Filipino President Duterte had seemingly brushed the matter aside, stating a realignment with mainland China’s vision, snubbing long-term ally the United States.

A UK police force made strides towards fair reporting of sex crimes, in a decision to record misogyny as hate crime. Panic ensued, but, as Laura Bates stated: “fears of innocent men being locked up for compliments were proved misplaced when women instead reported abuse and assault.”

August

Tokyo’s first female governor, Yuriko Koike, took office after winning a landside in the July election. To the displeasure of many politicians it seems – one politician implied her leadership abilities are compromised because she’s “a woman past her prime in thick makeup.” Comparing her battle for office to Hillary Clinton’s, Koike once said: “Hillary used the phrase ‘glass ceiling.’ It’s often a sheet of steel in Japan.”

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French police made a woman remove her clothing | image from: Guardian

A woman in France was forced by a group of policemen to remove her clothing on a public beach in Nice after France banned the burkini citing concerns about terrorism related to religious clothing. Images show at least four policemen surrounding the woman, who sat on the beach with her family wearing leggings, a tunic, and a headscarf.

Female athletes suffered as Olympic Games commentators seemed to compete for the “most sexist” award.

September

Hong Kong held its legislative elections, with the highest turnout of voters in the territory’s history.

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Wage Gap is a Chasm for Women of Colour | image from: Think Progress (2014)

New statistics about the gender pay gap show how factors like race, age and education also affect the chasm between men and women’s earnings over their lifetimes. In the US, there’s a negative correlation between education and earning power. Similarly, earnings decrease with age: the older a woman is, the smaller percentage of a man’s wage she earns. As a result of gender- and race-based wage gaps, student debt is all the more crippling for women of colour.

North Korea tested nuclear warheads for the second time this year, in the most powerful detonation unleashed in a North Korean nuclear test so far.

New data displayed a significant rise in the birth rate of babies born to women over 45 in the UK. There were 1,578 babies born to mothers aged 45 and over in England in 2009, but in 2015 there were 2,119.

October

Women the world over were not all that shocked by the release of an audio recording of Donald Trump telling a reporter how he likes to pick up women: “Grab her by the pussy”, is a statement he brushed off as “locker-room talk”. In a moment of solidarity against the oligarch, women across America revealed stories of sexual harassment and abuse by Donald Trump, which he consistently denied.

The more allegations emerged, the more Hillary Clinton seemed the obvious champion for women’s rights across America. The majority of people using the early-voting system were reportedly Republican women whose husbands wanted them to vote for Trump. Predictions showed Clinton to be the next President.

Xi Jinping was announced “core leader” of China, an honour only three previous leaders (Jiang Zemin, Deng Xiaoping, and Chairman Mao) have been given. The new title is a sign that, “willingly or not, senior Communist Party officials have bowed to his dominance.”

Hong Kong and mainland China clashed over the chaotic swearing-in of young Pro-Democracy politicians, several of whom referred to the mainland by a racial slur, ‘Shina’, and one called it the “People’s ref**king of Shina”. Protests erupted in the streets of Hong Kong as a result of Beijing’s interference in legal proceedings.

November

Women mourned the reinforcement of the glass ceiling as Donald Trump won the US Presidential Elections, despite losing the popular vote to Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was infinitely more qualified for the job. Protests ensued across the United States and further afield. Many were upset to learn that no, allegations of rape and sexual abuse do not ruin a man’s career.

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Covering the bruises is hardly the stride toward equality we had in mind | image from: Guardian

Moroccan TV normalised domestic violence with it’s make-up tutorial showing how to cover bruises.

December

Protests that broke out on the streets of the South Korean capital in November came to a head as the people called for President Park Geun-Hye to resign amid allegations of corruption. Park, the first female President and daughter of President Park Chung-Hee (in office 1961-1979), was suspended from office on 9th December to wait out impeachment hearings.

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Protesters in central Seoul carry candles | image from: Guardian

I turned 27, which puts me at risk of becoming a “leftover woman” – a shameful term invented by the government affiliated All China Women’s Federation to guilt unmarried women.

British musician George Michael was found dead on Christmas morning. George Michael was half of the first western act to play in the People’s Republic of China. Wham! toured China in April 1986. After Wham! separated Michael came out as gay, thus challenging notions of masculinity and sexuality, while remaining a sex symbol for the majority of his life.

Mother-daughter actresses Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher died 24 hours apart in the last week of the year. Debbie Reynolds was known for her wonderful singing voice, heard alongside Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connell in Singin’ In The Rain (1952). Carrie Fisher was best known for her portrayal of Sci-Fi’s earliest strong female character, Princess Leia. The Star Wars character runs an empire on her own after both her brother and lover disappear with no explanation.

Read on:

Check out my references for this piece.