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

 

 

Words and Women: Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Women belong in all places where decisions are being made… It shouldn’t be that women are the exception.

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Ruth Bader Ginsburg | image from Elle

Ruth Bader Ginsburg (b. 1933) is an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.

Ginsburg was appointed by President Clinton, took the oath of office on 10th August 1993, and is still serving today.

Ginsburg was the second woman ever to be made a Supreme Court justice in the US, after Sandra Day O’Connor, who served from 1981 until her retirement in 2006. Only four female justices have been appointed to the US Supreme Court. The third and fourth are Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, who are also still serving.


Words and Women is a regular feature that spotlights short quotations from influential women activists, artists, and authors.

Closer Look: Xiaolu Guo

“You know it’s illegal to possess two passports as a Chinese citizen?” I saw her take out a large pair of scissors and decisively cut the corner off my Chinese passport. She then threw it back out at me. It landed before me on the counter, disfigured and invalid.

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Author and filmmaker Xiaolu Guo | image from guardian

Xiaolu Guo is a Chinese filmmaker and author based in London. We met at Beijing’s Literary Festival in 2015, where we discussed writing techniques (she always writes by hand before word-processing, which is part of her editing process) and she borrowed my black biro to autograph copies of her books. She signed a copy of her debut book in English, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, which was shortlisted for the 2007 Orange Prize, for me. I wanted to buy a copy of her latest novel, I Am China (published by Random House in 2014), but the bookstore’s order of had not made it through Chinese customs due to the controversial content of the book. Guo advised me to read it as an e-book, saying she didn’t think I’d be able to acquire a hardcopy in Beijing soon.

Below is an extract from Xiaolu Guo’s latest book, Once Upon a Time in the East: A Story of Growing Up, which was published by Chatto & Windus on 26 January, 2017. This extract was originally published by the Guardian.



Some years later, after I had published a number of books in Britain, I managed to finish a novel that I had been labouring on for years. Publication was due in a few months’ time, but I began to worry that it would bring me trouble when I next tried to go back to China, since the story concerned the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 and the nature of totalitarianism. What if I was denied entry because of this book? I decided to make preparations before it came out. So, since I had been living in the UK for nearly 10 years, I applied for a British passport.

I spent some months gathering the necessary documents for my naturalisation. After a drawn-out struggle with immigration forms and lawyers, I managed to obtain my passport. Now, I thought to myself, if there was any trouble with my books and films, I would feel a certain security in being a national of a western country. Now I could go back to visit my sick father and see my family.

A week later, I applied for a Chinese visa with my British passport. After waiting at the visa application office in London for about half an hour, I found myself looking at the visa officer through a glass barrier. The woman wore horn-rimmed glasses and had her hair cut short, military-style. She looked like a resurrected Madame Mao. She took my British passport and scanned me up and down. Her face was stern, the muscles around her mouth stiff, just like all the other Communist officials, seemingly trained to keep their faces this way.

“Do you have a Chinese passport?” She stared at me with a cold, calm intensity, clutching my British passport.

I took out my Chinese passport and handed it to her through the narrow window.

She flipped through its pages. The way she handled it gave me a sudden stomach ache. I sensed something bad was coming.

“You know it’s illegal to possess two passports as a Chinese citizen?” she remarked in her even-toned, slightly jarring voice.

“Illegal?” I repeated. My surprise was totally genuine. It had never occurred to me that having two passports was against Chinese law.

The woman glanced at me from the corner of her eye. I couldn’t help but feel the judgment she had formed of me: a criminal! No, worse than that, I was a Chinese criminal who had muddied her own Chinese citizenship with that of a small, foreign state. And to top it all, I was ignorant of the laws of my own country.

She then flipped through my visa application, which was attached to my British passport, and announced: “Since this is the first time you are using your western passport, we will only issue you a two-week visa for China.”

“What?” I was speechless. I had applied for a six-month family visit visa. Before I could even argue, I saw her take out a large pair of scissors and decisively cut the corner off my Chinese passport. She then threw it back out at me. It landed before me on the counter, disfigured and invalid.

I stared, without comprehension, at this once-trusted document. The enormity of what had just happened slowly began to register. Although I was totally ignorant of most Chinese laws, I knew this for certain: when an embassy official cuts your passport, you are no longer a Chinese citizen. I stared back at Madame Mao with growing anger.

“How could you do that?” I stammered, like an idiot who knew nothing of how the world worked.

“This is the law. You have chosen the British passport. You can’t keep the Chinese one.” Case closed. She folded my visa application into my British passport and handed them to another officer, who took it, and all the other waiting passports, to a back room for further processing. She returned her tense face toward me, but she was no longer looking at me. I was already invisible.

Read on

‘Is this what the west is really like?’ How it felt to leave China for Britain, Xiaolu Guo for the Guardian

Hedonism, Reproductive Health, and Fighting Repatriation: Lijia Zhang on her Debut Novel Lotus (Interview: Part 3)





Closer Look: Jin Xing

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I was born in China. It is in China I must be reborn as a woman.

Jin Xing was the first transgender person to undergo sex reassignment surgery in China with government approval, and the first whose sex change was officially recognized by the Chinese government.

As a boy, Jin had an affinity for dancing and soon became a ballet dancer. At nine, Jin began performing in a prestigious troupe that was part of the People’s Liberation Army – ballet has long been considered a valuable propaganda tool – and serving as a soldier. By the age of 17 Jin was the number one male dancer in China, and had risen through the ranks to become a sergeant.

At the age of 19, she started set off to start from scratch as a dancer in New York. Jin, a major celebrity in China, was nobody in New York in the nineties. But that didn’t stop her. She studied modern dance with Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham and Jose Limon. News of her successes in New York reached Beijing, and she was promoted to colonel even though she was not serving. Her career took her to Rome, where she learned Italian, and she toured Europe before deciding that sex reassignment was the right thing for her.

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Jin Xing training as a PLA solder, age 9 | image from hollywoodreporter


When I was six years old, I thought I should be a woman. I myself knew something was wrong, but I didn’t know what was wrong or what was mistaken.



 

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Jin Xing in New York in the 1990s | image from hollywoodreporter

During her years in New York, Jin began to explore gender and sexuality. She considered the possibility she was homosexual. But at that time, homosexuality was still illegal in China, and considered a mental disorder. Similarly, very few Chinese people had undergone any kind of sex reassignment and none had been recognised by the state. This was a new idea to Jin, but America had opened her eyes to new things:



I discovered words — transsexual, transgender. I said, ‘OK, I belong to that small island.’ Then I started researching.



Jin underwent three surgeries in 1995, aged 28. She emerged from the last surgery, which lasted 16 hours, to tell her father: “Your son has become your daughter.” In reply, he told Jin: “Twenty years ago, I looked at you and wondered, I have a son but he looks like a girl. So 28 years later, you’ve found yourself. Congratulations.”

Since her sex change, Jin has started a dance company in Shanghai, adopted three children, married, and begun presenting her own hugely popular television talk show, The Jin Xing Show, on the basis which she had gained the nickname “Poison Tongue”. She’s often billed as the Chinese Oprah. But she is so much more than that.

With her celebrity status, Jin Xing has brought attention to LGBTQ+ issues and the difficulties faced by the LGBTQ+ community, who struggle against social stigma and legal discrimination. She is loved as a beacon of hope by young people across China.



I don’t want to change the world… I just want to be myself.



Read on

Meet the Oprah of China, Who Happens to Be Transgender, THR

Jin Xing: China’s sex-change pioneer, CNN

Behind the Spotlights of Transgender China, Whats On Weibo

Looking Back

Reading this in China? View Narrate China on youku

“It was a very peaceful place… and up ahead, we hear this blood curdling scream”. When he met a traveller on the way to Huangshan (Yellow Mountain), Tom accidentally got more than he bargained for.

In this video, Tom thinks back on an old story from his early days in China as he packs up to leave after living in China for eleven years.

Read on:

Learn more about Narrate China

LGBTQ+ in China: a quick introduction

In China, the LGBTQ+ community face severe discrimination. Many LGBTQ+ people’s families and communities refuse to accept their sexuality or gender identity, and therefore find themselves in compromising situations like ‘fake’ marriages to fulfil their filial duty. Homosexuality was considered a mental disorder until 2001, and some private Chinese clinics still offer ‘electroshock’ gay conversion therapy.

Thankfully, there are many people speaking and acting out against such discrimination. In Beijing, the LGBTQ+ community are a strong driving force behind the feminist movement. We’re incredibly privileged to know women like Iron, who runs Beijing’s LGBT Centre, and Li Maizi who spoke in London last week. There are feminists across the country speaking out about everything from Trump to censorship, and campaigning non-stop when the two coincide.

Kick-start your understanding of China’s LGBTQ+ community with this informative video from Out China:

 

So, here’s to our LGBTQ+ friends in China and worldwide. May this be the beginning of a long alliance.

exploring the realities of culture and gender in contemporary Asia