Women, Girls and LGBT Fight for Rights in Myanmar: “We Have to Win This Time”

We Have to Win This Time: Women, Girls and LGBT Fight for Rights in Myanmar
Women carrying garments and skirts on front lines in Myanmar, February 2021. (Kaung Kyaw Ko)

In early February, women, girls and members of the LGBT community hit the streets of Yangon, Mandalay and other cities throughout Myanmar to protest the country’s military takeover. Protesters—many of them young women—have continued to marched, beat pans and hang their undergarments (known as htamein) in creative and colorful protest, not just against the dictatorship, but against the country’s persistent gender inequality.

Myanmar has endured more than five decades of military dictatorship, beginning in 1948 when the country gained independence from British rule. The nation temporarily transitioned to civilian leadership in 2011. Under the civilian rule, repression loosened. More women were elected to the parliament in the last elections than in the prior election.

Advancements Gained by Women Now Under Threat

The military junta has erased the advances women have made and taken the country back to its hyper patriarchic past, which includes decades of repression and violence against Myanmar’s ethnic communities.

Extreme in their chauvinistic ideology, police and soldiers believe that coming into contact with women’s clothing will weaken them. Demonstrators, 60 percent or more of them women, use this misogynistic narrative to their advantage by carrying htamein during protests and by hanging them across streets to cordon off areas from men too offended to walk beneath them. 

Activists Flip Sexist Trope That Women’s Bodies Are Dirty

The Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) recently sponsored an online conversation between LGBT activists and feminists—both veteran and younger women—to talk about the protests. Nandar, a 26-year-old podcaster, storyteller and founder of the organization Purple Feminist Group, joined the conversation. She said the energy at protests has been inspiring.

“When you go out onto the street you will see that women, as well as LGBTQI people, are the front line of these protests. They are being the voices of democracy and they are standing up for democracy and risking their lives. It’s amazing to witness this unity among all of us despite the fact that we are different. We come from different religions, different backgrounds, different ethnicities but we are together for this one goal: to achieve democracy and to end this dictatorship.”

But Protesting Comes at a Cost

According to recent reports, Myanmar’s security forces have killed more than 600 civilians and detained thousands. The danger is especially acute for women, who are also harassed. Nandar says police in Myanmar are misogynistic and have not learned how to deal with women protesters.

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Incidents documented on social media show police manhandling women protesters, including pulling off their garments in front of cameras. Nandar is quick to call this out as sexual harassment: “There has to be a female police, at least, to arrest a female protester. That has to be a basic thing to do as a government.”

She also says protesters use sexist degrading images to denounce the dictatorship, and often criticize women protesters for what they are wearing.

These are the irrelevant questions to be asking while standing up for democracy. You are not supposed to question a female body whatever she is wearing or however she is protesting. It’s solely her body. There has to be a freedom for women to be themselves and to protest.”

Rights Groups Worked For Years To Empower Women Leaders

May Sabe Phyu, head of the Gender Equality Network (GEN), heads a group of over 100 NGOs that seek justice and equality for women and girls. I asked her how GEN got started and how it is advancing women’s rights.

“After the devastation caused to our country by Cyclone Nargis in 2008, and the complete inaction by [the] then military government, our women’s rights groups started joining together under the umbrella of our network now known as The Gender Equality Network or GEN. Since then our connectedness has grown deeper, our achievements greater, our hopes, though at times deeply challenged, lifted.”

Women, Girls and LGBT Fight for Rights in Myanmar: "We Have to Win This Time"
Myanmar’s civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, is currently under house arrest. (Utenriksdepartementet UD / Flickr)

Phyu said the focus early on was to empower young women. Before the November 2015 general elections, which resulted in the election of Aung San Suu Kyi, only 4.6 percent of seats in parliament were held by women and women were absent from senior decision-making roles at all levels of governance, she said.

Absence of Women Leaders Motivated Activists to Lobby for Change

“We chose to build up a research base, to listen to our young women leaders, to support opportunities for training and connecting, gaining strength together,” Phyu said. “Slowly we felt a turn in the tide, and we saw small steps towards progress.”

A key goal has been the passage of the Prevention and Protection of Violence Against Women Law (PoVAW).

“Violence against women in Myanmar continues to be a fierce and persistent threat to women’s human rights and a huge impediment to women’s leadership,” Phyu continued. “Violations occur within intimate partner relationships, in public spaces at the hands of strangers, increasingly in conflict-affected communities, and now also against the peaceful protesters who are gathering nationwide to reject this coup.”

The bill has been stalled since January 2020. The dictatorship now prevents it from moving forward, leaving women vulnerable to state-sponsored violence.

Repression and Killings Haven’t Stopped Women From Protesting

“We bang on pots and pans every night to denounce the military coup. We were not afraid when we stepped towards pointed guns and stood between security forces and frontline protesters,” said Phyu. She adds that the demonstrations will continue because they have to.

“If the military is going to control the country, it is going to be a nightmare for all the work we have been doing. We have to win this time.”

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Leslie Absher is a journalist, essayist and author. Her memoir Spy Daughter, Queer Girl was published by Latah Books and was a finalist for the Judy Grahn Lesbian Nonfiction Triangle Publishing Award. She is a regular contributor to Ms. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Salon, Independent., Greek Reporter and San Francisco Magazine. She was awarded an honorable mention for non-fiction by Bellevue Literary Review and lives in Oakland, Calif., with her lawyer and comic book writer wife. Visit her at leslieabsher.com.Visit her at leslieabsher.com.