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Invisible Oppression: How patriarchal norms discriminate against women and LGBTQ+ in Myanmar

Updated: Sep 25, 2023

“No one is an island.” The phrase tells us that no one can live alone in this highly interconnected world. It has become almost natural that gender-based discrimination usually steals a sense of belonging from the affected person. Mistreatments based on gender were identified by the Social Issues Club (SIC), whose objective is to formulate the social and moral welfare of the local and global community. The SIC is a student-led organization currently run by first-year students at Parami University, which aims to cultivate critical thinking, leadership skills, and compassionate service mindsets of people, especially youths.

The SIC organized discussion sessions around gender stereotypes among the members during the last fall semester, 2022. The club chose gender stereotypes as a theme among diverse social issues because countries such as Myanmar are dominantly patriarchal countries entrenched in conservative values. Members were tasked to interview anyone of their choice regarding the club’s theme: gender stereotypes. With the purposive interview method, due to the limitation of time and resources, they present findings and insights from some of the club members who individually interviewed their female friend, a friend who was in a gender-questioning state, and a bisexual friend.

Women in the patriarchal society by Naing Min Khant

Burmese culture believes that males possess “Phon” (power, glory, and holiness), therefore, hold a superior position to women and other gender identities in society. The text “Lokaniti,” which is moral guidance to Myanmar people's conduct, includes sections that discriminate against females. The text “Lokaniti,” which is moral guidance to Myanmar people's conduct, includes chapters that discuss outdated norms which tend to discriminate against females. Chapter five of the Lokaniti includes proverbs regarding being female in Myanmar society. For example, Number 97 of the Lokaniti clearly states, “By a husband is wealth produced; by a woman is it preservation; a man is, therefore, the origin; a woman like thread in a needle.”

In a household with a son and a daughter, the responsibility of doing household chores automatically falls upon the shoulders of the daughter, according to the respondent. She said, “As a daughter, washing everyone’s dishes after dinner is a chore I cannot refuse. But, My mother never asks my brother to do household chores.”

That picture clearly illustrates how women are systematically discriminated against in a family. Although women are not physically harmed, they experience psychological violence daily. Violence can be defined as a cause that deters people from achieving their fullest potential. Regardless of gender, she must have a right to say no to household chores. We cannot simply think of the mother as a perpetrator either. The patriarchal system forces women to carry it down the generations. We consistently fail to see the invisible actor, an unjust system, and its deep-rooted values. In structural violence, the causal relationship between the actor and victim is not as crystal clear as in physical violence.

The core issue is that an unjust and discriminatory system labels females as inferior to males. “I wish I were a boy.” The phrase expresses the anger of a female towards structural violence. Why are females labeled as inferior to males and as second-class citizens? The fact is that patriarchal values do not have it easy on men either. For example, males are expected to be the heads of their households.

Apart from males and females, people of other sexual orientations have faced more discrimination in society which praises the notion of binary sex, the masculine and the feminine. Unfortunately, most Myanmar people always accept only the notion of binary sex and neglect the fact there are possibilities of other sexual orientations, rather male or female. The unacceptance of the existence of trans-sexual orientations leads to the situation of no room for trans people in society. The obvious example is that people can only express their sexual identity as male or female on national identification cards. LGBTQ+ people always feel insecure about expressing their sexual orientations in society. The deep-rooted patriarchal values hinder LGBTQ+ people from identifying themselves in how they feel.

1) Mueller, V., Schmidt, E., & Kirkleeng, D. (2020). Structural Change and Women’s Employment Potential in Myanmar. International Regional Science Review, 43(5), 450–476.

2) Galtung, J. (1969). Violence, Peace, and Peace Research. Journal of Peace Research, 6(3), 167–191.

What does it mean to be a queer in Myanmar by Kaung Myat Phyo

A 19-year-old biologically female who considers themselves to be queer had been friends with me for almost three years. Even though we were not very close, they were kind enough to let me discuss with them what is usually a sensitive topic: gender.

They clarified, “It would be more correct to say I am still questioning my sexual orientation [and gender identity]. I thought I was transgender, but it keeps changing depending on my everyday life”.

When I asked them what their gender expression was to people around them, they seemed to have different expressions depending on the different people they interacted with. For their parents even though they (the parents) know that my friend is not heterosexual, they (the interviewee) are simply considered gay or lesbian, the oversimplified label under which people tend to categorize every non-heterosexual person. They added that they could be open and comfortable about their gender with their friends. They said, “I can freely act as I want without getting criticized.” This might be attributed to the exposure of the younger generations to SOGIESC (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity, and Expression, Sex Characteristics) knowledge than the older generations, who would tend to oversimplify identities.

“How about your neighbors and acquaintances?” when I asked, they replied, “Some of them told me to grow my hair out. Maybe this is because they don’t know I’m [a] lesbian” then they added, “but they see me as being not natural.”

It can be observed that society takes comfort in what is considered “normal” and “natural.” However, the definition of normal, natural, and what is not is oversimplified by generationally predetermined prejudice and orthodox thinking. Enforcing gender stereotypes is preceded by an oversimplified notion that dictates that sex and gender must be identical.

There is also a tendency to categorize the rest of everyone who is neither male nor female under the term “gay,” with no regard for different sexual orientations and gender identities. This may be the case with their parents, who understood that my friend was not heterosexual, yet considered them to be “not natural,” for my friend was not just simply gay as their parents would consider everyone who is not heterosexual.

Given the complex nature of SOGIESC, while even a heterosexual from a younger generation like myself sometimes find it hard to understand it well, I am not sure those from older generations can be blamed for having a hard time understanding it. I asked my friend their opinion on not being accepted by older generations and how they would feel about me, asking them questions about their sexuality and gender identity. They said, “I am happy that you brought this up. Ask. It’s OKAY that you don’t understand or something is not clear. Just ask. We would be happy to explain and clarify things.” More than a bisexual stereotype by The The Zuu Zin

“I don’t fit in either of the labels. I am neither gay nor straight. I am bisexual.”

During my three or more years of friendship with him, we have never seriously sat down to talk about his sexuality. When he confided about both his male and female crushes in our friends’ circle, I was indifferent to his apparently wide scope for romantic attraction. He was attracted to this guy and that girl.

He continued, “I feel alienated from not fitting into either category. When I date a gay, my bisexuality is like a mere curiosity to them, as if I have a backup plan to normally marry a girl. When it comes to girls, they don’t want to be romantically involved with a guy who has a history of dating guys.”

His struggle with bisexuality did not entirely stem from his dating experience. The pop culture and LGBT media through which he was introduced to LGBT tend to portray bisexual characters as promiscuous. He had a difficult time coming to terms with how he should be as a bisexual cis-male. Is it swiping on Grindr and having transient sexual relationships? He knew for sure his desired value from a romantic relationship was more than a stereotypical bisexual should act. He furthermore confessed to being intimidated and disturbed by a construct that sexual orientations outside heteronormativity are purely sexual.

But, he himself admitted the positive role of LGBT media and his access to the internet in his middle school years. As a male whom society can verbally harass for “acting feminine,” he survived his public school unscathed with his access to supportive LGBT media and a male friend who was also bi-curious.

He is a closeted, single child. Coming out to his parents is not an option. He said, “I can understand where they are coming from. They grew up during the time MSM (men who have sexual intercourse with men) were demonized for HIV, and there is Buddhism. It is natural that they want me to live well.”

I asked him if he worries about his parents pressuring him into a ‘normal’ marriage in his 30s. His response was positive.

“I want to live fully in the present. The current me might not be able to deal with upcoming challenges in the distant future, but I believe I can come up with ways to solve them as I grow older.”

After my one and half hour interview with him, I was amazed by his easy-going, relaxed attitude and the way he carried himself as if he was secure in his sexuality. I could conclude how a supportive environment from his friends and his access to LGBT media helped him through his journey. At the end of the interview, I couldn’t help but ask a question, “What about others? Others who can’t risk coming out to their friends and those who do not have access to the internet?”

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