YANGON, Myanmar – The rings these Myanmar teenage girls dream of have nothing to do with wedding bands. For them, it’s all about the boxing ring, the blood-and sweat-flecked stage of the country’s no-holds-barred traditional kick-boxing style Lethwei, known as one of the most ferocious martial arts in Southeast Asia.
Half a century of isolation and conflict under a military junta helped to entrench gender discrimination in Myanese society. Recent years have seen a new openness sweep the country, and Myanmar now has its first female leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, steering a civilian government. Women are fighting back against inequality like never before, entering male-dominated arenas in parliament, sports, technology and business.
More and more young women are being drawn to Lethwei despite its full-throttle style, both for fitness and the chance of stardom. While it will take time for the women’s version to compete with the popularity of the men’s sport, activists say these female fighters are helping to shatter stereotypes and open the way for greater equality.