It was a wet afternoon in the Naga Hills, an autonomous region in north Myanmar, and the sprightly grandmother we were interviewing had just, unexpectedly, begun to sing in a beautiful a cappella.
Makui Lainyu’s haunting melody lamented the loss of Naga tribal culture. Her song is one that few people have heard outside her remote homeland.
We were mesmerized – and delighted to be able to record the impromptu performance as part of our first trip for The Kite Tales, a project to record Myanmar’s untold stories.
But the two most rapt faces in the simple wooden home were those of the elderly woman’s teenage granddaughters. They told us afterward that they had never really spoken to their grandmother about her life – so how could they have known that her experiences had helped shape their futures?
Makui Lainyu was kept out of school because she was a girl. She spent her childhood toiling in her parents’ farm. She is now determined that her granddaughters have access to the education that offers a life beyond manual labor.
That changing attitude reflects a broader shift in opportunities for women in Myanmar, a country that suffered poverty and isolation during decades of military dictatorship.
Perhaps the most striking sign of this transformation is Aung San Suu Kyi, who is finally in a leadership position after her party swept the army from outright power in elections last year. Women are making important contributions in parliament, in business and as agents for change in a nation still trying to find its feet.
But while there are important examples of success, women still struggle to make their voices heard in a deeply hierarchical society, where gender roles are rigidly enforced. This begins at home, as suggested by the oft-repeated saying: “Treat your son as your master and your husband as God.”
And these attitudes permeate all throughout women’s lives. Myanmar’s male-dominated media reinforce the traditional stereotypes of women and girls as victims and homemakers. The number of women in Myanmar’s parliament is double that under the previous army-heavy legislature, but at 66 women parliamentarians out of a total of 657 seats, it is still the second-lowest female representation in Southeast Asia. Suu Kyi is the only woman in Myanmar’s Cabinet, while there is a glaring absence of women in vital peace negotiations that will determine the futures of war-torn border regions.
Violence against women is a significant problem, but a law designed to address this continues to languish.
According to the 2014 census, men are more likely to be able to read and write than women across the country. But the gender disparity widens further in ethnic minority border regions, where state education and health provisions are scant. In Lahe, Makui Lainyu’s hometown, only a quarter of men were listed as literate, but the figure for women – 16 percent – is even worse.
I had the privilege of growing up in Yangon with my mother as my role model – she was the only woman in her class at her engineering university, the second year it started accepting female students. Yet outside of my immediate family, I was constantly confronted with the contradictory expectations of women in our society: smart but subservient, shy but preening. Even my parents initially thought journalism was not a woman’s job.
I founded The Kite Tales with a fellow journalist in May 2016 to chronicle the lives of ordinary people across the country in their own words. It was created to challenge stereotypes – whether they are based on gender, ethnicity or sexuality – and to record stories that were lost during half a century of military dictatorship and conflict. There are people still alive who endured world war, two foreign occupations and a military dictatorship. Their memories should be valued.
We have spoken to dozens of inspiring women from all walks of life, whose stories are windows into the country’s fantastic diversity. They include a young woman who went to great lengths to campaign for the rights of women from her Kayan minority, dodging warring armies and even organizing a football tournament.
Many women are also challenging traditional gender identities, and we spoke to a determined LGBT campaigner striving to raise awareness in her conservative hometown.
And of course, Makui Lainyu, who was also a traditional tattoo artist in her youth.
Witnessing the scene with her granddaughters took me back to my own childhood. I spent long afternoons with my grandfather and his friends during their weekly get-togethers at our house. After the massive student protests in 1988, the military closed the schools, so listening to my grandfather’s friends tell their incredible life stories was the perfect pastime for an idle 11-year-old. These were tales of student life under British colonial rule, fleeing the Japanese occupation or of the challenges of business or politics under the shadow of military rule.
In those days, a word out of place in public could lead to arrest, communication was tightly controlled and many incidents were scrubbed from official records. The army had tried to enact that lesson from former Myanmar resident George Orwell: He who controls the past controls the future.
In school, the textbooks gave the impression that history stopped after the 1962 military coup, with only a few pages covering the later decades. Myanmar’s few state museums were preoccupied with glorifying kings and soldiers. So those conversations between my grandfather and his friends became my invaluable de facto history lessons.
Now that the country is in a new era of hope, and access to technology is connecting people as never before, we feel that it is a crucial time to reflect the myriad perspectives of the country’s diverse people. As we travel by boat, motorbike, plane and van across the country, we have been greeted with enthusiasm, as well as some surprise. It is still rare to see two women traveling alone. And people certainly aren’t used to seeing a Myanmar woman traveling the rugged countryside to record their untold stories.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Women & Girls.