7 a.m in the morning I hear the voice of my mom “Neeelam! Are you still asleep? Good girls don’t sleep that late! Come on dear, now go clean your room” she ordered. And, not wanting to wake up, I always protest saying “Mom.. the boys are still asleep. Why can’t I continue sleeping too?” But, to avoid this endless battle with my mom, I would just wake up. This is a story of me and many other girls in Myanmar. Although my mom has never intended to discriminate, and in-fact, I was the first one to be sent abroad in my family to pursue my further studies, unintentional cultural issues like this has become a norm in many families.
Myanmar of course is a land of opportunities for a lot of women, compared to many other South Asian countries, Myanmar has proved to have a large proportion of its women working both in private and government sectors. Many visitors from Bangladesh and India alike would quickly pick up on dominance of women in offices and some even ask me: “Where are the men in this country? They further expressed how rare it is for women to work in many South Asian countries. Despite that, millions of women in this country are still prone to discrimination, especially in rural areas and among migrant communities.
One of the most common opening sentence used by many in Myanmar when they tell off their daughter for not cleaning her room or helping out in the house is “Main Kale Phyit Pee Dot..” which literally translates into being a girl. Yes, society has certain expectations from girls. They should have a clean room, help the mother with her chores and serve food to the family. While the men of the family can (not that they do all the time) stay without helping out the family and no one would utter a word. While people like me protest, many take it as given. Cleaning and cooking becomes a habit and hence, their character and what they will be known for. And, it all started from what the society expected them to do.
When I did my education in the U.K for five long years, all I did was observe the lifestyle of the people there. Why are women so confident? Why do all the young men in university know how to cook? Why? I had a lot of questions but I was never too shy to ask. Speaking to many friends, I slowly got to understand the way children are brought up in English families. One of my friends expressed “We all work in our family. My dad cleans the house while my mom cooks. I do the dishes and my younger siblings help lay the table.” And, that is amazing! Fighting about gender issues for me doesn’t go far to getting a proportion of seats in the parliament etc. But, changing small things. Changing cultural norms on how parents treat their daughters and simply educating couples not to define gender roles. Just let one do what they are good at and the rest will come naturally. Confident women will be able to fight elections and get the seats because people respect them and not just because they are women! What is the whole point of fighting for gender issues when you are given a seat just because you are women?
This country has been known for it’s strong women. And, is respected by the neighbors for respecting and giving rights to its women and that’s a good start! But, still we are lagging behind in many ways and this is mainly due to the lack of understanding on women’s contribution to the society. Due to increasing number of women working in offices as managers, accountants and business development officers, wages in these sectors have been low for many firms. Although it is not very beneficial for the workers, many companies are doing well because of women’s participation in the labour force. Discrimination should stop not only in terms of salary not only because it is ethically wrong but because it is forcing many hard working women to go out of the labour force and even leading some to leave to work abroad.