By Nina Ornstein
A funny thing happened to My Mom and Me in Myanmar while we were on a boat tour of Inle Lake. We arrived to a pagoda, one of our final stops for the day. As we disembarked the boat, we were greeted by two women selling gold leaves. I kept walking, my mom stopped and bought. That’s how we roll…. So then we had these gold leaves, two new souvenirs that made no sense to me, but she thought they were pretty. We entered the temple to find a gigantic Buddha statue on a pedestal, surrounded by a crowd of tourists applying these gold leaves to the figure. Without hesitation, I approached the Buddha to apply my gold leaf. I was stopped briefly by a Korean woman that wanted a photo with me (hello blonde hair in Asia!) and then proceeded to do what everyone else was doing.What I failed to notice, however, was that it wasn’t everyone applying the gold leaves to the Buddha. It was only men. Before I could approach the religious figure, a man grabbed my arm and quickly escorted me off the pedestal saying, “no women, no women!” So what exactly were we supposed to do with the leaves these women sold us in the first place? Tourist trap? Definitely. Oppression? For sure. What I had just experienced was the unfortunate Buddhist tradition of male worthiness, and the female lack thereof.There are many beautiful aspects of Myanmar , but what really left an impression on me was the community. Upon arriving to Myanmar, the role women play in society began to resonate with me. People of all genders and ages interact on various levels, and everyone goes about their daily tasks working in tourism and agriculture. A difference between men and women doesn’t appear to be very prominent in this country. Not only are the women doing everything men do, but they also actually have equal rights according to Myanmar law. This is something that can rarely be found in the world and is very unique to Myanmar.A clear distinction needs to be made, however, between the social status of a woman and her status in Buddhist doctrine. 89% of Myanmar people practice the Theravada tradition of Buddhism. According to this tradition, woman’s religious status is much lower than her social status and these are clearly distinguished. A woman can gain high social power and get appointed to high office by the Burmese kings and is allowed to inherit the position of village head. In fact, she can even be president… sort of! Aúng San Suu Kyi is now effectively ruling Myanmar in the position of state counsellor after spending 15 of her 21 years of presidency under house arrest, becoming one of the world’s most prominent political prisoners. She is also a nobel peace prize winner amongst many other honorary recognitions. She cannot, however, come in contact with the Buddha statue.The women of Myanmar have been targeted in the nation’s ethnic conflicts, recruited as unpaid laborers for the military, and in some cases become victims of slavery, murder and systematic rape, or sucked into the burgeoning sex trade. UN Women, present in Myanmar since 2013, have prioritized the gender sensitive governance, peace and security.
While Myanmar has come a long way, religion has certainly put a damper on the progress of equality in this country. Of course Mynamar is not alone in this struggle, equality has always plagued society on a global level. I’ve witnessed many people suggesting that travel to Myanmar should happen sooner than later in order to experience their traditional ways. I get it, but I still feel this is concept suggests observing the oppression of another culture for the purpose of entertainment. Do you think the people of Myanmar want to be left behind? Doubtful. I much prefer considering Myanamar’s recent exposure to the Western world, technology and all its glory as a method of learning a better way of life and joining a global movement that supports women’s rights. #SheBoss