Review– Waves of Upheaval in Myanmar: Gendered Transformations and Political Transitions

Title: Waves of Upheaval in Myanmar: Gendered Transformations and Political Transitions
Edited by: Jenny Hedström and Elisabeth Olivius

Norway, NIAS Press, 2022

Waves of Upheaval in Myanmar: Gendered Transformations and Political Transitions, edited by Elisabeth Olivius and Jenny Hedström, assembles 13 essays from both scholars and activists who work on gender issues in Myanmar. The contributions – arranged into sections that explore gender in Burma’s (1) formal politics; (2) women’s movements; and (3) the everyday – contribute to two broad objectives: exploring “the relationship between gender, conflict and transitional politics in Myanmar” (6), while also using gender as a lens through which to evaluate and assess the substantive changes realized during that period. In other words, the volume illuminates how Myanmar’s so-called transition affected gender relations while it also, as the editors put it in their Introduction, delves into how “gender informs recognition of what counts as a political problem” (11).

Given such important and ambitious goals, each chapter in the volume is necessary, each contributing additional insight into Myanmar’s gender mosaic. We are treated to explorations of gender not just, for instance, in lowland Bamar areas, but in ethnic spaces as well (from Karen, Kachin, and Rakhine states, to locations outside Myanmar’s borders as well); we not only see how gender is expressed through elite level activism, but also in grassroots politics – from peace building initiatives to formal local governance elections; gender is not cloistered in NGO boardrooms or formal political processes, but emerges also in rural struggles for land justice or in the intersection of disability and gender in IDP camps; and we get not only classic academic analyses of gender in Burma, but hear the voices of activists themselves – from a Bamar women from the 1988 generation balancing work and gendered care duties over a lifetime of activism, to ethnic women struggling both for their people and for increased gender representation in their respective ethnic organizations, to a Bamar women describing her own journey to feminist academic scholarship.

These multiple perspectives allow the volume’s texts to engage in conversation with one another – and often explicitly: it is to the credit of the editors and contributors that many reference other chapters’ points made or evidence adduced. Consequently, both common themes but also tensions in how gender is experienced across the various intersectional domains (of ethnicity, space, class, ability, and so forth) that define and divide Myanmar emerge.

One of the main debates drawn out in the volume is whether the “transition” was ultimately liberatory or regressive for Burmese women. Aye Thiri Kyaw, writing about the way feminist activists helped usher through anti-violence legislation (whose implementation stalled because of the coup), argues that “The opportunities that presented themselves for the expansion of women’s political participation during the ten years after 2011 were vital and helped to bring about a more gender-equal environment” (50-1). Mollie Pepper’s contribution argues that, “Women’s holistic peacebuilding efforts at the grassroots level have laid the groundwork for an effective women’s movement in Myanmar that is built across ethnic lines” (97).

Several others complicate such conclusions, however. Khin Khin Mra and Deborah Livingstone, in their study of local governance institutions, hold that because the system for selecting ward and village representatives was changed while grassroots gender norms were not altered, the transition only “entrench[ed] existing patriarchal formal and informal institutions around community-based justice” (45). Shae Frydenlund and Wai Wai Nu show that political economic changes deriving from state violence against Rohingya led to a transformation from mutual support between Rohingya and Rakhine women to one of charity, if any relationship persisted at all. Rose Metro, in her analysis of reforms to school curricula, finds that while some small changes improved the way women were conveyed in textbooks, overall the “hybridized representation of gender sends contradictory messages that ultimately reinforce sexist social structures of ‘gender harmony’ and gendered militarism” (71). And Hilary Faxon’s chapter on the gendered effects of rural transformation during the transition identifies how liberalization of land markets incentivized both legal and extra-legal land grabs that had disproportionate negative effects on women (findings that were echoed by Hedström, Olivius, and Zin Mar Phyo in their chapter as well).

Ultimately, of course, there is no need to make an unequivocal declaration regarding benefits and losses. The transition’s effects were ambiguous, with changes both affording novel opportunities and bringing new constraints, the latter impacted in turn by intersectional oppressions. But if there is one critique of the volume it is that most of its respective analyses take the structure of gendered oppression as consistent and clear: state institutions and social norms suffused by patriarchal values led by men pursuing gendered interests continue to repress women as a whole. We observe such arguments when Mollie Pepper writes about “the political priorities of men, who have a vested interest in the exclusion of women” (97), or when the editors argue, “Several chapters in the book give detailed accounts of attempts during the period to change women’s representation in politics as well as laws and policies, but also demonstrate the obstacles to and limits of such change. This suggests that the fact that there were not enough changes with regard to gender in politics and governance contributed to the reinstatement of military politics once again” (8). Here (although not throughout their introduction or co-authored chapter, it should be stressed), the editors imply that if women had been included more in politics, patriarchy might have been dismantled, which in turn could have undermined the military. However, such arguments rely on an essentialist understanding of “woman” as category, in which all women are necessarily feminist (as in advocating for some set of objective women’s interests).

Yet, feminist anthropologists, such as Saba Mahmood (2005), have contested such presumptions, showing that women do not necessarily endorse liberal conceptions of equality or justice. Such analysis is echoed in Myanmar’s gendered terrain. It is not only revealed by Myanmar’s own female political leaders – in which Aung San Suu Kyi’s period in power was defined by an expansion of structural violence that her authoritarian tendencies often aided and abetted. It is also demonstrated by the active and enthusiastic involvement of Myanmar women in one of the most egregious expansions of symbolic patriarchy during the “transition” period: the notorious myosaunt ubade, or “race and religion protection laws,” passed into law in 2014 (and which Suu Kyi decided not to repeal).

These laws, while written and promoted by the monk- (and hence male-) led institution MaBaTha, nonetheless found support by Buddhist women around the country. The only chapter in the volume to consider this phenomenon is Aye Thiri Kyaw’s, although she is close to dismissing the laws’ female supporters as being mystified – “some women were misled to support these laws” (60) – rather than their support emerging from more complex sources (from anxieties deriving from a rapidly evolving political-economy, or from deep-seated cultural values, however objectionable). This case is particularly relevant because it throws into relief deeper questions generated by the volume: is feminism achieved through process (women being permitted to participate in political spheres is feminist) or is feminism an outcome (in which a set of values – women are equal to men – are promoted through various processes, regardless of who participates)? And if feminism-as-outcome is a laudable normative goal, but including certain women (whether Suu Kyi or female MaBaTha supporters) in political processes militates against that goal, what are the appropriate interventions that a feminist Myanmar studies should endorse?

This recalls Magda Lorena Cárdenas’ chapter on the Kachin Women’s Action Thailand (KWAT), which introduces such challenges directly. Cárdenas’ declares that “one of the main challenges for KWAT in maintaining a role of influence within the Kachin community is demonstrating how the idea of gender equality does not oppose ideas of Kachin identity; instead, it is important to convince sceptics that it is an integral part of a broader agenda for justice” (132). The volume impels us to ask how sceptics could be so convinced (and consequently how outright patriarchal misogynists could be marginalized from their positions of discursive centrality). How do particular values of gender equality interface with traditional narratives of Burmese identity? These chapters pave the way for future exploration of such critical issues.

Elliott Prasse-Freeman
Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, National University of Singapore


Mahmood, Saba. Politics of piety: The Islamic revival and the feminist subject. Princeton University Press, 2005.