Women in Modern Burma

By Yukako, Iikuni | Southeast Asian Studies, April 2017 | Go to article overview

Women in Modern Burma


Yukako, Iikuni, Southeast Asian Studies


Women in Modern Burma Tharaphi Than London and New York: Routledge, 2014, 182pp.

The 2015 election in Myanmar was a pivotal moment in history due to the landslide victory of the National League for Democracy, led by the world-renowned politician Daw Aung San Su Kyi. The presence of an outstanding female leader appears to be a testament of the popular narrative that Burmese women are powerful agents granted equal rights and status in society. In Women in Modern Burma, Tharaphi Than challenges this notion and reassesses the social, economic, and political position of women in Burma throughout the twentieth century.

The introduction offers an overview that includes the "official" narrative and popular image of Burmese women along with a brief political and cultural outline of twentieth-century Burma. Than shows how the national framework of historical writing has defended the privileged positions of Burmese women, who have been portrayed as powerful agents enjoying high status and equal rights to men. Contrary to this narrative, the book attempts to challenge the concept of "liberated Burmese women" by showing that Burmese women experience little freedom in reality. It accomplishes this by exploring the world of female soldiers, politicians, writers, and prostitutes and by referencing women's writings, personal interviews, newspapers, and magazine articles (p. 4). Next, Myanmar's political and cultural situation in the twentieth century is briefly outlined as follows: the transition to independence (1945-48), Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League (AFPFL) (194652), Pyidawtha or the Happy Land Years (1952-56), Burma Socialist Program Party (1962-88), and the post-1988 period with a post-independence media landscape.

Chapter 2 focuses on how female journalists, editors, and writers struggled to achieve their positions in the print media. After the first English-language newspaper in Burma was published in 1910, print media, especially newspapers, flourished in the country and were regarded as nonlethal weapons with which to challenge British colonial rule. Thus, young, educated Burmese nationalists viewed journalists and teachers as the most attractive professions that could build a full engagement with national politics. Educated Burmese elite men often moved easily within the print media industry, politics, and the business arena, while such mobility was not available to women. Daw Phwa Shin became the first female editor and publisher of the newspaper Tharawaddy. However, she used her husband's name as the publisher and editor, because she feared that readers would think Tharawaddy was inferior if it was known to be run by a woman. Even Independent Daw San, who demonstrated that a woman was indeed capable of managing a newspaper, wrote under a male pseudonym for fear of being blamed for not embracing modesty. However, independence caused a seismic shift in the discourse of Burmese literature and female writers. Women writers played a significant role in shaping national themes and goals for post-independence literature, particularly for the preservation of Burmese culture and contributions to nation building and national identity formation.

Chapter 3 takes up the subject of women's education. On the subject of female education in the colonial period, Chie Ikeya (2011) has already argued that the British education system was crucial to the success of Burmese middle-class women and that modern education triggered the most radical transformation in the history of female education and professionalism. On the other hand, Than insists that while the British education system might have triggered a transformation, "the transformation may simply have been a matter of learning in an institution" and that Burmese women "were not empowered to make their independent way in the world," with few exceptions (p. 49). Certainly, statistical data obtained by local NGOs, the United Nations Population Fund, and the government show that women were either highly educated or highly illiterate (p. …

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