Myanmar interfaith marriage ban: Women – not monks – decide who they can have sex with

Conflicts. Wars. Power struggle among men. Sometimes, it happens in the name of honor. Sometimes in the name of protecting women. But really it boils down to nothing more than the classic male competition. Us against them. Thinking goes something along the line of it will reflect poorly on us if my/our women are with them. Marking of territories. How women are feeling doesn’t matter, doesn’t enter into the equation.

Who women have sex with, when and how remain some of the oldest and most clichéd preoccupations of societies across the world, especially so in a long isolated country like Myanmar. It is a public affair. Religious leaders want to have a say in it. Politicians want to chip in their two/three cents. Patriarchal institutions want to confine what women shall and shall not want or do.

A one-month old draft legislation in Myanmar now wants Burmese women to get permission from parents and local authorities before marrying someone of a different faith. She can be put in prison for ten years should she fail to abide by the law. The draft law is now being led by a political party and a monk, saying “this law is my dream” and that he is just trying to “protect women” and his nation. Well, the draft law is surely a nightmare for those that treasure liberty, gender equality and individual rights.

There are no safe clinics for Myanmar women to give birth or get necessary healthcare. Girls are usually the first in a household to be taken out of school when faced with economic pressures. About ten percent of families in the Ayeyarwaddy Delta are having to discontinue education of their children because they do not have enough money for food purchase. Alcoholism is on the rise, and Myanmar is one of the few last standing countries in Southeast Asia (and the world) without proper legal protection against domestic violence. A comprehensive gender equality legislation is far from reality, and the focus group was asked to change the name of the draft law on gender equality to a new name that includes “protection.” Why are politicians and religious leaders so concerned with interfaith marriages given the scope and depth of present challenges?

Though I believe in core principles of Buddhism, recent events in Myanmar makes me ponder a Margaret Atwood quote: “Any religion is a shadow of God. But the shadows of God are not God.” And it escapes most sane people when Buddhist monks are forcing women to seek patriarchal permission with legal implications of ten years in prison to make an important life decision such as marriage.

It is as if the society doesn’t trust the ability of a Burmese woman to make decisions for herself. The male knows better. And the funny thing is that this assumption is not even hidden. The chairperson of the Theravada Dharma Network blatantly stated as follows: “Our Buddhist women are not intelligent enough to protect themselves.”

Thanks, but no thanks.

Responsibility to yourself means refusing to let others do your thinking, talking, and naming for you…it means that you do not treat your body as a commodity with which to purchase superficial intimacy or economic security; for 0ur bodies to be treated as objects, our minds are in mortal danger. It means insisting that those to whom you give your friendship and love are able to respect your mind. It means being able to say, with Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre: “I have an inward treasure born with me, which can keep me alive if all the extraneous delights should be withheld or offered only at a price I cannot afford to give.

Responsibility to yourself means that you don’t fall for shallow and easy solutions – predigested books and ideas…marrying early as an escape from real decisions, getting pregnant as an evasion of already existing problems. It means that you refuse to sell your talents and aspirations short…and this, in turn, means resisting the forces in society which say that women should be nice, play safe, have low professional expectations, drown in love and forget about work, live through others, and stay in places assigned to us. It means that we insist on a life of meaningful work, insist that work be as meaningful as love and friendship in our lives. It means, therefore, the courage to be “different;” not to be continuously available to others when we need time for ourselves and our work; to be able to demand of others – parents, friends, roommates, teachers, lovers, husbands, children – that they respect our sense of purpose and our integrity as persons. Women everywhere are finding the courage to do this more and more and we are finding that courage both in our study of women in the past who possessed it and in each other as we look to other women for comradeship, community and challenge. The difference between a life lived actively, and a life of passive drifting and dispersal of energies, is an immense difference. Once we begin to feel committed to our lives, responsible to ourselves, we can never again be satisfied with the old, passive way.”

– Adrienne Rich, Claiming on Education, 1977

Adrienne Rich (1929-2012)

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