“I am Burmese, I am a woman and I am Muslim. I wear many marginalized identities”
My name is Rashida, I am 30 years old. I am a Ph.D. student at the Mahidol University in Thailand and I used to be a physical therapist in Myanmar. I was born and raised in Yangon. I left Myanmar when I was about 25 years old.
Being a woman is my identity. But being a woman means being someone who is marginalized. If you are too ambitious, or if you are too outspoken for instance, you will face resistance and marginalization. Throughout my whole life I have faced challenges but I keep striving for my right to do what I want. I am fighting for my rights.
I was born in a Muslim family and I follow and comply with all the precepts of Islam. But culturally, in Islam, women are considered second class citizen. I am Burmese, I am a woman and I am Muslim. I wear many marginalized identities.
“I don’t see myself as an oppressed person but maybe I am, and maybe this is why I rebel against this patriarchal system”
As a woman, the main pressure I feel from my family and from the society is the pressure to get married. I am 30 and still single. When I finished my high school final exam, my big brother said to me that I could go to University and get a degree, but then I’d have to start a family. I didn’t understand why I would have to get married, I wanted to get a higher education.
It feels like women are not accomplished until they have their own family. I don’t blame them though. They were taught like this, we were raised with this belief.
One of my sister-in-law for instance teaches one of my nieces who is only one year and a half that she has to play with cooking toys and dolls. On the contrary, my nephews are told to play with construction toys, cars and trucks. I don’t understand this stigmatization. Roles are defined from our childhood, sometimes even before birth.
I haven’t analyzed where my rebellion against this archaic way of defining roles for men and women is coming from. But I know I just can’t stand it. I don’t see myself as an oppressed person but maybe I am, and maybe this is why I rebel against this patriarchal system.
“I believe I have changed their mindset on what women are able to accomplish”
During my childhood, I wasn’t so girly. My aunts were actually worried that I would become a tomboy. I realized later why I didn’t like to be girly, it was because I didn’t like what it meant to be a girl: listening and obeying to the men in the family and in the society, and being treated as inferior to men. When I behaved like a boy, they seemed to accept to let me go outside and gave me more freedoms.
For my family, to let me study abroad took a lot of talks and a lot of tears. I had to convince them, it wasn’t easy. They were worried that if I’d go abroad to study I would fail, they didn’t believe that a girl could do it. I believe I have changed their mindset on what women are able to accomplish. Now they even encourage my niece to go to college, they encourage her to be like me because they say I am brave. They still use the word “brave”. Yet, all of this, me studying, is just normal. It is not like I am a superwoman. But they think I have something special, some sort of superpowers!
In my community, I am seen as too confident for some of them. I feel they don’t really like me. They see that I am doing something different and something too strange for them and they can’t accept it.
“I have three layers of oppression but I am breaking all of them at once, at least I am trying to”
I choose to fight and strive for what I want, but eventually I isolate myself from the society. 90% of the population follows the predominant mindset, and when you don’t follow it you are outside of the society. They see me behaving differently from what society expects from women and this is upsetting for some of them, I guess. In Thailand, I feel that I belong. I can behave the way I want, I can say what I want and no one judges me.
I have three layers of oppression but I am breaking all of them at once, or at least I am trying to. Sometimes I want to give up. Being the rebellious woman or the ambitious woman can cause problems, in relationships for example. I am almost done with my studies and I already feel so much pressure from the society and from my family to get married and start a family. I want to get married too, I have never refused to get married but it should be done at the right time and with the right person. I have been talking with Muslim men in Myanmar but discussions were very hard. It actually went terrible. The first question they asked me was “Do you plan to work after getting married?” I was shocked but that reveals pretty well how men see women.
“I wonder what has happened in our history for educated people to go backwards instead of going forward”
When we look back at history, women had a better image than nowadays. Aisha who was the Prophet Muhammad’s favorite wife, was a scholar. She was extremely educated and she was a warrior, she participated in many battles. She was respected. But now, in Muslim communities, all that respect for women is gone. They have re-written the books and created their own perceptions of what a woman should be. They have set out many rules for women such as women should stay home, women should not be as educated as men, men are superior to women, and that women should be obedient to men. I wonder what has happened in our history for educated people to go backwards instead of going forward. Religious people and believers must study the history, they must know their religion. This is common to all religions, not just Islam.
Sometimes, it feels like being different is a barrier to make friends or find a suitable partner. I sometimes thought to myself that I should pretend to be dumb and submissive. I feel bad because I don’t fit in. Every time I meet with my old friends I have to play stupid or at least I don’t show that I think differently, so I can be part of the group and the community.
“In my opinion, it is because of this lack of understanding that women can decide for their own life that makes Burmese women so detached from the fight for gender equality”
Based on my own experience, I feel like most people don’t know what “gender equality” means. They hate the expression. They feel that it is just a trend, they never heard that concept before and suddenly they feel that women are aggressive and greedy to have the same advantages as men in our society. Even some women believe that too. Personally, I feel that there is a misinterpretation of what gender equality means. In my opinion, gender equality does not mean to have the same roles than men but to have equal opportunities. To have the choice for our own lives, just as much as men do.
When I retrospect on this, what I feel is that young girls need to be aware of their rights. They need to realize that they have the right to choose for their lives. In my opinion, it is because of this lack of understanding that women can decide for their own life that makes Burmese women so detached from the fight for gender equality.
“Changing the entire society, each communities and the whole nation can take a long time, but changing the mindset of people around you is a more reachable goal”
The first thing for women to do is to realize that their lives belong to them, and secondly they need to know that they have to demand that their rights be respected. Once they understand their self-worth and once they are aware of their rights, they will be empowered, they will grow self-esteem and self-confidence and they will fight for a better and equal future.
We have to fight against how society treats us but also, and more importantly, we have to fight against ourselves, against the limits that we put to ourselves. We need to “reprogram” girls and women.
I do think that changes must come from a collective wake-up call, but most importantly, in my opinion, every individual should spur changes and empower women in their circle of close friends or relatives. Changing the entire society, each communities and the whole nation can take a long time, but changing the mindset of people around you is a more reachable goal. As of for me, I can’t be silent, I can’t just sit back and do nothing.
“For too many people my hijab is a sign of oppression. I am Muslim but I am not oppressed. I raise my voice to say that I am not an oppressed Muslim woman”
I would like to educate my country and my community because in general when people see a woman wearing the hijab they immediately think that she is oppressed. I want to change that vision. My message is that the hijab is not a sign of oppression.
I wear the hijab. I have of course faced many issues just for the fact that I am wearing a hijab. I would like to make it clear that no one forced me to wear a hijab, and no one is oppressing me. I am wearing it for myself, for my beliefs. To me the hijab represent my submission to God. To me, it is a religious symbol, it is not a sign of submission to men or by men. Even my family asked me not to wear it because they know that it can raise some negative reactions and they didn’t want me to have any problems because of that. It is my choice, my sole choice.
For too many people my hijab is a sign of oppression. I am Muslim but I am not oppressed. I raise my voice to say that I am not an oppressed Muslim woman
Most people, and also Muslim people from other countries, don’t know how Muslim women are like in Myanmar. If they think Burmese, they think poor. If they think Muslim, they think oppressed. People feel sorry for me, they feel sorry for Burmese Muslim women. And when they realize that I am empowered and highly educated, they are impressed and call me exceptional. I am not exceptional, many Burmese Muslim women in Myanmar are educated.
“But no matter how many times I fall, I will stand up again and eventually succeed to pass my message onto them”
I have seen some changes happening in our society for the betterment of women’s life. For 5 years, I see a lot of organizations and events striving to raise awareness about women’s rights and gender equality. I think what triggers those changes is the access to information via the internet. People are now able to see what is happening in other countries and can compare their situation to others.
Raising awareness is not an easy thing. For instance, it is quite hard for me to go give a lecture in my Muslim community, because they sort of reject me and my ideas. But no matter how many times I fall, I will stand up again and eventually success to pass my message onto them.
One little vibration can create a bigger movement. I believe once women find their own voice, they won’t be silent anymore.