Myanmar

Raising the dirt floor instead of breaking the glass ceiling

Evelyn

Yangon, Myanmar

“I came back here at the end of 2015, (…) Myanmar changed a lot. Women had more freedoms, but I think there was a pernicious sexism in society that I was not used to.”

My name is Evelyn. I co-founded the Myanmar Women Self Defense Center. I’ve always had an interest in women’s issues.

When I was in the University, I was fairly active in students’ organizations. I used to live in Myanmar, I grew up here, and also in Thailand and in Taiwan, so kind of all over! I was in the University in America for 4 years before I came here, I studied philosophy and political science. When I was in the University, I had a boyfriend who was very abusive, and I didn’t realize it at the time, and afterwards I was like “oh, how did I let myself get into that situation?” I thought I was educated, I thought I would have known this was happening. I thought that I was strong”. When something like that happens, it’s very complicated.  So a lot of it was me trying to rebuild from those bad experiences.

I have people in my family who have faced issues of domestic violence and abuse. People I know very closely, and on the outside they look like they’re having a perfect life. The social pressure that is put on them to hide these issues is ridiculous. Regardless of your race or class, it’s the same. For me, I was afraid to tell people because I didn’t want them to think that I was weak, I didn’t want people to say “look at her, she’s a victim”. So, how do you build a community around those kinds of issues, so that women would feel safe? Because I think a lot of the time women treat each other like competition for male attention, and what we want to do is to foster a community where women can build each other up. It’s like building a healthy sense of self and psychology by removing yourself from the male gaze, and from how men see you, you shouldn’t be this way because men see you in this way, you shouldn’t be how you are because you want men to see you in a particular way. You should be how you are because that’s how you prefer to be.

Then I graduated and I came back here at the end of 2015, it was the first time that I was back after a really long time, it was kind of a shock, Myanmar changed a lot. Women had more freedoms, but I think there was a pernicious sexism in society that I wasn’t used to. At that time I had friends who were working on women’s rights issues.  I have a friend, she is about 85, she is an American lady and she comes back and forth since the 50’s. I talked with her when I came back, she introduced me to Michelle because she thought we would get along and enjoy doing this project together. So me and Michelle started the self-defense school together. Now I am teaching English, I’m also hosting a radio show, I’m starting to teach a technical writing class at a University here. I’ve just celebrated my 25th birthday.

“We started the women’s self-defense center (…). We have a team of 8 trainers, we’ve trained over 250 women to defend themselves against possible aggression”

I got back to Myanmar about 2 years ago and I wanted to do something related to social work, to create some sort of impact, so I met Michelle. So we got together and we started the women’s self-defense center. Right now we’ve been in operation for about a year and a half. We have a team of 8 trainers and we’ve trained over 250 women to defend themselves against possible aggression. Part of the project we are working on are the commercial classes we have in gyms, we call them community classes, you pay a fee and you get 12 hours of self-defense training, which includes physical self-defense, legal training, and lessons on sexuality. We have a doctor come in and talk about women’s bodies and sexual and reproductive rights, and we have a lawyer come in and talk about women’s legal rights. So that’s part one of our project.

Second part of the project is the training that we do for NGOs and for businesses. The point is to build a culture where sexual harassment and sexual violence is not tolerated.

The third part of the project we do is the sexual harassment survey. We try to conduct a comprehensive sexual harassment survey, a qualitative survey, based on what women are experiencing in Myanmar, in Yangon. Women often experience harassment on the buses, on trains or whatever but a lot of the research that is being done here is about gender based violence, they talk about rape, but they don’t talk about these mild ways in which women feel unsafe.

The fourth part of the project is pepper spray. We’re distributing pepper spray and defensive products to women, and men, whoever feels like they need it, around the city. Because a lot of the problems with safety is that it is a perception.

“What I really think is central is to make people feel like they can defend themselves, to feel like they have a right to their own body, and that they have a right to be in the world, to exist in public spaces ”

What people often fail to realize is that the problem is not that Myanmar is not safe or unsafe compared to other countries, the problem is that if something were to happen to you, the blame lays on you. If something happens to you, the questions that are being asked are “what were you wearing, what were you doing alone at night, why were you traveling on your own? You should have had a man there to protect you”. Women feel unsafe, not because there is more harassment, it’s just that if harassment were to happen, would the police help you? Maybe. Will you be able to take legal recourse? Maybe. It’s all a grey area, people feel unsafe not because they get harassed more, but because the consequences are big for you as a victim. And they get blamed by the families, they get in trouble, it’s also shameful. You don’t feel safe because you think “if something happens to me, I’m ruined”.  It’s a systematic problem, it’s not about the individual feeling of safety but it’s a society where there’s no way to defend yourself in that way, or there is but you don’t have access to it, or there is but it’s not readily available.

We are trying to create a community with our alumni, a community of women, so that if something happens to me, there are other women who are looking out for me, because a lot of people don’t have that and want to be able to have that. Domestic violence is very problematic here, and in those sort of situations you feel unsafe, you are not going to get beat up by a random dude in the streets but you might get beaten by your husband at home, or your boyfriend. So these are the problems that we are trying to tackle, step by step.

For our organization, what I really think is central, is to make people feel like they can defend themselves, to feel like they have a right to their own body, and that they have a right to be in the world, to exist in public spaces, without feeling like they are violating some kind of law or rule where they are not supposed to be in public. So this is a problem here, it’s a problem everywhere in the world, but we try to make a difference where we can.

“Public places are ruled by men”

I think women don’t talk to each other because they are afraid to be judged. I definitely felt that, I didn’t tell people about problems I had because I was afraid they would judge me. Being able to open up is really helpful, it really helped me psychologically, that’s been a driving force for me, to foster dialogue between people.

But public places are ruled by men. Men exist outside. If you go to a tea shop, or a coffee shop or a beer station in Yangon, passed 8 or 9 o’clock, there are no women there, or if there are, they are working there. As a single girl, if you go and you sit down and you have a beer, people would be like, “what are you doing here? Why are you here?” You won’t feel welcome in those places, and if you get harassed in those situations, then people will blame it on you, because you were there: “why were you in this place at night? You know you’re not supposed to be in those places at night”. You have that all the time. But then it’s not just in the beer stations, it’s also on the bus, or in public, or past like 9 o’clock.

Legally, in Myanmar there are certain laws that are supposed to protect women. A lot of times, when people say “it’s to protect women”, it’s from a paternalistic perspective, it’s like they’re saying “how do we protect these poor delicate flowers who need to be protected from these horrible men?”. That’s how it’s framed, and maybe that’s not how the question should be framed. Maybe the question should be “how do we make sure that women are also welcome in society?” So how do we do that? I think it’s with the young people, the young people are really cool.

“There is this sort of generational shift in attitudes, but we can bring that too to the older people, they’re not set in their ways”

The thing is, from a very young age, girls are taught that if an auntie or an uncle is hugging or kissing them, they’re told, you should let them, even if you don’t like it. This is something that parents teach to their children: “don’t be rude!” As if saying no is rude, not letting someone access your body is rude. So girls are trained that way. So how do you say no to older men in authority positions? How do you say no to people who you think are being nice but then you don’t feel good about it? The way you feel is important too, and I think a lot of times that is lost to a lot of women. They think the way they feel is not important, so they swallow their feelings and take whatever this person is doing to them. This is just unacceptable to me. Because it feels wrong and you know it feels wrong. And most women, if you ask them they’ll tell you that they have experienced that.

But now, kids who are 15, 16, 17, they are really open to things like LGBT issues, they are really more accepting than their parents were. People my age and people the age of my younger brother who are like 15 or 16, it’s super different the way that they view the world, there is this sort of generational shift in attitudes, but we can bring that too to the older people, they’re not set in their ways.

“Women know for themselves where they stand. And if your ethics are more conservative, then you should be able to express that just as much as a more liberal woman”

When I was young, if I was wearing shorts, I wouldn’t be out in public, that was just not acceptable. And today, you see girls that are wearing shorts outside all of the time. Before, if there was cleavage, that was not something you would see in the streets. Women are less confined by the way that they dress, fashion is more open I guess, but also, people have more access to information and the way that people are able to think is different. We used to have a censored internet, now, people have more access to information but people also have more access to informational noise. So the question is, how do we teach people the skills to think for themselves, to listen to their own voice? To be able to develop their own ethics? Women know for themselves where they stand. And if your ethics are more conservative, then you should be able to express that just as much as a more liberal woman. And I think a lot of the time the narrative is to tear each other down, and it doesn’t need to be like that, you can be yourself and also still be accepting of another person’s freedom to be themselves.

I think it’s important in society for young girls to have role models and women to look up to, and when I teach English classes, it helps that women don’t just see other women at home and being moms. I think that giving women a chance to speak up also helps, with our team as well, I think we’ve made a difference with the team. I know a lot of women are facing economic issues, social pressure, because of their race, their religion, their class, whatever, those are things that exist, but maybe if we can alleviate this one thing, that’d be nice.

  “It doesn’t help to have a female head of state when everyone else is suffering”

I think my grandma was pretty cool, I hang out with her a lot, she’s very encouraging, she’s like “you do you, you do what you like! Don’t listen to your parents if you don’t want to!” I think she’s 89 now.

I come from a weirdly intellectual background so I take a lot of inspiration from theorists like Wendy Brown, Angela Davis, I think they are role models for me, you can do academia and also activism at the same time.

I hope women will raise each other up. It doesn’t help to have women on top, honestly, it doesn’t help to have a female head of state when everyone else is suffering. I hope that it wouldn’t be just the people on top who are doing well, I hope that women, from every class and social status can be doing OK. If you’re on top you have a moral and ethical responsibility to raise people up. Having female role models is great, and women who are doing well is good, but that’s not the goal, the goal is to have everyone on the bottom move up, and not just to have a couple of people on top. I like to say that it’s like raising the dirt floor, and not breaking the glass ceiling!

(If you want to visit the Myanmar Self Defense Center, click here)

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