Smashing a long-held cultural taboo around women’s clothing in Myanmar, protesters opposing the coup waved flags made of traditional skirts on the streets of cities and towns across the country on Monday in an unprecedented rebuke to patriarchal norms in the Southeast Asian country.
As pro-democracy protests sweep the nation, women have been on the front lines, where they have developed increasingly creative approaches to challenging the male-dominated junta. An old tradition maintains that a man’s hpone, or masculine essence, can be lost if he passes under a woman’s lower clothing items, including the sarongs known as htameins in Burmese.
So in recognition of International Women’s Day, demonstrators turned the items of clothing into protest emblems, tying them to sticks and waving them as flags to challenge superstitious security forces while declaring “our htamein, our banner, our victory” in protest slogans on a day they named the Htamein Revolution.
“We want to show that the htamein is our success flag,” said Coretti, who goes by one name and is the general secretary of the Kayan Women’s Organization in Kayah State. “An unjust power grab should not be born under a htamein.”
At least 50 people have been killed since the military under commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing seized power in the Feb. 1 coup. Women have used their gender to mock and shame the senior general; some have taped photos of him to sanitary pads strewn on the ground. In recent days, the public have also hung clotheslines of htameins on streets to deter or shame military officers from walking under them.
“Some people consider sanitary pads and [women’s] underwear as dirty things, but for us, those things are not dirty...they protect us, unlike the harmful military dictatorship,” said Coretti. “Some believe that a woman’s htamein is less glorious, but now, we are able to make htamein flags...This pressures people to reduce harmful cultural beliefs towards women’s things, and also to use [htameins] as a tool to revolt against military rule.”
Naw Hser Hser, general secretary of the Women’s League of Burma (WLB), an umbrella organization for thirteen ethnic women’s organizations, added that by waving htameins, women are claiming agency over the protest movement. “We use our htameins to show evidence that women are fighting this revolution using the thing that we own.”
Across the country, ethnic people have put forth four protest objectives: to end military dictatorship, abolish a military-drafted 2008 constitution, establish a constitution based on federalism, and release all political prisoners. But in recognition of International Women’s Day, ethnic women’s organizations have added three more demands: to end disrimination against women, achieve full rights for women’s participation and decisionmaking, and hold perpetrators of gender-based violence accountable.
In Kayah State, Coretti said that men had taken up these objectives during their protest speeches. “This revolution can significantly impact social norms against women,” she said. “Now, men willingly accept women’s participation and leadership, and chant together for women’s demands. Men encourage women.”
She hopes that the changes will translate into increased women’s participation in a new society if the military dictatorship is overthrown. Though Myanmar’s civilian government was led by Aung San Suu Kyi before she was arrested, women’s participation in politics remained low. In 2019, just 11 percent of parliamentarians—including one-fourth of seats reserved for military appointees—were women, compared with 25 percent on average globally. But that number was still a dramatic increase compared with previous military regimes in Myanmar.
In 2010, the last year before the country began a transition toward civilian rule following nearly five decades under military dictatorship, women held less than 4 percent of seats in national parliament. A March 8 statement from the Karen Women’s Organization said that improvement in gender attitudes, recognition of women’s contributions to society, changes to laws, and increased justice for women has been incremental thus far.
Women are also fighting for freedom from sexual and gender-based violence. A UN Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar reported in August 2019 that soldiers “routinely and systematically employed rape, gang rape and other violent and forced sexual acts” and called for the military to stop using sexual and gender-based violence to terrorize and punish ethnic minorities.
“Our ethnic women have been suffering from war for more than 70 years, during which [the military] raped women as a weapon of war,” said Naw Hser Hser from the Women’s League of Burma. “We will fight with these—our own htameins—against the military dictators until we win.”
Although still small in number, a handful of men have taken the extra step to break social taboos by wearing htameins on their heads; a Facebook hashtag #htameincampaign has growing numbers of posts from men.
“The two patriarchs of my family are a grandpa who is ex-military and another who is hyper-religious,” said Lynn, 25, who goes by one name and is currently studying abroad. He said he wanted to differentiate himself from generations past and challenge the military’s archaic thinking. “I think when people see its extreme manifestation of patriarchal power, they will realize its beliefs are outdated,” he said.
A Rohingya woman in Rakhine State who requested anonymity for her security said that for her community, it was not safe to protest against the military coup in any way due to a history of persecution by security forces. During the military’s operations in Rakhine State in 2017, sexual and gender-based violence were factors indicating its genocidal intent to destroy the Rohingya population, according to a UN Fact-Finding Mission report.
Although unable to wave a htamein herself, the Rohingya woman said that she felt happy when seeing photos of the gestures across the country. She and several of her friends had posted their support on Facebook. “Maybe if I wasn’t in the camp, I would celebrate with them,” she said. “I think most Rohingya youth already know about this revolution and its positive impact, because they use social media and their minds are changing.”
She was also pleased to see the military’s avoidance of walking under the htamein clotheslines. “The military are afraid of htameins. In this revolution, I think their fear of htameins means they are afraid of women and girls.”