Some Myanmar women have serious misgivings about a planned rights law, writes Melyn McKay. 

In 2015, religio-nationalist groups, including female members, campaigned in support of a set of legislation, four ‘Race and Religion’ laws, which were eventually agreed upon by the Myanmar legislature. Though opposition to the laws was well-documented at the time, far fewer attempts were made at understanding lay and religious women’s support for them.

Some women were vocal and visible proponents of the laws, participating actively in and at times leading marches and signature gathering campaigns. One of my key interlocutors, a member of women’s Ma Ba Tha, led a multi-week effort to gather signatures in support of the four laws in numerous regions of upper Burma. “Entire villages,” she reported, “single and married women,” signed her petition.

Today, the National League for Democracy (NLD)- led government is poised to consider a new women’s rights law, authored in consultation with gender experts and activists including Myanmar Women’s Affairs Federation and the Gender Equality Network. Ma Ba Tha have promised to protest the laws if they override or in any way alter the existing ‘Race and Religion’ laws, which in their view, offer some of the strongest possible protections for Buddhist women and their children.

Recent reports suggest that Myanmar’s gender activists, including those who participated in the drafting of the new law, have concerns about the final version it may take. Though the process was technically consultative, there are fears that some of the most progressive, and indeed, necessary elements of the law have been stripped out of the version likely to go before the Supreme Court. One participant in the drafting process remarked to me, “We’ll see, when the final draft is made public, if it was anything more than a study in cooption.”

As The Irrawaddy reported, government officials were hesitant to include provisions aimed at tackling pervasive cultural practices that constrain the lives of women. The legalisation of abortion, for instance, even in cases of rape, was taken off the negotiating table.

While gender activists are likely to find the law’s eventual form disappointing, for many it will still represent a step in the right direction. Once law, amendments on specific points can be drafted and lobbied. Concerns about the scope of the new law, however, won’t just come from political progressives.

In my work with women who support and participate in religio-nationalist movements in Myanmar, one thing is clear — the new law is seen by many as a threat to women’s safety and security. In large part, this is due to the pervasive fear that the new law will revoke the protections provided by the four ‘Race and Religion’ laws. To understand their concerns, it is important to clarify what it is about the four laws these women champion.

First, and foremost, women who supported the four laws were and are ardently in favour of banning polygamy. In many of my interviews, women of all ages retell stories of neighbours, distant cousins, and friends-of-friends, who married Muslim men who later took second wives. Often, as the stories go, the new wife is Muslim. If the Buddhist woman does not then convert, her marriage is rendered invalid under Islamic custom. She, and her children, are thus left without recourse to financial support and turned out in the cold.

Second, women from around the country reiterated frustrations around what they perceived to be an unwillingness, on the part of the Muslim community, to compromise or extend to others the same religious tolerance that they demand. “Christian men,” as one nun explained to me, “don’t force their wives to stop attending the pagoda.” Muslim men, she insisted, will attend the pagoda alongside their paramours throughout their courtship, but will force conversion after marriage. Indeed, many of my informants repeat stories which centre on the plight of Buddhist women, married in Mosques, who find that in signing their marriage documents, they have unwittingly converted to Islam.

While  international human rights and gender activists  tend to couch their opposition to the four laws in terms of their negative impact on women — in addition to their overtly anti-Muslim intent — Burmese religio-nationalist women leverage the language of third wave ‘choice’ Feminism to explain why they support them. My interlocutors, lay women and nuns alike, understand it as their duty, as good Buddhists and as good women, to protect the right of other, more vulnerable women, to choose how they live and practice their faith. In a world where men are very often understood generally as a source of threat to women’s wellbeing, the four laws offer one way in which women’s rights to certain freedoms can be legally enforced.

Though it would be easy to suggest that these women are uneducated or guileless, following blindly in the footsteps of charismatic monks, this has not been my experience. Many are experts in Dhamma, with years of education at Myanmar’s best religious universities. Some read both Pali and Sanskrit, others are teachers and lawyers who offer their skills pro-bono when called upon by Ma Ba Tha monks to attend to the needs of domestic abuse and rape victims.

The positions they hold are of course tied to a deep-seated fear of Muslims, and widely-held concerns that the NLD government lacks the strength or the will to defend against a perceived threat of Islamification of Myanmar. Regardless, their concerns for women’s wellbeing are sincere.

Women in Myanmar, as elsewhere in the world, are subject to a variety of practices and cultural norms that violate their sovereignty and expose them to often invisible forms of violence. The four laws, whatever their shortcomings, made them feel marginally safer. Any new law will need to carefully attend to those same fears if it is going to be embraced by women around the country.

Given what we know about the proposed law thus far, that seems unlikely.

Melyn McKay is a research anthropologist and DPhil candidate in the Department of Social Anthropologyat Exeter College, Oxford University.