COMMENTARY: Myanmar has failed women – That is why the Monogamy Law is popular
Patriarchal attitudes, bureaucratic indifference, and little support from society leave women feeling powerless
Let’s set this straight from the outset - this is not about being an apologist for the “race and religion protection laws”. I believe the laws were rushed through the parliament at the behest of nationalist lobby groups for reasons other than protecting the womenfolk in this country. Most women I’ve spoken to think the same.
But given the number of cases that have been filed – by women – since the Monogamy Law was enacted only a few months ago, there are clearly many women for whom this law made sense.
The Monogamy Law is the last of the four “race and religion protection laws” but the first to make its mark.
It’s a slim law, with only six chapters and 21 articles, but 29 complaints have been filed in Yangon Region alone. Under the law, those found guilty could be imprisoned for up to seven years. The defendant cannot get bail.
Most of the defendants so far are Buddhist men - not what the drafters of the law had envisaged.
Nationalists who pushed for the law targeted it at religious minorities among which polygamy and extra-marital affairs are perceived to occur more frequently.
In the process of speaking to women’s rights groups, ordinary women and lawyers, I was struck that although many criticised the severity of the punishment,
they supported the fundamental principle of legal protection for monogamy.
It’s easy to see why this law is popular with women, once you hear stories of women who felt they’ve been abandoned twice - first by their husbands and then by their own community.
“Ta Khu Lut”, a term used to refer to divorcees, has a negative connotation in Myanmar’s conservative society. Loosely translated as “missing a half”, it sums up the perception society has of women whose marriages have failed for whatever reason – that somehow they are incomplete and bringing shame on the family.
It’s worse if you have neither the power nor money to protect you from the loose tongues. Often it is the poorest and most marginalised women that need the most protection.
In one of my interviews with a young woman whose husband left her for another woman, she cried as she uttered the word “Ta Khu Lut”.
“Neighbours said he left because I wasn’t good enough. How much better (behaved) should I have been?” she asked, wiping away tears.
The young woman blamed the advent of cheap sim cards and mobile phones in Myanmar for her plight. Her husband met and planned clandestine meetings with the new woman via a mobile messaging app.
I, however, blame a hypocritical society that discriminates against and stigmatises women.
For one thing, we live in a country that gives out mixed messages.
The backers of the laws say Islam threatens Buddhist-majority Myanmar and these laws are needed to protect Buddhism and Buddhist women. Yet polygamy and extramarital affairs have been around for centuries.
Anyone who has visited the replica of the Mandalay Palace could be forgiven for thinking the biggest perk of being a Burmese king was to have as many wives as one wished.
These same kings were also devout Buddhists, and not indulging in sexual misconduct is one of the five moral precepts Buddhists must live by every single day.
Today the myriad sayings about strong, virile men attracting women still abound, creating a handy excuse for when men stray. I haven’t been able to find any equivalent quotations about women.
There’s also the well-worn belief that one should not get involved in disputes between husband and wife, parents and children, and siblings.
It’s an idea that both the society and officials seem to hold on to tightly except when passing judgment, usually towards the women.
It is against this backdrop that the Monogamy Law is making its mark.
Women are turning to it because society has left them without support.
Now the women of Myanmar are getting their own back.
T-shirt seller in Yangon. Photo: EPA