Women cart driv­ers take over tra­di­tional men’s job in Inwa

The Myanmar Times - - News - PHYO WAI KYAW phy­[email protected]­times.com

TWENTY kilo­me­tres from Man­dalay city is the an­cient im­pe­rial city of Inwa, which was the cap­i­tal of the Myan­mar king­dom three dif­fer­ent times be­tween the 14th and 16th cen­turies.

Inwa still has ves­tiges of its past grandeur and lots of an­cient cul­ture and tra­di­tions.

There are vil­lages and many large shady trees along the road lead­ing to the an­cient city.

There are no big busi­nesses in Inwa, ex­cept for mak­ers of alms bowls, but Inwa’s hand­made metal bowl busi­ness is fac­ing se­ri­ous com­pe­ti­tion from Thai­land. Peo­ple are just try­ing to keep their busi­nesses go­ing to en­sure that the tra­di­tion sur­vives.

A grow­ing num­ber of men in Inwa are mov­ing to Man­dalay city to work as ma­sons and car­pen­ters in con­struc­tion com­pa­nies.

A few peo­ple sell sou­venirs to tourists and some work as tour guides, but their earn­ings are barely enough to sus­tain fam­i­lies.

There is one job lu­cra­tive enough for lo­cal res­i­dents to keep a fam­ily to­gether: driv­ing horse carts for tourists vis­it­ing Inwa.

It was only three years ago that the Inwa com­mu­nity al­lowed women to drive the carts. Be­fore that, only men were al­lowed to drive the carts, which is the only mode of trans­porta­tion al­lowed in the an­cient city.

One of the women driv­ers, Daw Htay Htay, has been driv­ing carts in Inwa for the past 20 years de­spite the taboo.

“I didn’t know what to do when I was wid­owed. I re­lied on my hus­band’s earn­ings. I thought to be­come a farm worker, but most of the farms in Inwa are owned by Chi­nese,” she said.

Des­per­ate to find a job to sus­tain her three young chil­dren, Daw Htay Htay took a deep breath and started driv­ing horse carts, to the con­ster­na­tion of fam­ily and friends.

“I didn’t dare say any­thing when trav­ellers were told not to ride in horse carts driven by women. The first women to drive horse carts in Inwa were Daw Nu and me,” she said.

In the face of con­stant heck­ling and crit­i­cism, she con­tin­ued to drive so she could make ends meet.

“We have to be very care­ful not to make any mis­takes,” she said. We have to choose tame and smart horses that do not kick or bite.”

Some tour guides on boats car­ry­ing tourists across the Myit Nge River would shout be­fore the boats dock that no fe­male cart driv­ers are al­lowed.

When that hap­pens, Daw Htay Htay just swal­lows her pride and holds her peace to avoid trou­ble. None­the­less, she said, some guests chose her over male driv­ers and give her a tip, Daw Htay Htay said.

About four years ago, a lo­cal tele­vi­sion sta­tion in­ter­viewed Daw Htay Htay about her un­usual job and she be­came an in­stant celebrity. Tourists go­ing to Inwa look for her and her horse cart. Even tour guides choose her to take their clients around.

“Jobs are rare here, so I urge the young, the old, and wi­d­ows to take up the job of horse cart driver,” she said. “You’re work­ing to earn a liv­ing, so there’s noth­ing to be ashamed of.”

The city com­mit­tee has al­lowed women to get li­cences to drive horse carts, and there are now 38 women driv­ers at Inwa Oh­toke­tan.

“I’m ex­tremely grate­ful for this op­por­tu­nity and think that women driv­ers are just as good as men,” said Daw Htay Htay.

Daw Thi­dar, 40, an­other woman driver said, “On each cart car­ry­ing two pas­sen­gers, I earn K10,000 (US$6.30). Feed­ing the horse costs K4000 daily and there is also the mat­ter of horse­shoes.

“We women driv­ers have had no ac­ci­dents.”

The horse carts have to queue for cus­tomers. The tourist high sea­son is only four months long, so al­though they get two turns per day dur­ing the sea­son, they have to fall back on their sav­ings to sur­vive the rest of the year, said Daw Htay Htay.

De­spite these chal­lenges, Daw Thi­dar’s daugh­ter re­cently grad­u­ated from col­lege and her son passed the ma­tric­u­la­tion exam last year. Among Daw Htay Htay’s three daugh­ters, one has grad­u­ated from col­lege and the other is in the 9th grade.

She said she will con­tinue to ply her trade for as long as she can.

“I love horses and tourists. We drive away the tr­ishaws that come around. There are around 200 horse carts, and we won’t ac­cept any three­wheeled bikes. This is the only vi­able busi­ness here,” she said.

Pho­tos: Phyo Wai Kyaw

Driver Daw Htay Htay takes a break at the Inwa Oh­toke­tan horse cart rank. Daw Thida pre­pares to drive her horse cart.

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