Are you a feminist? What makes you a feminist? Am I a feminist?
I don’t know but I do know is that Myanmar girls and women need empowerment at home, at school, in the streets and at workplace.
Dictionaries and Google will give you standard, very vague definition on the term but how everyone can have her own definitions on feminism and feminist.
For me, feminism means letting women live their own lives, appreciating their own choices and respecting their rights. I will only call myself a feminist when I take part in supporting these abovementioned notions in any way that I can. That being said, I am more interested in improving and changing women’s lives than promoting the ideology.
Calling oneself feminist is easier said than done. It requires a hard work to improve women’s lives especially in a country like Myanmar and it is a harder work to change people’s perceptions on women. Even experienced women’s rights advocates and women organizations need major brainstorm on where to start. Getting tired of seeing usual cliché women empowerment programs such as workshops, talks and networking events, why don’t we start doing something real? Something that sure does create more comfortable lifestyles for women.
Privileged enough, I got to travel to the United States last month. The current president might want to grab women by pussy but America offers practical and functional facilities and supports for its women. For a girl who was raised by ridiculous double standards, I was blown away by how American women were fiercely empowered and unapologetically fight for their rights. Inspired by American women, I realize that some of their systems support women in institutionalized means so that they can be as confident as they are right now.
Let’s be real. One of the hardest parts of being a woman is menstruation. I hope every woman agrees on this because it is a complete misery in those days; one could get all moody, emotional, angry, saying things that one didn’t really mean and it wasn’t even our choice to be that way. Once born as a female, the menstruation comes attached whether we want it or not. It’s not something to be shamed of. It’s not a sin. It’s not something that should be whispered among girls. It’s nature. It’s health. And it’s important for us.
What I really loved about America was that there were vending machines that dispense menstrual products in almost every restroom I went. Knowing that it is a crucial part of women’s lives, it was very thoughtful of the authorities (or whoever initiated) to have these machines installed in women’s restrooms. University of Nebraska at Omaha (where I studied for four weeks) offers free menstrual products but some other restrooms in different places I visited sells tampons and napkins – a mall charges 25 cent per product, and a fancier place charges 50 cent. Free or not, I love the convenience and accessibility this little machine brings to women’s lives.
Meanwhile in Myanmar, whenever period starts unexpectedly in public and one is not prepared, all she could do was whispering around female friends, asking for an extra napkin and if her friend has it, she hides that napkins (because we don’t want any boy to see it) on our way to restroom and get the business done discreetly. If no one has extra napkin, she herself or someone has to make a trip to convenient store to buy those. It is very likely that sale girls will hand a packet of sanitary pads, wrapped in old newspaper and put in a black plastic bag as if it is something illegal. But if we had one of those machines, the girl could just go to restroom, buy or get a free napkin or tampon and do what she needed to do. It would be that easy. It would make our lives that convenient. Unfortunately, even in the most advanced ASEAN cities like Singapore or Bangkok, such accessibilities to tampons and napkins are not available yet.
Fascinated by these vending machines and dig a little deeper on the Internet, I found out that some American students are still fighting to have those machines installed in their school’s restrooms, and at the same time, an organization called Free the Tampon Foundation is advocating and raising awareness on freely accessible tampons and pads in public toilets. Even in a country like United States, women are still fighting for their rights to improve their lives in various aspects and practical means.
Having exposed to a more advanced part of the world, I wonder why shouldn’t Myanmar women groups and feminists work on something tangible like having these machines installed? We may not have many decent public restrooms in most area but we can start installing in schools, universities and maybe at shopping malls. If we can’t afford to giveaway freely, we can sell with affordable price.
The thing about feminism and women’s right is that they are not short-lived subjects but a long battle. We may not agree on what feminism actually means, we may not be able to change people’s perception on women in a blink of an eye but we can start creating better lives for women. Only women can start the change for women and free tampons can be a beginning.
(Read Theingi’s old writing on social and traditional norms that bound Myanmar women here.)