Warnings to women over their attire and behaviour during Thingyan are regarded by feminists as examples of victim-blaming that reinforces rape culture.
Words & Photos CHARLOTTE ENGLAND | FRONTIER
On the first day of Thingyan in Mandalay, in the midst of the party beside the palace moat, a man was stabbed with a sword. Fifteen minutes later, almost immediately after his lifeless body had been taken away, people were dancing again where he had fallen to the ground, his blood washing away with the water pouring on to the crowd from the two dozen hosepipes lining the stage.
It may as well not have happened, for all the young, drunk, predominantly male crowd appeared to care. The only visibly perturbed people were the stage owner and the DJ, who each blamed the other for their “territory” of 20 years having been “tarnished” by a murder, and descended into a punch up.
Thingyan, Myanmar’s New Year Water Festival, is traditionally celebrated with a family-friendly, near nationwide water fight: children empty buckets over passing vehicles; people soak their friends, neighbours and passing strangers; food is shared; various performances are put on, and everyone has at least a week off work to visit their family.
But in Myanmar’s larger cities, the festivities are becoming increasingly alcohol-fuelled, violent and misogynistic. While anyone can be arbitrarily attacked or involved in an accident, the aggressive, ultra-male atmosphere in some areas means that women are being routinely harassed, groped and sexually assaulted.
In Mandalay, Myanmar’s second largest city, sponsored stages lined the moat, bearing large advertisements for energy drinks and cement, and blaring out techno music to entertain an almost entirely male crowd. Last year, a video shared on social media showed a woman in Mandalay being beaten by a group of men during the festival. She is shoved and punched in the head, while onlookers do nothing to help her.
This year, few Myanmar women ventured into the crowds, many avoided the area around the moat and most said they didn’t go out alone or at night. Some women said they were afraid to go out and preferred to stay home for the five days of the festival.
Police in Mandalay say that women are creating, or at least contributing to their lack of safety during Thingyan, and are tarnishing Myanmar culture in the process. Rather than promising to protect all revellers and to tackle violent crime, police in Mandalay warned before the festival they would arrest any women caught wearing a revealing outfit in public.
Women “looked ugly” in revealing, Western-style clothing and should follow the example of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who always dresses traditionally, she said. “If you wear revealing clothes the boys will want to touch you.”
“It’s important that women dress modestly and behave sensibly for their own safety,” Mandalay District Police Commander Lieutenant-Colonel Sein Tun told Frontier, before qualifying the arrest threat.
“If women do wear revealing outfits or get drunk, it is not really true that they may be arrested, actually we just warn them,” Pol Lt-Col Sein Tun said. Women wearing revealing clothing could be arrested under Section 294 of the Penal Code, that prohibits obscene acts and songs, he said.
The message of the police in Mandalay was clear: Their approach to women’s safety was to put the onus on women to limit their behaviour, rather than to target the perpetrators of violent crimes against women. This puts the blame for a sexual assault on the victim.
“This is victim-blaming, which is reinforcing rape culture,” said Ma Pyo Let Han, editor and co-founder of Rainfall feminist magazine. “A lot of facts prove rape is [not affected by] what women wear,” she added. “Many rape victims are minors.”
In public awareness sessions, delivered to dozens of people at a time in monasteries around Mandalay, jovial, charismatic police officers repeated this message, cheerfully telling women that they must be careful how they dress to “preserve the culture” and not to “damage the image of the country”. Women should not stay out late at night during Thingyan, officers added, and they should not get drunk or eat or drink anything offered to them by others.
While the sessions evoked citizens’ latent nationalism by emphasising the duty and responsibility of women (and apparently women alone) to preserve traditional culture, Sein Tun made clear that this was not the main purpose of dictating how women should dress and behave.
“The purpose of these sessions is to reduce criminal cases and to end Thingyan peacefully,” he said in an interview. “If women wear revealing clothing, it is dangerous for them because drunken men might insult them because of their dress. If women drink alcohol, it is also dangerous for them because they might be part of crime without knowing themselves.”
It is not unusual for Mandalay residents to conflate the issue of cultural preservation with the right not to be raped. The message that women are responsible for preventing sexual assault, and are therefore to blame if they are assaulted, sits beside, and is entangled with, the message that women must uphold culture and dress “respectfully”, and deserve the consequences if they do not. Both messages are pervasive.
A prominent Mandalay-based, 88 Generation women’s rights activist demonstrated just how pervasive. When I telephoned to seek a critical perspective of the situation, she confirmed a rise in assaults during Thingyan, but told me she supported the advice of the police.
Women “looked ugly” in revealing, Western-style clothing and should follow the example of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who always dresses traditionally, she said. “If you wear revealing clothes the boys will want to touch you,” she added. “When women wear revealing clothes, rape happens. Wearing revealing clothes is calling for the crime to happen.”
Ma Wai Wai, 19, a student who helped with translation, was not surprised by the activist’s attitude. “It’s common to say Burmese men are not used to revealing clothing,” she said. “So, it makes them sexually excited [to see women in short skirts or low cut tops] when they are drinking; so girls should stay covered.”
Pyo Let Han believes it’s in the interest of the police and authorities to perpetuate victim-blaming. “It is very easy to put all blame [on victims] instead of finding effective solutions,” she said, adding that this was extremely harmful to women.
A 2015 report by the Yangon-based Gender Equality Network found that “groping in public spaces was considered a normal part of women’s experiences moving around town” and that “almost half of women [surveyed] also experienced some form of non-partner rape, sexual assault or sexual harassment”.
Official statistics do not come close to reflecting the scale of the problem.
In 2014, there were 741 rapes reported in Myanmar, compared with 32,000 cases in 2013 in Thailand, a neighbouring country with a slightly bigger population where rape is believed to be underreported. The disparity between the two countries makes Myanmar’s statistics seem farcical.
“Sexual assault was considered shameful and was framed within the context of its impact on a woman’s reputation, leading to victim-blaming,” the GEN report concluded. Allowing shame, blame and a lack of support to keep rape victims silent enables the police and the government to deny the problem and avoid diverting time and energy to helping women. It also keeps half the population subjugated.
“I want them to stop warning women. Their duty is to protect every citizen who is enjoying Thingyan festival.”
Blaming women and discouraging them from reporting rape also leads to perpetrators believing they can get away with assaulting women, removing the disincentive of punishment. By consolidating and perpetuating victim-blaming narratives, the police are exacerbating the problem.
Sein Tun illustrated the issue of underreporting and denial when I asked about the video of a woman being beaten that was shared on social media last year.
“There were no incidents last Thingyan of harassment and assault of women,” he said, adding that he was unaware of the beating. This contradicts what women in Mandalay told me and a video thousands have watched online.
“[The police] crucially need gender sensitivity education,” said Pyo Let Han. “Almost all of them are gender blind, to [tell] women [what] to wear, not to go outside [alone], not to drink and not to wear sexually provocative dresses, instead of [enforcing] laws which protect women from sexual harassment and being raped.”
For most of the population, Thingyan is good fun. But if there are no measures to protect women and they continue to be blamed for crimes against them, Thingyan will increasingly become like the crowds at the stages in Mandalay: a men-only party in which women cannot safely participate.
I asked Pyo Let Han if she had a message for the police. “I want them to stop warning women,” she said. “Their duty is to protect every citizen who is enjoying Thingyan festival.” She added that everyone has a right to wear what they want, and every empowered woman can choose her outfit for herself. “Nobody has a right to tell anyone else what to wear,” she said.
“Stop blaming women.”
Additional reporting by Saw Nang.