Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 28, March 2012
Chie Ikeya

Refiguring Women, Colonialism, and Modernity in Burma

Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2011.
ISBN 978-0-8248-3461-6 (hbk); xii + 239 pp.

reviewed by Nick Cheesman

  1. Histories of Burma are crowded with accounts of that most conventional and enduring of historical fictions: the Great Man. Books regaling the exploits of domineering males, both ancient and modern, fill library shelves. Women appear from time to time, cast in supporting roles, sometimes as literary or artistic types. They are rarely political, and where they are, it is not necessarily for the best.
  2. In recent decades, some researchers have brought to readers a more critical and comprehensive understanding of Burma's past, and particularly of its colonial period. James Scott and Michael Adas produced pioneering political-economic studies of agrarian resistance to colonial rule.[1] Others like Maitrii Aung-Thwin and Julie Pham have since shed new light on colonial-era personages and events.[2]
  3. Notwithstanding, most publications have remained preoccupied with the role of men, or with social and economic conditions generally. Chie Ikeya's first book, Refiguring Women, Colonialism, and Modernity in Burma is, as described on its inner flap, unique in its use of gender as a category for sustained analysis of the British colonial period. As such, it makes an important and distinctive contribution to literature on the country.
  4. Ikeya sets out to uncover what she describes as a 'forgotten or suppressed history of colonial interaction, imagination and cosmopolitanism…intertwined with another hidden past, that of the 'modern' women who came into view in 1920s and 1930s Burma' (p. 2). The ways in which these women were refigured during the late colonial period constitute the book's subject matter; the complex interplay between this refiguring and notions of modernity constitute its intellectual centrepiece.
  5. Following a background chapter on the colonial setting, Ikeya argues that revisionist scholarship on Southeast Asian women is derivative of colonial representations that 'disregarded local and historically specific constructions of gender relations' (p. 46). She explores how these representations applied in colonial Burma, neatly describing the manner in which family law, religion and custom came together to portray the Burmese woman as already liberated and in no need of emancipatory struggle of the sort emerging elsewhere in the early twentieth century.
  6. The contradictory qualities of this discourse on the emancipated Burmese woman are captured by Ikeya in a quote from a colonial officer, who wrote that women do most of the hard work in Burma not because they are slaves but because they 'occupy a position of independence and responsibility' (p. 47). The quote reminded me of remarks by a barrister filmed speaking to the American Women's Club in Rangoon during the 1950s, who tells her audience that, 'Since historic times we have always enjoyed equality of rank, status and opportunity with men and unlike the Chinese or Indian neighbours we have never been the chattel of Burmese men.' But when asked by one of the club whether Burmese husbands help with the dishes, she replies, 'Heaven forbid! We have to uphold the dignity of the lord and master of the house.'[3] . Her reply is only half in jest.
  7. The narrative of the Burmese woman as historically liberated but socially and politically differentiated had a variety of consequences, which Ikeya identifies and explains. Since women in Burma supposedly had been free from the types of violent oppressive practices suffered by their regional counterparts, demands for women's rights concentrated on political and administrative inclusion. The colonial regime insisted that formal education was a prerequisite for participation. Women took to schools and universities in large numbers and many graduated with degrees in the 1920s and 30s. Despite their successes, the administration declined to give them jobs. Equality, evidently, extended only so far as education, not employment.
  8. As a generation of younger, literate, urbane women from relatively affluent backgrounds became more visible and more vocal, new archetypes of modernity emerged. Ikeya's book includes an engaging chapter on the rise of consumerist culture and a distinctive type of fashionable woman, at once up with the times but also insistently Burmese. A subsequent chapter examines how with the influx of non-Burmese men from other parts of the British Empire, this modern woman encountered a social and political 'problem of whom to marry', which Ikeya again evocatively captures through her study of contemporaneous documents and publications.
  9. The discussion of fashion and intermarriage comes together in a chapter on nationalist critiques of the modern woman and what Ikeya describes as the crisis in Burmese manliness during the late colonial period and World War Two. She observes in the chapter's introduction that, 'Investment in particular feminine tropes reveals as much about the construction of masculinity as about that of femininity' (p. 146). This truism held the promise of a critical appraisal of sexuality, stripping off the garments-as nationalist monks did to some young women literally-to expose the politics of what lay underneath. Unfortunately, the promise remained unfulfilled, and it is in this respect that for me the book fails to realize wholly its possibility.
  10. Ikeya's exploration of how women's bodily practices became encoded politically takes the reader across the sheer fabric of blouses and peculiarities of hairstyles, but stops short of addressing the multitudinous threats posed by women's bodies themselves. Ikeya deftly employs a variety of sources to describe and analyse the refiguring of women and modernity, but she does not dig deeply into the subtexts of periodicals and reports, which while expressing concern about women's dress and marital affairs are ultimately concerned with the latent power of her physique.
  11. The absence of a more rigorous, feminist critique on the nexus between Burmese politics and women's sexuality was surprising for me not only because Ikeya seems to bring her study to the point that such analysis would have been particularly apt, but also because the lines between clothes, sex and power are sometimes very sharply drawn in Burmese-language texts on public morality and woman's place in society.
  12. Prominent writer and scholar Nan Nyunt Swe, for instance, not long after the period covered in Ikeya's study wrote a book-one of many by Burmese men advising women on how to conduct themselves-in which he explicitly began a chapter with the topic of clothes that lead to prostitution.[4] His message is clear: a woman's body on display signals not political liberation but sexual enslavement. What begins with fashion ends not in equality, but in the whorehouse.
  13. Philippa Levine has written that the brothel in Britain's Asian colonies was 'treacherous territory, acceptable when it kept within the proper boundaries of public and private, but worrisome when the spheres could no longer be carefully and sharply mapped.'[5] This statement strikes me as equally applicable to the body of Ikeya's modern Burmese woman, whose boundaries could be maintained or transgressed depending upon her choice of clothes, and of company. Regrettably, Ikeya does not cross far beyond these boundary problems into the more treacherous territory of the body itself.
  14. The book's conclusion too was for me a lost opportunity to draw lines between problems of colonial and postcolonial modernity, and to examine through a colonial-era lens the continued refiguring of Burmese women. Monique Skidmore, citing Levine's research, correctly discerns that, 'The territory of gender and efforts to govern it are central to Levine's colonial analysis but never more relevant [than] today in Burma when the territory of gender and the invisible, subversive power of the feminine are once again central to "proscriptive modes of justification and order".'[6]
  15. The same is true of Ikeya's study. A macho, militarised regime has for years prohibited intermarriage of Burmese women with foreign men out of the same sorts of fears as expressed by its independence-fighting forebears. The regime has denied women positions of authority, most notably by refusing, so far, to hand government to democracy icon Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, on the unflattering official portrayals of whom Ikeya remarks briefly. It persists with the lie of differentiated equality, describing Burmese women as 'gentle and refined in manner by tradition, 'possessing the unique exemplary trait of maintaining and upholding…national culture,' of being 'capable of fulfilling their duties whether for family or for the sake of others,' and of showing 'valour and perseverance and capability equally with men in overcoming difficulties.'[7] Women who challenge such authorised representations of how they are supposed comport themselves risk attacks both on their sexuality and on their bodies, as did their predecessors.
  16. Despite its shortcomings, I commend this book to anyone interested in gender and colonial history in South or Southeast Asia, as well as to all enthusiastic and widely read students of Burma. Refiguring Women is original, lucid and well researched. Its author has succeeded in revealing much of Burma's forgotten past, even if much is still suppressed. I look forward to Ikeya and other writers in coming years uncovering more of this past, and in so doing consigning the conventional, masculine version of Burma's history if not to the rubbish bin then at least to the library shelf reserved for subject matter classed as anachronism, where it belongs.


    [1] James C. Scott, The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976; Michael Adas, Prophets of Rebellion: Millenarian Protest Movements Against the European Colonial Order, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1979.

    [2] Maitrii Aung-Thwin, The Return of the Galon King: History, Law and Rebellion in Colonial Burma, Ohio University Research in International Studies, Southeast Asia Series, Athens, Ohio & Singapore: Ohio University Press and NUS Press, 2011; Julie Pham, 'J.S. Furnivall and Fabianism: reinterpreting the 'plural society' in Burma,' in Modern Asian Studies vol. 39, no. 2 (2005): 321-48.

    [3] Buddhism in Burma - History, Politics and Culture , The Film Archive, 1957, accessed 3 February 2012.

    [4] Thuka Mein [Nan Nyunt Swe], Meinma Pyathana (Women's Problems), 3rd ed., Rangoon: Burma Publishing House, 1966 (1956), p. 35.

    [5] Philippa Levine, 'The cordon sanitaire: mobility and space in the regulation of colonial prostitution", in Trans-status Subjects: Gender in the Globalization of South and Southeast Asia, ed. Sonita Sarker and Esha Niyogi De, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2002, pp. 51–66, p. 54.

    [6] Monique Skidmore, 'Buddha's mother and the billboard queens: moral power in contemporary Burma,' in Women and the Contested State: Religion, Violence, and Agency in South and Southeast Asia, ed. Monique Skidmore and Patricia Lawrence, Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007, pp. 171–87, p. 185.

    [7] 'Myanmar Women Have Accomplished Highly in Areas Such as Commerce, Education, Health and Technology and Are Participating Actively in Forefront [sic] in Nation Building Tasks,' New Light of Myanmar, 4 July 2011, p. 8.


Published with the support of Gender and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
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