IN a society where a popular saying urges women to “regard her son as her master and her husband as her god”, Buddhist nun Ketumala is already an outlier.
The 40-year-old walked away from traditional expectations of marriage and children as a teenager, and has instead spent more than two decades as a fierce advocate for the importance of women in religion.
The deep-red robes and shorn heads of Myanmar’s monks are internationally recognised, but the plight of the nation’s vast number of nuns, estimated to be in excess of 60,000, is little documented.
An entrenched patriarchy – the belief women are inferior is common and discrimination is routine – means that nuns, who also shave their hair but wear pink, can face abuse.
“When a man enters into monkhood, people always applaud saying it is good for the religion and will make it better, but when a woman enters into nunhood, people always think it is because of a problem, ” Ketumala explains.
“They think it’s a place for women who are poor, old, sick, divorced, or need help for their life, ” she adds.
Outspoken and rebellious, Ketumala is arguably the best known nun in Myanmar, having founded the Dhamma School Foundation, which runs more than 4,800 Buddhist education centres for children throughout the country.
But she warns that many nuns are still treated with contempt – the nunneries are run on donations but they do not command the reverence of monasteries and so struggle with funding.
In the worst cases, nuns are abused even for asking for alms that help them survive.
Ketumala’s battle for recognition and respect for nuns in Buddhism runs parallel to the broader challenge for women’s rights in modern Myanmar.
Aung San Suu Kyi might be the face of the nation, but her role at the apex of the civilian government belies the lack of female representation in positions of power in the country.
Only 10.5% of MPs are women, although there are signs the ratio might improve after the November election.
Laws are often made by men, for men, and rights activists have warned that in wider society violence against women is so pervasive it is regarded as normal. — AFP