Semester at Sea 5

27 February 2017

8.34 N, 85.1 E

Day 53

From the moment I stepped foot off of my port shuttle in Yangon, it became evident to me that religion played a significant role in the daily lives of those living in Myanmar, especially women. As I began to walk the streets, I saw both monks and nuns roaming around. Both were dressed in traditional Buddhist religious attire – loose red or pink robe-like clothes – and sported shaved heads as they walked along the sidewalk among local Yangon people. With 90% of Myanmar’s population being Buddhist, I had expected to see religious influence, but I thought that it would be contained primarily to the pagodas and places of worship. However, this was not the case. Buddhist influence was evident whether I was walking downtown, taking a taxi, or shopping in a market. Monks and nuns were prevalent, small Buddha trinkets sat on dashboards, and large Buddhist statues made of many different materials were for sale.

What was most shocking was the fact that the religious influence wasn’t just limited to the adult and older generations. Rather, it is required for men to serve as a monk for at least one week over the course of their lives, so it is normal for young boys – and girls serving as nuns – to be seen around the city. Like their adult counterparts, the children are also dressed in traditional monk or nun clothing with shaved heads as they learn about Buddha and his teachings.

The practices of Buddhism are not subtle, unlike most American religious practices. Cottey is located along the Bible Belt of the U.S., so it comes as no surprise that churches are so high in number in Nevada. The familiar brick and mortar places of worship are normal to see along Austin Boulevard and its adjoining streets. However, while it may seem like there are a lot of churches with a lot of religious influence, it does not compare to that in Yangon. Not only are there pagodas located across the city, but they are covered in gold. The tall stupa – or central tower – looms over the rest of the pagoda, as the tall golden piece of architecture reflects the sun, becoming even brighter and more spectacular. The stupa at Shwedagon Pagoda is so large that it can be seen from nearly every location in the city of Yangon, which is a constant reminder of Buddhism and its influence across the city and country.

Traveling as a Cottey student, however, has increased my interest in the roles of women in the many countries where I have visited. Southeast Asian countries often correspond with the idea of limited roles for women in politics and education. Myanmar created an interesting point of view, as the Buddhist religion in the country does not put women on the same level as men. For instance, there are platforms and smaller pagodas within the Shwedagon Pagoda where women are not allowed to enter – no matter if they are a dedicated nun or a Western tourist. When talking with other Semester at Sea students, I learned more about how restrictions, such as male-only pagodas, are prevalent across the nation and not just at the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. In addition to limitations given to women at places of worship, men are seen as closer to achieving nirvana – the ultimate spiritual goal in Buddhism – than women, placing monks on a higher level than nuns. All women were also required to cover their shoulders and knees in addition to following a variety of other rules that applied primarily to the female gender. Gender roles are distinctly detailed in Myanmar’s daily Buddhist practices and beliefs, so, because of the influence of the religion on Myanmar, it is interesting that the country is led by a female authority figure – Aung San Suu Kyi, the State Counsellor of Myanmar.

Aung San Suu Kyi has an interesting story about her role in Myanmar’s politics. In 1990, the National League of Democracy won 80% of parliament seats, leading many to believe that Aung San Suu Kyi would gain the Prime Minister position since she was the leader of the NLD party. After the election in 1990, the government nullified the results, and she was placed under house arrest for about 20 years. In 2010, she was released from house arrest and continued to support the NLD. While she cannot run for president due to a clause in Myanmar’s constitution, her current position as the State Counsellor of Myanmar is a role comparable to Prime Minister. She has become an icon of Myanmar, and her face can be seen printed on t-shirts and other souvenir items in markets. It was interesting to me how the country’s politics are working under Aung San Suu Kyi, despite the strict gender roles enforced in Myanmar’s Buddhist religion that are prevalent outside of the pagodas. These two important aspects of Myanmar create an interesting juxtaposition, as women’s roles are so incredibly different between politics and religion, despite the constant influence of both across the country.

As I voyage to India this week, I am interested to continue this observation of women in politics and society. Each country I have visited has been different in terms of women’s opportunities and expectations – some being very disheartening. The voyage has been incredibly eye-opening in terms of women and their opportunities – or lack thereof – in the Asian countries to which I have traveled. My experiences have served as a reminder of how truly privileged I am to live in America, where I am not only able to vote, but I can also run for a political position, get an education, and hold a job outside of the home.

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