In a society where a popular saying urges women to “see their son as their master and their husband as their god,” the Buddhist nun Ketumala is already an outlier.
The 40-year-old abandoned traditional expectations of marriage and children as a teenager and instead spent more than two decades as a fierce advocate of the importance of women in religion.
The deep red robes and shaved heads of the monks in Myanmar are internationally recognized, but the plight of the large number of nuns in the nation, estimated at over 60,000, is little documented.
Deeply rooted patriarchy – the belief that women are inferior is widespread and discrimination is routine – means nuns who also shave their hair but wear pink can face abuse.
“When a man enters the monastery, people always applaud that it is good for the religion and it will do better, but when a woman enters the nunnery, people always think that it is a problem,” explains Ketumala .
“They think it’s a place for women who are poor, old, sick, divorced or in need of help for their lives,” she adds.
Outspoken and rebellious, Ketumala is probably the most famous nun in Myanmar. She founded the Dhamma School Foundation, which operates more than 4,800 Buddhist educational centers for children across the country.
However, 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 therefore struggle with funding.
In the worst case scenario, nuns will be abused, even if they ask for handouts to help them survive.
“Sometimes they get harassed on the street,” she explains.
– Superstition and Discrimination –
Ketumala’s struggle for recognition and respect for nuns in Buddhism parallels the broader challenge to women’s rights in modern Myanmar.
Aung San Suu Kyi may be the face of the nation, but her role at the head of civil government belies the lack of representation of women in positions of power in the country.
Only 10.5 percent of MPs are women, although there are signs that the ratio may improve after the November elections.
Laws are often passed by men for men, and rights activists have warned that violence against women is so widespread in society that it is considered normal.
The superstition about women is widespread: It is frowned upon to wash women’s clothes with men – even within the same family – for fear that the men will lose their masculinity.
In religious life, women are prohibited from entering certain Buddhist sites or temples, and they are never allowed to sit over men.
Ketumala says she has little power to bring about all of the changes she would like to see.
“It is up to the monks to decide all matters about the nuns,” she explains.
Even establishing the foundation was a struggle – she says monks who originally asked her for support would not support it, even though they thought it was a good idea.
She says, “For me it has done good things together for religion and for the country. But I realized that the monks have egos … they didn’t want to be involved and implemented because it was a nun’s idea.” “
Even when the project started, she could not be appointed to the executive branch, but as a secretary. Ultimately, she had to resign as the monks took control of the management.
– control of the mind –
Ketumala admits that she was not interested in religion when she was young, but found her way to enlightenment by reading about Buddhist philosophies and clarifying Sayarday U Zawti Ka’s book “A House That Is Mindfulness”.
“I used to think success was measured by materials – title and property – but later I found that those who can control and rule the mind are the only successful people,” she says.
Her family opposed becoming a nun because they feared becoming an outcast and refused to speak to her for years – although they have since made up.
She pushed ahead despite the opposition and even earned two degrees in Buddhist studies when she graduated.
Ketumala admits that there is no hope of equalization with monks – some historians say that nuns were once ordained in Theravada Buddhism, practiced in Myanmar and much of Southeast Asia, but since the practice became extinct more than 1,000 years ago there is no way they can revive it.
Nonetheless, she is determined to make a difference for tens of thousands of religious women in the country so that they can “make better use of their skills”.
In 2016, she started an empowerment training program for younger nuns and plans to found an organization that teaches topics such as leadership and management.
“The institute will provide the skills they need outside of the nunnery, especially for the development of their community,” she explains.
Ketumala believes that the best way to drive change is to find allies and friends throughout society, including monks, rather than creating “enemies”. Hence, Ketumala has taken a gentle approach to tackling the marginalization of women.
She adds: “Conservatives are everywhere, so there is not much room in the situation to ask about women’s rights.”
(This story was not edited by GossipMantri staff and is automatically generated from a syndicated feed.)