Before taking up arms against the military regime in July, Kabya May had never worn trousers.
Like many women in Myanmar, the 23-year-old teacher from Sagaing region was accustomed to wearing an ankle-length sarong called a htamein. Now, she is a member of the Myaung Women Warriors, Myanmar’s first publicly announced all-female fighter group.
“I joined because I want to root out the dogs,” said Kabya May, using what has become a derogatory term for Myanmar security forces. “The reason I joined a women’s only resistance group is to show that women can do what men are doing.”
Kabya May is one of an increasing number of women who have joined the armed resistance to military rule since the coup on February 1. Four female fighters told Al Jazeera that along with destroying the military dictatorship, they want to overturn traditional gender norms and ensure women play an equal role in building a new nation.
Al Jazeera is using pseudonyms for Kabya May and the other women featured in this article due to the risk of military reprisals.
Women have played a prominent role in the protest movement that emerged after army chief Min Aung Hlaing seized power.
Garment factory workers were among the first to take to the streets, and women continue to march on the front lines of pro-democracy demonstrations. They have also been prominent in an ongoing Civil Disobedience Movement and in leading calls for ethnic minority rights.
Women have at times actively used their femininity as a tool of resistance. Challenging a superstition that it is emasculating for a man to pass under, or come into contact with, a woman’s lower garments, women have waved flags made of sarongs, affixed coup leader Min Aung Hlaing’s image to sanitary pads, and strung sarongs, knickers and used sanitary pads across streets to mock and humiliate security forces and stop them in their tracks.
Women have not been spared the military’s crackdown on dissent: the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) told Al Jazeera that out of 1,260 people killed by security forces since the coup, at least 87 were women, while more than 1,300 of the 12,000 people sentenced, jailed or charged have been female.
Women’s participation in armed resistance movements in Myanmar is not new. Some of the country’s largest ethnic armed organisations claim hundreds of women in their ranks, and Naw Zipporah Sein, the former vice-chairperson of the Karen National Union, served as the lead negotiator for ethnic armed organisations during 2015 peace talks that led to a landmark ceasefire agreement with the military.
The Myaung Women Warriors following the attack on the police station with a group of People’s Defence Forces[Supplied]
But a study on women in ethnic armed organisations in Myanmar published in 2019 by the Peace Research Institute Oslo found that overall, women have played subordinate roles, that male leaders failed to recognise women’s abilities and ignored their ideas, and that women’s potential to contribute to peace in Myanmar was “greatly undervalued”.