In mid-August 2015 Myanmar’s parliament passed the final two of four controversial religious protection laws. The bills have now been signed into law by President Thein Sein, joining the Interfaith Marriage Law and Population Control Law. The international narrative depicts them as a package of legislation that discriminates against women and non-Buddhists, being promoted by anti-Islamic nationalists led by MaBaTha (or the Organization for the Protection of Race and Religion) and the 969 Movement. In Myanmar, the legislation is opposed by civil society groups — led most vocally by women’s and rights groups — who argue that the laws violate international norms, Myanmar’s treaty obligations, and are likely to further inflame religious conflict.
Yet this simplistic binary narrative of opposition ignores the appearance of widespread support for the laws not only among large swathes of the male population, but also among some women. How do we explain the fact that some groups of women in Myanmar would back a set of laws that other groups of women claim will be bad for women?
To date, the general discourse focuses on the ways prominent monks may use the laws to gain socio-political influence for MaBaTha and 969. Similarly, political parties and government officials are thought to back the legislation strategically as a way of courting Buddhist voters. But these instrumental accounts cannot effectively explain laywomen’s support for the laws. Most Myanmar women are not in a position to realise these types of political benefits.
Another explanation either explicitly or implicitly suggests that women who advocate for the laws do not fully understand them and are themselves naive, manipulated, and/or exploited by power-hungry monks and political leaders. This argument is equally problematic as it is not only demeaning to women — who have frequently taken a very active, visible role in the protests in Rakhine State or the nation-wide signature campaigns — but also strips them of agency by not recognising them as self-aware, rational actors.