Monday, June 2, 2008

I see Burma, I see France ...

I'm torn on this one. The gist is that a couple of Canadian activist groups are collecting women's underwear and shipping it to Than Shwe, the leader of Burma's military junta. Said junta has been responsible for numerous human rights violations, rape and "systemic sexual violence" against women, and the violent crackdowns on peacefully protesting monks last fall. Said junta is also made of up of "superstitious" men who apparently believe that contact with women's undergarments will weaken them.

Ending violence against women is imperatively important, don't get me wrong. But there are undercurrents to this that make me itchy. I'm wondering - if women in Burma are aware of this "superstition," why aren't they panty-bombing Shwe's headquarters themselves? I think what's being labeled a "superstition" is probably part of a more complex symbolic meaning system. Menstrual blood and women's personal items have significance in many cultures. If Burmese women don't see this as a way to overthrow the junta, that indicates to me that their undergarments and menstrual blood do have some symbolic power. However, it's something to be respected and not used as a weapon. The Canadian campaign seems to trivialize this belief and reinforces stereotypes of developing countries as backward and ignorant.

The groups do have the backing of a Burmese activist. However, she says sending the panties will "shame" the junta, which is an entirely different way to frame the situation. "Shame" and "superstition" bring to mind different concepts.

And what are the odds that Than Shwe opens his own mail?

UPDATE: Apparently this campaign was initiated by Burmese women. I'm still not entirely comfortable with it - the demographic of women in support of this might not be representative of the majority. Think about it - can you imagine someone saying that "American women" were unanimously in support of anything? There'd be objections faster than you could say "intersectionality."

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