In Myanmar, the doctrine of karma and rebirth, one of the pillars of Buddhism, is used to explain that men are a superior incarnation to women.
According to the workings of karma, the actions of your past life determine your next incarnation – wealth, prosperity, health, and whether you are to be born male or female. Under this belief, the subordination of women has acquired a religious or even spiritual legitimacy.
Even a pilgrimage can reveal the harsh inequalities that nuns have to suffer. “It is my last wish to visit Kyaiktiyo. There, I can peacefully die,” says Daco Dhama Sryi. After a trip of three long days in ramshackle buses over bumpy roads she has finally arrived in Kyaiktiyo, resting place of the Golden Rock, the archetypal symbol the rest of the world associates with Myanmar. It is a spectacular looming rock that answers to the name of ‘holiest place in the land’.
Daco Dhama Sryi has tackled the steep, winding mountain path in a sedan chair but, as she is awakened to the glorious view of the Golden Rock glimmering in the sun, she decides to do the last bit on her own two legs, with the support of her grandson. As she nears the rock and the choir of hypnotic prayer gets louder, she gains speed. The smell of incense rouses new energy. Just a couple of meters separate her from the cliff, as she drops to her knees to pray.
Why doesn’t she walk all the way? Why doesn’t she go touch the rock she has dreamed of for so long? A board by the gate marking the last steps to holiness reads “Ladies are Prohibited”. Two uniformed guards stand next to it in case any women might entertain a crazy whim and try to dash through and touch the illicit stone.
How must it feel, to be at the end of your life and just two meters away from your dream, yet unable to touch it, while men – including non-monks – are simply allowed to walk on through the gate to the ornamental rock beyond? Daco Dhama Sryi doesn’t understand the fuss. “What do you mean? It is normal, so it is.”
A young nun, who has been listening to us for a time says: “I can explain it to you. Women may not touch the rock because they are not perfect.” Her name is Ma Dhamatadassi, she is 29 years old and has lived in the Gandayun convent in Yangon for the last three years. “To be a woman is a phase in the circle of reincarnations that eventually leads to Nirvana – the state of enlightenment. Women therefore have no reason to despair; if we lead a life of servitude, we will surely be born as men in our next incarnation and will then have access to our holy land. We must simply have patience.”