For the past month in Myanmar, thousands of people have been in the streets protesting a military coup that overthrew their elected government. To get international attention, some protesters have adopted entertaining and eye-catching tactics. Some women are wearing pageant tiaras, while some men go shirtless. Others carry placards with clever slogans that make useful Internet memes.
In various ways, protesters are using gender norms subversively to push back against the coup. To better understand this, I analyzed images in the Getty Images archive and Twitter, and found that some are using gender stereotypes to shame the military dictatorship while others are protecting protesters by making female protesters hyper-visible. Here’s how.
Outmanning the military
As feminist political scientist Cynthia Enloe demonstrates, the military is a masculine, heteronormative institution. In other words, historically, it has set the standard against which “real men” are judged.
On Feb. 1, the military, known popularly as the Tatmadaw, deposed the government led by State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi. As one of a small number of elected female leaders, she is a powerful symbol of Myanmar’s democratic progress despite her flaws. Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the country’s commander in chief, assumed all state power, subordinating the elected government to the military.
In response, shirtless, muscular men marched in protest. These “bodybuilders” aimed to playfully — but quite seriously — suggest that although the military might think of itself as the masculine ideal, supporters of democracy could “out-man” soldiers — and that “real” men opposed the coup. Although drawing on the same expectations about how men are supposed to look and behave, this messaging challenges the military’s position as masculinity’s embodiment.
Protesters also have targeted Min Aung Hlaing’s masculinity directly. Placards and social media messages attacked his short stature; one compared him to the diminutive pop singer Ariana Grande. Mocking the general’s height and comparing him with a woman undermine his status as the most powerful man in the country. On Feb. 16, he amended Section 124 of Myanmar’s Penal Code to criminalize “any attempt to cause hatred, contempt and disaffection toward the military and military personnel.”
Femininity on the front lines
While some male protesters try to undermine the Tatmadaw’s power by challenging its masculinity, some women have made a point of emphasizing their status as women when taking to the street to oppose the coup. For instance, when members of occupations generally labeled as “women’s work” — teachers, civil servants, fitness instructors and mothers — protest, they challenge traditional gender norms that women to stay home and don’t participate in civic life. And by marching in the front lines, women can help discourage the military from responding violently, given almost universal agreement that women and children are off limits for such attacks.
Similarly, on Feb. 10, young women protested in Yangon dressed in colorful Western-style ball gowns and wedding dresses, making them hyper-visible as women. Beauty queens have worn their sashes and tiaras, drawing attention in the Western media and on social media. Drag queens in gowns and groups of women in the country’s traditional formal wear have used similar strategies. Some have gone so far as to dress up as Aung San Suu Kyi.
By protesting topless with body paint, other women seem to be taking cues from transnational feminist groups such as FEMEN, which uses topless protest in what sociologist Theresa O’Keefe refers to as the “increasingly pervasive use of sexualized, gender protest.” This suggests that transnational protest strategies are being adopted in Myanmar because they’ve succeeded elsewhere.
Women’s ability to put femininity on the front lines powerfully rebukes the military’s effort to exert political and social control. It does so by embracing many of the gender associations we have of women — including their supposed peaceful and nonthreatening nature — while rejecting the assumption that a woman’s place is in the home, not on the streets.
A very bad relationship
A number of protesters have also positioned the Tatmadaw as a bad relationship that they just can’t shake. One young woman’s sign read “My ex is bad. Myanmar military is worse.” Another read, “I want a relationship! Not a dictatorship!” This attempt to publicly shame the Tatmadaw as a bad, controlling boyfriend has a political subtext: the military’s inability to let go of control and turn over power to a civilian government.
Other protest signs feature more explicit references to the power imbalances between protesters and the military, maintaining that they no longer need sex because the military is screwing them over (using a cruder term) every day. These narratives place the coup leaders and the military more generally as controlling partners at best and violent domestic abusers at worst — a particularly pointed narrative, given that the male-led coup deposed a female leader.
Some young women mocked the coup by framing it as a distraction from what traditional gender norms suggest they should be doing: finding a husband. Placards on this theme include: “I still can’t believe I have to protest in a Wedding Gown” and “Getting democracy is a bigger concern for us than getting husband.” Many protest groups included the sign, “I don’t want dictatorship. I just want boyfriend.” These narratives suggest that the coup is preventing young women from living up to their society’s gender expectations and imply that the sooner it’s over, the sooner life gets back to normal.
Not all protesters are adopting gender frames. Some are simply joining the protests as they are. And protesting is risky. Police shot 19-year-old Mya Thwe Thwe Khaing on Feb. 9; she died 10 days later and may emerge as an important symbol of the anti-coup demonstrations.
But by emphasizing their gender identities, some protesters are using gender to draw international attention and as a subversive tool to mock the coup’s leaders and criticize the military’s obsession with control.
Jessica Trisko Darden is an assistant professor in the department of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University and co-author of “Women as War Criminals: Gender, Agency, and Justice” (Stanford University Press, 2020) and “Insurgent Women: Female Combatants in Civil Wars” (Georgetown University Press 2019).