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.
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”.
Fight for equality
The coup has sparked a broad reevaluation of such entrenched views, and the protest movement – led mainly by young people – is demanding a sweeping overhaul not only of a flawed political system, but also social inequities.
Amara, spokesperson for the Myaung Women Warriors, told Al Jazeera that the group seeks to challenge restrictive gender categorisations. “Society frames certain tasks for men and women,” she said. “We march to break these stereotypes, and to show that the hands that swing the [baby] hammock can be part of the armed revolution too.”
Before the coup, Amara had never imagined she would be a revolutionary fighter. But witnessing the killings and violence around her compelled her to take what she saw as a necessary step.
“I took up arms only when I had no other choice,” she said. “I have anxiety about what kind of danger will befall me … On the other hand, we are determined that we have to win this. We are preparing our mentality; we don’t feel normal, but we have to control our minds.”
The Myaung Women Warriors is one of hundreds of armed resistance groups, known commonly as People’s Defence Forces (PDFs), which have emerged across the country since about April.
“As the whole country is in the revolution, we are playing our role, and also promoting women’s role,” said Amara.
On October 29, they were part of a coalition of people’s defence forces that burned down a police station. Amara said the act was meant to deter soldiers and police from using the station as a base from which to attack local villages.
Photos of the operation have gained wide traction on social media.
Amara says that seeing the public’s support has given the women strength to continue, but that they remain focused on their mission.
“We are women warriors, which means we are ready to fight anytime and anywhere. Warriors are brave, decisive, and loyal … We are ready to fight for the people.”
Kabya May, the former teacher, joined the armed resistance two months before the Myaung Women Warriors group was established. Like many young people across Myanmar, she decided to take up arms after facing mounting hardships, physical insecurity and an increasingly bleak future.
“Since the coup, nothing has gone well,” she said. “Young people feel we are wasting our time. We cannot travel freely. When the [military] dogs come, people are afraid. I don’t want to see those things anymore.”
The oldest of five children, she had graduated from teacher-training college in early 2020, fresh with hope that her monthly salary could enable her father to retire from spraying pesticides on local farms for daily wages.
But months later, schools closed across the country because of the pandemic, and she began working at a barbecue shop instead.
The coup prompted mass teacher strikes against working under a military-run administration, and Kabya May signed on. When the barbecue shop where she was working shut down, she joined her father spraying pesticides and taking other labour jobs she could find. “My family is big and we depend on daily wages,” she said. “If we don’t work for a day, we have nothing to eat.”
When she heard that people from her township were forming an armed resistance group, she asked whether women could join too. In July, she began training.
It was not only her first time wearing trousers, but also the first time she had stayed in close quarters with men from outside her family.
“When I first joined, I felt shy, but later on, I felt comfortable and we became comrades,” she said. “When I trained with [men], like push-ups, I tried to keep up … I faced muscle and back pain, but I endured it.”
In Kayah State and neighbouring townships in Shan State near Myanmar’s southeastern border with Thailand, two young women told Al Jazeera that they joined local armed resistance groups after the pandemic and coup destroyed their educational plans, and they were forced from their homes by escalating conflict.
Since May, PDFs in these areas have joined existing ethnic armed organisations to wage a formidable front against the military, which has responded with tactics including air attacks, arson and indiscriminate shelling. Some 165,000 people have been displaced across Myanmar’s southeast, out of 223,000 newly displaced across the country since February, according to the United Nations.
When clashes spread across Kayah State in May, Pale fled her village in Demoso township, running to the mountains with her family and others from her village.
“The weather was cold and water scarce. We didn’t bring sweaters or coats and we brought food for only one to two days,” said the 21-year-old, who had been attending university until the pandemic. “We had to come back under bullets and combat to collect necessities.”
As days turned to months, Pale’s hopes of a prompt return faded, and she began thinking about ways to support the resistance movement. In July, when a friend invited her to join the local people’s defence force, she agreed.
Assigned to be a medic, she is treating patients including those injured by the conflict. She also participates in physical conditioning and training, takes turns in the kitchen, and tends to farms abandoned by displaced villagers, giving them some of the crops in the camps where they are now living.
While some people cannot handle the rigorous demands or following orders, Pale says it has toughened her up. She has also become accustomed to the sounds of war.
“The first time I heard gunfire, I was so scared,” she said. “We have become used to it now because we hear it all the time. We believe that our lives are in God’s hands, and when our time comes, we will die … This is how we motivate each other to continue.”
Even though women and men at times take on different roles, Pale says that the experience of the hardships of revolutionary life together has fostered a sense of camaraderie and equity. “There are many roles women can play. Some women want to join, but their parents do not allow them because people see us women as soft and weak,” she said. “We need to show that we are able. We can do it.”
The experience of displacement also motivated Nway Oo Pan to join the local people’s defence force in her native Moebye township, Shan State.
“After the military’s inhumane treatment toward people, I thought to myself, ‘Am I going to get treated badly just like that, living as a displaced person, or am I going to fight back?’” asked the 20-year-old, who before the pandemic was also a university student.
Now, she is living and training alongside male and female recruits. “We face many challenges. I have never lived in the forest; I have spent my whole life studying. We have to climb up and down mountains and hills daily under the sun and rain. I have gained totally new experiences,” she said.
“I don’t even notice my menstrual cramps anymore because I have to train and travel a lot in the forest. Before, whenever I had menstrual cramps, I always stayed in bed. Now, I am in the forest and I live with others. I cannot stay like that anymore.”
Nway Oo Pan chose to be a combat fighter, where more than fearing for her life, she worries that she will be a burden to other fighters if she cannot keep up. But day by day, she is gaining confidence.
“My mindset has become strong that we can do what men do,” she said. “I want to achieve gender equality through this revolution.”
This article was supported by a grant from ARTICLE 19 under Voices for Inclusion, a project funded by the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs.