Women are like water
Or perhaps I should say people are like water. Water fills the space that is made for it; it conforms to gravity; it sticks to other water molecules. Without boundaries, without dimensions, water is lost. Water fills the space that is made for it.
Vessels are to water as culture is to people. I wrote about culture in a previous letter; culture is history, culture is behaviour, culture is parenting. Culture is advertisements on city billboards; culture is everyone dying their hair black; culture is the body wash and face cream in every shop broadcasting “extra white,” “super white,” and “lasting white;” culture is history. Culture is generosity; culture is the fwe-fwe kissing sound people make to attract the waiters’ attention in the tea shop; culture is thanaka–covered faces of boys and girls and women, but not men (because, as someone explained to me, ‘that would be gay or something’); culture is poverty-stricken villages with gold-clad pagodas; culture is long dollops of condensed milk in cups of milky tea; culture is tying women and men’s longyi differently; culture is marrying someone your family approves of; culture is lurking, waiting, sitting, standing, ready to remind you. Culture is robust like dry bamboo; sometimes the dry wall you are pressed up against feels coarse as you search in the dark for a light switch, and the breath and heat of others around you make the wall seem yet coarser, harder, ungiving.
Culture is walls that move a little when pushed, but in one lifetime seem hardly to move at all. Thinking about people without culture, Christian Ferney (supervisor for Kenan Fellows) commented to me, is like holding water without a vessel. This comment was the impetus for my writing today.
My research has revealed that women fill the space that is made for them. Like water they move into the areas that open for them. When a 50% mandate for women on committees exists, women fill it. When every committee has to have a woman chair, a woman fills the job. But they face a glass ceiling when it comes to other positions that aren’t mandated to include them.
Men are also like water; they, too, conform to culture. They hold leadership space down because they always have, and they’re expected to. Sometimes awareness of a different way of doing things can spark changes. For instance, one village elder said that he’d never thought that women could be village elders, but now that he considered the idea, he would support a woman who wanted to become one. So the vessel—culture, really—can change shape with some input from the outside and prodding from the inside. Maybe, like a crash of white water rapids finding pathways down a mountain, a critical mass of women can also make their own pathways to participation and leadership.
Maybe I’m going too far with this water metaphor, but I’ve been thinking about water lately in more ways than one. The woman in the picture lives in a village that is completely flooded for two months each year. Everyone in the village moves into the monastery, and the kids miss at least twenty days of school. They get around in boats, and often they run out of food. The floods come every single year; and every year, they say, the water laps a little bit higher up the monastery steps. In Myanmar there is no denial of climate change; they are living through it. Women in villages also often say they want drinking water for their next CDD project. They spend two hours a day fetching water, and longer in the dry season.A woman CDD committee member finished our focus group discussion and met her young son outside, who had just finished his day at school.
 Thanaka is a light yellow paste made from a certain kind of tree that women and children wear on their faces and necks to keep them cool, and to look beautiful.
 The traditional sarongs that both women and men wear on their bottom halves. Pants are uncommon.