Note-taking for Burmese Days (Week 10) 2nd Half of Class


To recap, in the first half of class, Prof Koh showed us Michael Kimmel’s video which was centered around the premises that privilege is invisible to those who have it. Prof Koh opens the second half of class by showing us W.H Auden’s “Spain 1937” about the Spanish Civil War that the modernists were involved in and proving that only someone who did not own a gun could write something like that, supporting Kimmel’s statement that privilege is invisible to those who have it. In the second half of class, we discuss this invisibility of privilege, Stoler, power and feminism with regards to Burmese Days and Jessica’s blog entry.

1. Bringing masculine power to the female.

Stoler constructs binaries of how women are supposed to be revealed. No matter how women are portrayed, they are always subject to the male subjugation of power. Jessica sees the actions of Elizabeth and Ma Hla May as bringing masculine power back to the female, therefore empowering them. One notable instance in the novel where we see Elizabeth getting close to power is the hunting scene. Elizabeth welds power when she holds the gun, a symbol of masculine power, and ‘masters’  it when she almost scores a kill with her first shot, thereby utilizing the masculine power for her own purposes.

2. Women have so internalized their repressive roles that they do not realize it. Therefore, they can never escape the patriarchal hegemony and attain true power.

Peiyi agrees to a certain extent, she thinks that Elizabeth got exactly what she wanted as she ended up in a more advantageous and powerful position- but she is still subjugated by the masculine ideologies. Her role as a memsahib is only valid within the masculine colonial discourse. However, Yuying points out that Elizabeth does not care, which reinforces Stoler’s discourse that women have so internalized their repressive roles that they do not realize it.

3. Women can only construct their femininity within the patriarchal circle.

This also reinforces Stoler’s reading, where she states that women can only construct their femininity within the patriarchal circle through the institution of marriage. Hence, the colonial directory regulates women’s roles and functions. Elizabeth does not possess the reflexivity or empowerment to rise above the situation- she just reinforces what has been programmed in her. In a own way, she is  also a victim. She has already transgressed the space between the country of her birth in order to create another space for her to construct a new whole identity (through marriage), but this identity only reinforces the colonial ideals of power.

4. Are the strongest opponents to feminism women themselves?

Michael Kimmel’s “privilege is invisible to those who have it” is brought into play here. The female (Elizabeth) is able to make the patriarchal system work for her through the institution of marriage, therefore giving the female some sort of power. However, this female empowerment is not universal. In comparison, Ma Hla May has more constraints due to her status as a native concubine. However, Elizabeth does not care about the plight of Ma Hla May. Indeed, Ma Hla May is her competitor. There is no universal bond of sisterhood that ties them together. As such, once Elizabeth attains the masculine power that she wants, she further subjugates and oppresses Ma Hla May and the natives. Hence, feminism is privileged, and women are the strongest opponents to feminism themselves.

5. The connotations of feminism

Prof Koh asks the class how many of us actually consider ourselves feminists, and only three people raise their hands. Kelvin says that the term feminist has a negative connotation. The notion of feminism brings to mind the radical bra-burning and man-hating feminists of the past, which are undesirable in today’s context, where womens’ rights are already pretty much established. Mr Cheng points out that it is because of this radical actions that women suffrage is pioneered today. Perhaps because we are speaking from a privileged position in the twenty-first century, we are unable to comprehend or relate to the pioneer suffragettes. In that sense, as Prof Koh says, we are complacent because we feel the battle has already been won.

6. The role of marriage in society: the social contract vs the sexual contract

The function of marriage has popped up several times in the discussion. Stoler specifically talks about marriage and how this was important in the construction of a colonial society. Elizabeth sees marriage as protection and a means to attain power. Ma Hla May does not have access to marriage with Flory due to her status as a native. However, she does have value in her use of sex and her pseudo-spousal role as a colonial concubine. Here, Prof Koh introduces the ideology of Carol Pateman to us, who argues that the social contract is first bounded upon the sexual contract. The social contract is opposed to patriarchy and patriarchal right, but before one can be a father he needs to have sex first. Therefore the social contract is not founded upon patriarchy, but marriage- hence the sexual contract.


Perhaps the idea that struck me the most this week was Stoler’s argument that the construction of femininity is only valid within the patriarchal circle which is upheld by the sexual contract. This relates to Jing Xuan and Frederick’s presentation the previous week regarding power and Foucault, where power exists only when it is put into action. Feminine power can only exist within the context of masculine power, and can be only exercised when masculine power is exerted. Therefore it is not that the female is unable to break free from the male hegemony, but that feminism requires the presence of male oppression in order to exist. Without gender inequality, there would be no feminism or patriarchy to talk about in the first place. The sexual contract also reveals that one avenue of power available to women is sex, with or without the sanctity of marriage. However, sex and rape share a fine line, as Frederick mentioned in his presentation.

To conclude, Prof Koh brings up the example of the Law of Coverture in Singapore. If a man rapes his legal wife in Singapore, he is able to get away with it as under Singapore law, every woman is essentially male property and her legal rights are covered by the men. It is disturbing to note that the battle for equal female rights is still ongoing today. However, as Ambreen suggests, rather that just talking about gender inequality, we should take off the masks of privilege and concern ourselves with inequality in general.