Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Padaung Women of Eastern Burma

Eastern Burma has a lot of diversity with many ethnic minorities from neighboring regions, including the Padaung people who are a small subset of the Karen ethnic group. You are probably most familiar with the Padaung because of a particular accessory:


In Padaung culture, the tradition of neck rings being worn by girls starts young - around the age of 5 or 6 - and by the time they reach adulthood they usually have 20-30 rings that measure 10"-15" from top to bottom.  They aren't actually rings that are added independently each time - instead it is a coil that is added to that wraps up around the woman's neck.  The weight of the rings pushes down the collar bone and upper ribs, giving the illusion of a longer neck.

X-ray comparison of a typical woman's collarbone versus a Padaung "long-necked" woman's pushed down collarbone.

Although the accessories appear elegant and beautiful, they come at a cost. Women with neck rings often cannot drink from a cup because by tipping their head back they become unbalanced and can fall over - thus drinking out a straw becomes the only option.


I've not been able to ascertain exactly when this practice started, but it is a longstanding tradition linked with the tribal group's mythology. According to folklore, the rings were first a protective measure to keep  tigers from breaking the necks of girls and women in the tribe.  However, modern critics have put forth the idea that the rings make the women less attractive to slave traders, or conversely that they are a tribal sign of beauty and wealth that will attract a good husband.  The neck rings play a pivotal role in some of the punishments of women in the tribe; adulturesses have their rings forcibly removed, and usually their neck muscles have atrophied to the point where the women can no longer hold their heads up and must spend the rest of their lives lying down or finding some alternate neck brace.  As you might imagine, adultery and divorce rates are low.
Padaung woman driving a car!
 In the last couple decades, many Padaung have left Burma while it was under oppressive military rule and fled across the border to Thailand, where many women have become a tourist attraction.  Some visitors come to marvel at the women's elegance, while others find the practice to be an abomination and do not support tour operators that visit Padaung villages, likening them to "human zoos."  I went to Thailand last year and didn't make it up to the area where the Padaung refugees are, and now I'm not quite sure how I feel about visiting them. I think the practice is both beautiful and horribly sexist, but I think that by boycotting the villages it takes away their main source of income...however it also encourages the practice to continue. Tricky tricky. What's worse is that the refugees have been offered resettlement land in New Zealand and Finland, but the Thai government won't issue them visas because they bring in tourist dollars. Awful!!! I tried to find a non-profit/charity that benefitted these women, providing education or support for not putting their daughters in the same position, but I couldn't find anything:( It would be great if there was a way for them to sell more of their traditional crafts or textiles instead to make money instead of having to suffer physical deformity to bring tourists in. Sad.


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