EnviroLab Asia Social Media Intern Kirara Tsuitui (economics and environmental analysis, POM ‘20) interviews Allison Joseph (environmental analysis and psychology, Scripps ‘20) about The Ideal Woman: An Exploration of the Women’s Movement in Myanmar, an exhibit installed at the Hive. The photographs came from Allison’s 2018 summer research using art and participatory action research to understand gender identity in Myanamar. Allison worked with multidisciplinary artist Ruth Ponstagphone, who was the keynote speaker for the 2018 EnviroLab Asia Workshop for Change event. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Allison Joseph (in white) poses with the folks she worked with in Myanmar.

Kirara: Your exhibit last semester at the Hive had a lot of viewer turnout and great feedback. Could you talk a little bit about what the goals of your exhibit
The Ideal Woman: An Exploration of the Women’s Movement in Myanmar was?

Allison: Thank you so much! I feel that the goal of the exhibit was to provide a space for the nuances and layers that comprise the lived experiences of Myanmar’s women and young girls to be seen. 

Myanmar’s women are at a pivotal point in their history, as they are just beginning to understand and transform the dominant feminine identity model, which has kept them oppressed. The discussion of gender equality and women’s rights is a recent development, having gained increasing attention within the last decade. Myanmar’s history has been colored by a legacy of inhumane military rule, ethnic conflict, religious traditions, and patriarchal structures. However, following 50 years of civil war, the government’s “roadmap towards democracy” has provided women with a unique opportunity to contest the current political, economic and social institutions that reinforce stereotypical gender roles, violate human rights, and prevent equality. 

These photos were taken in conjunction with participatory action research and ethnographic interviews that challenged and empowered the women and young girls to explore the construct of “The Ideal Woman.” Thus, they provided embodied evidence and documentation of Myanmar’s women as they enter this uncharted territory.

Kirara: Could you expand on your independent research project in Thailand and Myanmar last summer? What motivated you to pursue research in these areas?

Allison: My initial interest and curiosity was sparked by my time as a 2018 Envirolab Asia Fellow. It was through EnviroLab that I met my mentor Ruth Pongstaphone, a director, theater artist, and activist. Ruth’s work, in particular her use of participatory action research, redefined my notion of “research” and “results.”  Participatory action research facilitates a cyclical process of inquiry, reflection, and action between the community and the researcher.  A unique feature of this research is the recognition of the capacity of the people living and working in a particular area to participate actively in all aspects of the research process. The research is oriented around the participants themselves as the source of self-determined and sustainable change.

Thus, with Ruth’s support and guidance, I created the “Ideal Woman” project as part of her larger Image of Women (SEA) initiative.  This project came from a deeply personal place, as I too have had to redefine and recreate my own notions of the “Ideal Woman.” I began my undergraduate education at the University of California Berkeley, where I was awarded a scholarship to attend Exeter College at Oxford University. However, I had to take a medical leave from school to recover from anorexia and bulimia. After six years of healing, in which I worked to challenge dominant social and cultural ideals of femininity, I would eventually return to school, enrolling at Scripps. 

It was my hope that this project could serve as a means to empower, inspire, and challenge women in both Myanmar and Thailand to examine, express, document, and create their own feminine identity. Just as I was supported in my own journey, I hoped to create a safe space for women and young girls to have a voice and a choice in creating their own definition of self.  

Kirara: You mentioned during your exhibit that much of the photos showcased the girls’ artistic expression, which was crucial for them to “be challenged and ultimately empowered to examine, express, document and create their own feminine identity model.” What do you mean by this?

Allison: Thank you for asking this! I could say so much about this topic. First and foremost, artistic exploration and embodied methods can serve as particularly effective methodologies when working with vulnerable and marginalized communities. They can serve as powerful and approachable vehicles for the sharing of personal experiences. I feel that these artistic forms of expression work to create a non-threatening environment for confronting sensitive social issues. For example, through theater exercises, women and young girls can explore concepts that are traditionally considered to be taboo or dangerous. They can express or share aspects of their experiences which may have previously been hidden or repressed. When I asked the young girls to create a scene in which they felt it was challenging to be a “female,” they created scenes and characters with deep meaning and layers. The beauty of theater and other embodied methods is that the research comes directly from the participants’ beings. Thus, it can be both challenging and empowering for the participants as they attempt to express themselves in ways they may never have been able to. I was greatly inspired by Augusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed, in which theater can be used as a tool in liberation, allowing participants to discover personal agency on the stage (Boal, 2000). 

Kirara: How was your work received by the local community? By male figures? By women and young girls?

Allison:  One of the best outcomes of participatory action research is that it encourages dialogue and communication within the community. Through art and theater, the women and young girls expressed and shared their experiences as females with those in their villages or cities. Their audiences included all gender identifications and ages, reflecting the world they live in. The dialogue that resulted was not controlled or initiated by me as the outsider. Rather, the women and young girls choose what to share and what they believed needed to be heard. 

Although not reflected in my photography exhibit, my research also included an understanding of the male perspective. I interviewed both young boys and older men regarding their opinions on femininity and “the Ideal Woman.”  This allowed for a deeper understanding regarding the societal and cultural formation of a “woman’s place” or status. A wide range of ideals exist among men, ranging from the belief that women are inferior and subordinate to men, to the idea that women deserve equal rights and status to their male counterparts. It is clear that values and ideas regarding women are in a period of transformation and growth. There is not single notion of “The Ideal Woman.”

Kirara: What were the challenges in this endeavor? What role did you assume as an American student working on feminism issues in Asia?

Allison: I feel that the primary challenges of my research was being on my own, both physically and academically.  Although Ruth was my mentor, the research and the project were in my hands. I had an idea of what I hoped to research, however, at the same time the work needed to happen organically and could not be planned. 

I could not go in with preconceived notions or ideas regarding what I hoped to find. Rather, participatory action research requires one to be in  constantly open, present, and self-reflective. The research itself requires an awareness of one’s positionality and questioning of one’s own perspective. I feel that as an American student and farang (foreigner), it was essential for me to understand my own ideas of feminism and equality, while simultaneously acknowledging that “feminism” within Southeast Asia exists in a unique and complex way.  It was not my goal to define or create an idea of feminism for the girl or women I worked with. Rather, I wanted to hear their thoughts, viewpoints, struggles and victories in discovering their own definitions of what it means to be a woman. 

Kirara: You’re back in Thailand for a month during the 2019  winter break. What have you been doing during this time? Do you plan on coming back soon? What is the project that you are working on? 

Allison: The Laspa Center for Leadership at Scripps sponsored a continuation of the project. This past winter I focused primarily on working with Burmese migrant women and young girls living in Mahachai, Thailand. This is a community I worked with for an extended amount of time during my first trip and developed a close relationship with.

I returned over the winter to work with both Ruth and another mentor, Pawaluk Surawswadi, a theater teacher at Mahidol University who has worked with the migrant youth for many years. We are currently working on a project which further explores notions of femininity, while also expanding into the human rights issues the young women and girls experience.