Essays

The Rapunzels of Myanmar

Words by: Min Naung


I have a very good friend who is interested in writing. While juggling her schoolwork, reading and writing, she tries to earn her own money by working as a part-time tutor. But her family has a curfew: she has to return home by 6 p.m. If she doesn’t, she faces a series of interrogative questions on where she is going, what she has been doing and why she is late. Soon she is forbidden from working altogether. Her family says she doesn’t need to work as they are supporting her. I also have another friend who wants to study abroad but couldn’t choose the school she wants because her parents wanted her to live with a relative or a family friend. They think it is unsafe for her to live alone in the foreign country. They want her to be in a place where they can keep an eye on her.

There are perhaps much more extreme cases out there – perhaps more baffling, more ridiculous, more restrictive. But they all mash up to one common theme: control. Parents want their daughters to be where they can keep an eye on them. And although their actions may differ in degree or kind, they all amount to the same procedures: monitoring, interrogation, restrictions and rules. Before someone starts defending the glory of parenthood with these “Oh! They are doing it for her interest” or “They are trying to keep her safe”, think about the story of Rapunzel. The baby Rapunzel was taken away from her parents at birth by a witch who locked her up a tower with no stairs. Though the witch took care of Rapunzel and loved her as a daughter, her love was obsessive. The only way for the witch to love Rapunzel is through denying her freedom and contact with the outside world.

Of course, real life won’t be as dramatic or drastic as this, but Rapunzel represents the extreme case of parental control.  And despite the parents’ intentions to expect the best for their daughter, deep down, like the witch, there is a desire for control, lurking around disguised in the form of goodwill and propelling all the rules and restrictions. The degree of parental control will depend on how much a parent can balance between his own desire for control and the growing self-sufficiency of his daughter. And if the parent cannot provide the independence that the daughter needs, she’ll find it a way to get it, no matter what.

At least according to the fairy tale, the spell of control is broken only by the force of passion. The moment of independence for Rapunzel came when she met the prince secretly, away from the eyes of her mother witch. So I don’t find it surprising that many of my friends find love as a comfort to shield themselves from the conflict with their parents. Maybe it is a shared human experience or reaction, for aren’t there similar parallels in Burmese folk tales too? Think about the story of Shin Mway Loon and Min Nandar; another daughter raised in isolation finding her freedom through love. The causes and reasoning may differ but the themes are the same.

While some of my friends have the wisdom and self-control to prevent themselves from committing unchangeable mistakes and others have the good fortune of meeting the right people, a few are neither wise nor fortunate, and their stories usually end with elopement and unwanted pregnancies. Like the witch who only found out about Rapunzel’s affair only when it’s too late, many parents are shocked to discover their daughters doing things that they could never imagine. After all, with all the control and restrictions placed upon them, the daughters become suffocated with their own lives, and will eventually seek for an outlet. And what better outlet is there than boyfriends, sex, alcohol and drugs?

For the more (perhaps) fortunate Rapunzels who never meet their boyfriends or find an outlet, life isn’t that good either. They grow up bearing psychological damage and emotional suffering, and when they are finally released from their ivory towers by their parents who have become too old and weak to control them, they found themselves yearning for the things they could have done. With all their bottled-up feelings, they become as dysfunctional and insecure as their parents, only to raise a new generation of Rapunzels again. There is a middle-aged woman I know who once gave up an opportunity to study abroad to stay at home with her grandmother. While her friends who had gone abroad are working in foreign countries with a good living and great jobs, she is struggling from pay check to pay check and a not-so favourable work. Her grandmother, who had told her that “they have enough money so she doesn’t need to work” had passed away, and the family fortunes had changed throughout her adulthood that she now had to support her family with her income. Looking back, that degree that might have allowed her to get a high-paying job in any country would be a great boost for a good job now. But instead  the woman lives with the regret of not taking the opportunity when she was younger, and each day, the realization that she could have done better fills her with pent-up frustrations and angst.

So, what is the best way to avoid all these misfortunes? For the parent who really wants best for their daughters and who realize they can’t restrict them forever, what is the solution? The solution is simple. Instead of restricting their lives with curfews, let the daughters be responsible for themselves and teach them to protect themselves. Instead of stopping them from doing things, teach them to differentiate between good and evil and what is right and what is wrong. Let them work. Let them travel. Let them study what they want and where they want. Let them go see the world. It is much easier to teach them how to do things the right way than to prevent them from doing anything altogether. When the parents are no longer there to do everything, it is the daughters who will be left with (like the woman in the above example) with the legacy of their parents’ wrong choices.

Despite the witch keeping her up in an ivory tower for several years, Rapunzel eventually managed to experience the outside world. That is inevitable. And what would a parent prefer? Keeping their daughters shut in forever and only let them experience the outside world when they are no longer there? Or teaching their daughters about the outside world, and helping them to survive in it? It is

It is time that we let the Rapunzels down from their ivory towers.

 

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