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Published Friday, March 20, 2015

The Golden Coils of the Padaung

It’s as difficult to get a handle on the current state of the Padaung Karenni people as it is to get an idea of what’s actually going on in their country, Burma, aka Myanmar. These are people who have been known over the years as perhaps being part of the “Karen Rebels”, fighting in uprisings, and also as a tourist attraction. They’ve been widely mistreated by their government, displaced, forced into labor camps and executed.

So when we talk about the Padaung,

Caption: Notice that it’s a coil, not rings.

Also known as “Long Necked Karens”, know that this is as complex a political and social firestorm as you can step into.

If you haven’t guessed why I’m talking about them in this particular blog yet, I’ll give you a hint to the left:

You might think this is the height of patriarchy, the equivalent of Chinese foot binding, and you might have heard that if the coils are removed, the women are left crippled. You’d be wrong on both counts. The Dragon Mothers of the Padaung are in charge. It’s a matriarchal society. And they can remove the coils for things like medical exams (and they do) and also just because they feel like it or decide they want to move to another country and not have people stare at them.

Their necks aren’t really stretched, either. Their collar bones are pressed down by the coils. After removing them, they have discomfort for a few days and then they’re okay. Not every woman can have the coils done, and not every woman keeps them for life.

According to...

Famed Padaung writer, Pascal Khoo Thwe, in his memoir From the land of Green Ghosts, the coils function like a portable shrine. “Only girls born on auspicious days of the week and while the moon is waxing are entitled to wear them,” he writes. He added that you would be allowed to touch the coils only for something important, like to bless a journey or to cure an illness.

“This was a practice that was older than Buddhism,” Khoo Thwe says.

The controversy isn’t with the practice itself,

But with its exploitation. As far back as the 1800s, when Burma was ruled by the British, the coiled necked women of the Padaung were seen as a tourist attraction. Khoo Thwe’s own grandmother went on a journey to England to be exhibited in a kind of human zoo/freak show.

Women have also been captured, stolen, kidnapped or otherwise exploited. During the larger rebellions of Karenni people, Padaung women were put on display to draw tourist dollars to the rebels. They were captured in the past by their own government to be loaned out to other countries, like Thailand, where they were exhibited at events like fairs.

At the same time, the coils have made Padaung women some of the most recognizable people on Earth. They’ve used this fame to build schools in their villages, and to bring international attention to human rights violations in Burma.

Some folks in the Padaung tribes feel like it’s time for the practice to die out, a relic of the old world. Some folks disagree and want to continue it as part of their traditions, and as a form of beauty. Like any form of body modification, I feel like Padaung women should get to make their own choices, and not be limited to the Western Press’s view of what they should and shouldn’t be doing.

It’s interesting...

That these neck coils, which are a symbol of sacred women’s power in Padaung society, are viewed by publications in the West as shackles and yokes, signs of exploitation and captivity. It says, in my opinion, more about what we think of women than about what these women think of themselves.

In the meantime, coils or no coils, the Padaung Karenni people continue to be displaced and impoverished. The charitable sites I found were defunct, so you may have to do some searching to find a way to help. If you know of any charities, let me know at the email below and I’ll update.