Tough, stocky and packing a withering left hook, Myanmar’s gold medal-winning boxer Nwe Ni Oo cuts a surprising image in a conservative nation where women are expected to be demure rather than combative.
However, the 19-year-old won hearts with a teary-eyed podium celebration at the Southeast Asian Games (SEA Games) in the capital, Naypyidaw, after a bruising points victory over her Philippine rival in the 57kg class.
“It’s very exciting because I have never fought foreigners before ... I’m happy to fight in front of Myanmar fans too,” she said after Saturday’s win.
Nwe Ni Oo is also blazing a trail for women, who have boxed for Myanmar at the regional showpiece event since 2001, but failed to win gold, cramped by poor funding during the corrupt junta era and a lack of wider support.
Emerging from the shadow of decades of military rule, the country is proud of its reputation for relative gender equality in a region where violence against women is widespread.
The nation’s most famous daughter is Nobel Peace Prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi and women are given equal rights under the law, enjoying a higher social status than their counterparts in India and China.
Yet they continue to face significant challenges in the impoverished country.
The IMF says two-thirds of Myanmar’s women are stuck in unskilled labor with low wages, while only 18 percent of adult women have attended secondary school or higher, impeding their economic prospects.
It is also a deeply traditional culture requiring women to dress modestly — more so in the countryside — and follow well-trodden cultural pathways in the devoutly Buddhist society.
So much so that organizers of the games even cut gymnastics and beach volleyball from the lineup of events, reportedly convinced the outfits worn by athletes would be too scandalous.
However, in the sports they have competed in, women athletes have flourished, winning plaudits and prestige in everything from the local cane-ball game chinlone to soccer.
The women’s boxing team has earned special praise after claiming a gold, a silver and two bronzes — helping their country to the upper echelons of the medals table in the regional showpiece competition, which is seen as a “coming out” party for the former pariah nation.
As humble outside the ring as she is pugnacious within it, Nwe Ni Oo — the eldest of six siblings — said she is fighting for a better future for her family, who come from the hard-scrabble southern delta region.
“My family support me ... my father in particular wants me to be a great boxer,” the diminutive teenager said, a beige smear of traditional thanaka make-up barely concealing a bruised cheek.
Her victory is all the more remarkable given that she only put on gloves three years ago and came in 2kg underweight for her category at the SEA Games.
To observers, women’s sporting victories are bringing more than just medals.
“Sport can improve the role of women in this country,” said May Sabe Phyu, a gender equality activist.
“When women claim medals, it shows we are as capable as men,” she said, adding she also wanted to see a greater gender balance in the heart of government.
Her comments were echoed in a recent briefing note by the UN’s development agency which said there remains “much to be done to make gender equality a practical reality” — including boosting women’s representation in public life and addressing some restrictive cultural norms.