The Kayan people are an ethnic group that originates from the Southeast Asian country of Myanmar but one that was displaced by military conflicts in the late twentieth century and forced to move to the Thai border. One of the most remarkable lahwi of the Kayan is the Padaung, a tribe that is world-renowned for the neck brass rings that its women wear. The aim of these brass rings is to elongate their necks for a more feminine and attractive appearance. However, aesthetics are not the reasons for women wearing heavy brass rings around their necks all their lives. While explanations differ, the wearing of brass rings is clearly a prized tradition of the Padaung. The reasons given for the origins of the tradition include protection from Tigers that normally attack the neck, protection from slavers, and connection to the tribe's mother dragon who mated with a human angel to create the tribe (Theurer, 53). The women express pride in their neck rings and the long necks underneath, although they never get to see them. Concurrent with their pride in their culture is the issue of tourism exploitation, a situation that forces them to live in a state that resembles a human zoo. In this essay, we shall discuss whether or not the Padaung should stop following the neck ring wearing traditions.
In the face of cultural homogenization with the global village and the loss of so many distinctive cultures, outstanding cultures like the Padaung's should be maintained at all costs. A really impressive trait of these people is that they have held on to their culture at a time when most traditional ethnical groups have shed off theirs in favor of westernization. More importantly, the Padaung are one of the very few tribes that are truly matriarchal (Theurer, 52). It is important to protect their heritage and ensure that modernization does not strip them of their identity. Moreover, the Padaung promote a very healthy cultural tourism industry, one that enables them to share their cultural heritage with the world and make a living for themselves rather than relying on government aid (Ismail, 32). The culture of these people presents a minefield of information for anthropologists to study human behavior, especially in relation to cultural practices.
On the other hand, it is up to the international community to protect all world citizens. No cultural practice, however well rooted, should be allowed to continue if it places the lives of those who practice it at risk. It is for this reason that the international community has been so active in outlawing and stopping the cultural practice of female genital mutilation in East African Nilotic tribes. Where the evidence suggests that cultural practices adversely affect those people who practice them, it is the duty of every world citizen to ensure that they are stopped.
In the case of the Padaung people, the neck rings that are worn for the sake of elongating their necks have some adverse effects on their well-being. Explaining the origin of the neck ring-wearing culture, Jinranai Ismail postulates that the bulky neck rings were designed specifically to stop Kayan women from running away from their homes as it made movement both awkward and tiresome (17). While no tangible evidence exists to support this observation other than oral accounts from village dwellers, the very idea that the rings have a relationship to servitude and subjugation should mean their total abolishment. Another consideration for ending the wearing of these brass rings should be the effect they have on the wearers' necks.
According to Jessica Theurer, the way the neck rings work is not that they elongate the neck, but that they push down on the rib cage and the chest, creating the illusion of these women's necks being much longer (52). The weight, heat, and friction generated from the rings cause serious bruising on the women's necks, and in some cases bring about serious molding of the neck skin. Other than bruises, the weight of the rings on their necks and chests for long periods of time causes their neck muscles to weaken and makes it harder to perform certain essential tasks. Combined with ankle bracelets that the Padaung women wear, the brass rings also gives them the bad posture and walking styles of fashion models on the stage (Mirante, 115, quoted in Theurer, 56). This must be very tiresome for them, especially because they live all their lives in that way, rather than a few hours as fashion models do.
Finally, the last reason why an intervention should be done for the Padaung people is for basic human dignity. According to Ismail, the long-necked Kayans live in tourist attraction villages and have to contend with ogling, picture-taking, and constant intrusive questions every single day (4). While it is a good idea to learn about other cultures, especially those that are unique, basic human dignity should intervene where people live in human zoos and put up with conditions similar to those endured by animals in animal zoos. Having to live among a constant sea of foreign people have forced the Padaung to commercialize many aspects of their culture, making artifacts, curios, and their material cultural implements for sale to tourists. The longer their whole existence depends on tourism capitalization, the more of their culture that will be lost.
In conclusion, the Padaung's culture can either be threatened or strengthened by the world's insatiable curiosity about their way of life. The threat will continue to increase as long as their whole lives revolve around the tourism industry, as this is likely to bring about contamination and ultimate abandonment of their culture. To prevent this, humanitarian action should be taken to give them a better way of life, including donor-funded education for their children and the diversification of their economy. The neck-rings should be improved to remove the danger they pose to the well-being of the Padaung women, but abolishment will cause them to lose their cultural heritage, which is not acceptable. Relaxed rules on when to remove them and better materials of the rings should be good enough to significantly improve the standards of living for the neck-ring wearers.
Ismail, Jinranai. "Ethnic tourism and the Kayan long-neck tribe in Mae Hong Son, Thailand." Diss. Victoria University, 2008.
Theurer, Jessica. "Trapped in their own rings: Padaung women and their fight for traditional freedom." International Journal of Gender and Women's Studies 2.4 (2014): 51-67
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