“Puppet masters have been traditionally male,” says Ma Ma Naing, who is in her 50s and has been a puppet master herself for over 30 years. Naing grew up in a theatrical family, and marionette puppets were an integral part of her upbringing and education. She founded the Mandalay Marionettes Theatre in the 1980s to keep this tradition alive while reforming its age-old gender structures. “Everybody here loves these puppets, and it’s a very important part of our culture. So, why should it be just men who continue this tradition?” says Naing, an elegant and boisterous woman who lights up when she speaks about puppets. “It’s also often women who pass our traditions down the generations and preserve our culture.”
Visiting museums while growing up, Zolzoya Bakthuyag, a 34-year-old lawyer, always wondered why the places that depicted the history of her country always exhibited men’s photos and paintings so prominently. “Mongolian women played a great role building the country too, but museums only hang men’s photos. It was confusing,” she said, sitting in her office in a high-rise building huddled by snow-peaked green hills in the Mongolian capital Ulaanbaatar.