Closer to the equality goal: We all should be feminists

Myanmar activist Nandar draws attention to violence against the female body through her work as translator and performer.

Sexual violence is a pervasive violation of human rights. Women experiencing armed conflict and women living in seemingly peaceful environments are affected. Yet, society overlooks much of the violence.

Myanmar translator and performer Nandar is working to make domestic violence, street harassment and violence against the female body unavoidable by translating feminist literature and staging performances nationally and internationally that expose the issues. Co-organizer of the first-ever public staging of The Vagina Monologues play in Myanmar in 2018, she also started the Purple Feminists Group, an organization that informs the public about menstruation hygiene, gender equity and feminism.

As one of the guest speakers at “We need to talk about Violence: Feminist approaches to private and political spheres,” organized by Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in Myanmar, Nandar shared her experiences and perspective on sexual violence, rape and victim blaming and how these issues can be addressed through translation, theatre and campaigns.

Why did you translate the book We All Should Be Feminists into the Burmese language?

I translated the book because it was so relatable for me personally and I wanted to share it within my community and people who I care about. Initially, I didn't intend to publish it, later I was lucky enough to have a publisher who was willing to print the translation.

The translation is very straightforward and personal, a lot of people here in Myanmar would be able to relate to it, since the way we raised our women and girls is quite similar to many parts of the world. After the publication was out, many people who read the translation came up to me and said, "This book makes me realize that I am also a feminist. Thank you for translating it." I believe that literature has an important role in changing people's mind and thought and this is why need more feminist literature in Myanmar. As a great admirer of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's work, I will be translating more of her work in the future. 

What were you wanting to achieve by staging The Vagina Monologues?

We wanted to start the conversation about vaginas and women's bodies in Myanmar and normalize it. In our country, women's bodies and vagina are so stigmatized that people don't want to talk about them. For example, in the Nepali community where I grew up, women are not allowed to go to temples or touch anything or anyone during their period. Young girls and women grow up thinking that they are inferior to men because of the body they are born with. Such practices destroy our self-esteem, and our voices as women and girls.

By starting this conversation about vaginas and women bodies, I hope that girls and women understand that their bodies are theirs, only theirs. And I also wish that they become willing to share their experiences about their bodies and listen to others' stories with empathy.

Is Myanmar society ready for such a topic, for such a play?

Before The Vagina Monologues, we had done domestic violence and sexual harassment public campaign in Myanmar for International Women's Day. And I figured out that people are never ready, but we can't wait for people to listen and to talk about this. We have to initiate the conversation,  and people will follow. That's what I believe. People will never be ready, that's why we need to care less about if people will ever be ready and start asking ourselves questions like: Are we ready to talk about it? Are we ready to start it? Are we ready to take responsibility for our own better lives?

"Young girls and women grow up thinking that they are inferior to men because of the body they are born with. Such practices destroy our self-esteem, and our voices as women and girls."

If the answer to all these questions is yes, then you can’t wait. It may take time, but we can change people's mindset. For that to happen, we all need to take responsibility as daughters, as mothers, as sisters, as brothers, as fathers. Society is made up of all those people and this is why solidarity is important and goes hand in hand with women claiming their rights.

What needs to change to ensure women can claim their rights in society?

We need to begin with women. Women and girls have to say, "I will no longer take this" from the society, the family, or anyone that is oppressing them. Women have to support each other on this journey of achieving equality and claiming rights back because sisterhood is essential in any women's movement.  Of course, men have to come forward, too. The involvement of men is as important as women's participations because the world is made up of both men and women. We can change women as we like, if men don't change, the situation remains the same. Men have to stop seeing feminism as a threat; feminism is really about creating a better world for both men and women. And we need each other to create such world. 

The Purple Feminists Group aims to inform the public about feminism, menstruation and gender equity. When and why did you realize it was necessary?

I saw the necessity from early on, through my family. You know, the way my parents treat my brothers and me was very different. And I wanted to change that. Growing up, just watching the world around me, I realized that people are treated differently because of the sex they are born with. Men are treated as superior to women. This is something that still makes me angry. Even as a young girl, I knew everyone deserves respect and love.

We thrust different expectations and responsibilities to people based on the sexual organs that they are born with. I wanted to create a world where people are given a responsibility because of their interest or qualification, not their gender.

Very few of the organizations in Myanmar that focus on young women, children and youth add a feminist perspective to their work with adolescent boys and girls. I think the adolescent age is the age that we start to internalize the norms that are set by the society. So, I thought before they are internalized deeply, we could do something about it. That's why I chose to focus on adolescent age as well through the organization I founded. 

What do you wish for the future?

I wish for more authentic storytellers and women writers. What I have felt, for so long, is that women stories are only heard and not yet believed. I want us to believe in women's stories, especially, stories about sexual violence that are so hard to verbalize and voice. I want us to see women as a human beings with dreams, hobbies, and desire, capable of doing whatever they want just as any men. I want us to unlearn misogynistic behaviours that we have internalized and been exercising for so long. Let's unlearn together! 


Naw Lar Say Waa is Junior Project and Communications Manager at FES Myanmar. For more information of the work by FES in Myanmar, visit the country office website and follow the office fan page for daily updates.

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