Female activists in Myanmar, also known as Burma, say they’re receiving death threats from extremist Buddhist monks with the Ma Ba Tha, the nationalist group that controls much of the country. The activists are attemping to teach fellow Burmese women about sexual health, an effort that’s turning them into enemies of the state.
The Guardian has a fascinating story today about one piece of the struggle for women’s rights in Myanmar: the fact that Burmese has no word for “vagina.” That makes it extraordinarily difficult to communicate about women’s health issues or articulate if something is wrong. A local paper that recently printed the word “vagina” in English also faced a barrage of angry emails. There are also powerful social taboos dictating that anything having to do with a woman’s genitalia is unclean:
Garments that have come into close contact with a woman’s lower half, such as the traditional htamein (a wraparound skirt worn by most women in Myanmar) or underpants, are considered unclean, even after they have been washed. They are also believed to have the ability to rob men of their hpoun – a concept that could roughly be translated as “masculine power”.
As such, it is taught that these items of clothing should never be hung in a place where men will have to walk under them. It is also unacceptable to wash men’s clothes in the same bowl or machine as women’s garments, for fear of contamination or loss of power.
“It’s not right that people should tell us we’re dirty just because we menstruate. It is discrimination,” says 19-year-old Thu Thu, an activist from Shan state.
Activist organizations are increasingly running workshops to teach women about sexual and reproductive health and women’s rights. That’s drawn the ire of the Ma Ba Tha, they told the Guardian; the organization is known in English as the Committee to Protect Race and Religion. The Ma Ba Tha has broad political and social control in the country: they recently backed a law preventing Buddhist women from marrying non-Buddhist men. It was one of four laws dealing with “race and religion” protection; all of them are seen as efforts to crack down on both women’s rights and to discriminate against the Rohingya, the country’s small Muslim minority.
One activist who asked not to be named told the Guardian that she and other people she works with have found their “names, photos and phone numbers” put on posters and displayed at Ma Ba Tha monasteries. They’ve received death threats, intimidation and public humiliation from the monks, she says. Human Rights Watch recently reported that supporters of the Ma Ba Tha recently held a massive, jubilant rally, celebrating the passage of the race and religion laws and signaling the monks’ growing power.
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Nationalist Buddhist munk U Wirathu, center, one of the leaders of the Ma Ba Tha. marches to celebrate newly imposed restrictions on interfaith marriages in Mandalay, the second largest city in Myanmar, Monday Sept. 21, 2015. Photo via AP Images