In Myanmar there are no vaginas. Linguistically, at least, that part of the female body does not exist in Burmese – a lexical omission that highlights the intense cultural taboos facing women’s rights activists as they battle against the country’s woeful maternal health record and entrenched gender prejudices.
Rights and health organisations are beginning to address inequality issues in the long-isolated country, but the advent of Buddhist extremism threatens to derail the women’s movement in Myanmar just as it starts to gain more powers.
When the word “vagina” recently appeared in an English language edition of a Myanmar newspaper it sparked a scandal. Many readers simply could not accept it was a polite and medically recognised term.
The young female journalist involved received a barrage of criticism, including messages telling her that her “reputation as a woman was ruined forever” because she had been associated with it.
A number of Myanmar’s ethnic minority languages do have words that directly translate as “vagina”, and there are few, if any, taboos about using them. However, for the majority of people who use the country’s official language, Burmese, the body part is inherently shameful and it is difficult for them to believe any word applying to it – even in another language – could be anything other than vulgar.
The only “polite” term available for women who want or need to refer to that part of their anatomy translates as “woman’s body” – hardly precise.