Podcasting gender activist Nandar on tearing up taboos as a ‘Nosy Auntie’

Photo: Nandar / Courtesy
Photo: Nandar / Courtesy

When Nandar decided to take on the topic of abortion in an episode of her podcast, she reached out to several doctors working at U.N. organizations to be her guests. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given its deep taboo in a country where illegal procedures are the third leading cause of maternal death, they all declined.

Two days before the show was to be recorded, she put out a call online for anyone who knew a doctor that would just be willing to speak to her. When the show aired, her guests ended up being a licensed physician, student doctor and single mother – all Myanmar women.

Giving voice to Myanmar women is what has won fans such as Khin Hnin Su, a 25-year-old gender activist at the Business Coalition for Gender Equality.

“I love that it centers the voices of Myanmar women, not foreign ‘experts’ and ‘activists.’ This is an initiative by us, for us,” Khin said.

She said it was hearing Myanmar women talk about their pasts and achievements that made the podcast unique among the many programs and initiatives out there promoting women’s rights, even at home.

“I’ve come to learn that our society tends to view feminism as an ‘outside’ concept – too Western, too far from culture and tradition,” Khin said in an email. “This podcast is exciting and refreshing because it flips this narrative on its head.”

It was one year ago that Nandar, who only goes by one name, released the first episode of G-Taw Zagar Wyne (or Nosy Aunties’ Roundtable, if loosely translated).

A g-taw refers to a (usually older) woman with an opinion on everything that’s always up in people’s business. Although it’s neither endearing or complimentary – especially for a woman in her twenties – Nandar sounds proud of the term attached to her long before she became a leading gender activist.

Despite what may have been an attempt to shame her back into her gender lane, Nandar took ownership of the label.

“I always asked questions about gender issues, and so, within social circles, I was also called g-taw. This term g-taw [implied] you know, that I’m nosy and talkative, that this isn’t appropriate for someone my age. I took ownership of this. Yes, I’m a g-taw. I’m going to keep being a g-taw.”

Those familiar with her gender activism efforts in Myanmar would know her tendency to ask difficult questions and challenge social norms. In 2017, she translated Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists into Burmese for the first time. The next year, she translated and staged (and Myanmar-ified) the nation’s first production of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues; the troupe staged a bilingual version of their third annual production this past March. Earlier this year, the Purple Feminists Group – which Nandar co-founded –  launched the Menstruation Is Not Shameful Campaign to dispel cultural hang ups, misinformation and negative connotations associated with the period.

It was with those achievements already establishing her as a progressive voice that Sandar launched the Burmese-language podcast, the 11th episode of which dropped Sunday. In May, she launched an English-language version.

Taking Risks

Given the sometimes reactionary behavior of Myanmar’s deeply conservative elements, are there any potential consequences to broaching taboo topics? 

Before the recent abortion episode aired, Nandar says she had been preparing for a backlash.

“But what was so surprising was that, after we first announced it, people sent in messages with questions about abortion,” she said. “I still haven’t received messages saying that what we’re doing is bad. It’s surprising. Even friends from villages and rural areas [outside of Yangon] – it was such a surprise, they sent me messages saying ‘Nandar, your podcast is so educational. The episode last week about abortion was so detailed and helpful.’ Oh my god! I didn’t even think they would listen to it!”

The shock and happiness and pride was still there in her voice even during our call, which took place a week after the episode was released.

“The way I look at it is – if what I do helps the majority of people and angers a small number of people, then I’m still going to keep doing this work,” Nandar said. 

However, she also understands where the concern comes from, especially in a place where taboo topics are rarely discussed in the open.

“To be honest, from the beginning, I was prepared for people to yell at me. We first launched [the abortion episode] in English, and there were a lot of friends from abroad who gave me a lot of positive feedback, but I thought that this was because in their countries, these conversations are already ongoing, so of course they support this.”

But, I wanted to know: Why a podcast? After all, despite their popularity in the West, podcasts aren’t really a big thing in Myanmar. Nandar agreed, saying that explaining podcasts to people and teaching them how to find them on SoundCloud took a great deal of time and effort. 

But she feels the audio format is crucial accessibility, as years of written discourse on feminist issues hasn’t reached wide swathes of the population in a country where, by 17, only 30% of children are still in school.

“We believe that those people should still be able to access this information, so we approached this audio format,” she said. “The main reason is that we want to reach out to the grassroots community and most of them are not able to read.”

Episodes either cover a specific topic (e.g. consent, toxic relationships, abortion), or they’re simply a conversation between Nandar and a guest.

Nandar describes her approach as one of “storytelling” — for her, it’s mainly about providing a platform for each woman’s story. 

In one, Crystal White, who works for indigenous education NGO RISE, opened up about her own life experiences. 

“She talked about domestic violence. … She grew up worrying about when this was all going to stop within her own home,” Nandar said “There are lots of people in this country who have faced difficulties like this.”

She said that conversation was especially poignant.

“We both lost fathers when we were kids. But when I listened to her story, I thought, ‘Oh it’s not just me who had to face these obstacles.’ But I overcame them like Crystal, and Crystal overcame them like I did. I felt something lift inside of me. I don’t know what the name of that feeling is, but those feelings are important. I think that feeling of ‘I’m not alone in this world’ is very important.”

On a personal note, it was near the end of our conversation that I told Nandar what I’d been wanting to say since I wrote about her translation of We Should All Be Feminists and saw her on stage at a production of The Vagina Monologues: “Thank you.”

I told her that as a Myanmar woman, her podcast made me realize how we’ve all shared similar experiences and feelings.

“My intention when I created this podcast was that when a young woman hears this podcast, I want them to feel what you’ve told me you felt – ‘Oh, it’s not just me,’” she said in reply. “Whatever dreams they have, I want them to feel like they can achieve it. By listening to this podcast, whether if you learn something new, or you become a little less worried, or you get some answers to some of your questions, then that’s when I’ll feel like this podcast has been a success.”

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