Sitting cross-legged on a couch, Nandar (who goes by one name) places a pair of headphones over her ears and a lapel microphone on her collar. Seated across from her, in a makeshift home recording studio, is A.J., a feminist documentary filmmaker.
Nandar, 25, attaches the microphone to A.J.’s collar then presses the record button. The interview begins. Her voice is unmistakable.
“This is Feminist Talks, a new podcast featuring interviews with Myanmar women discussing their profession or expertise from a feminist point of view,” said Nandar emphatically in the Burmese language.
Born and raised in Mansam, a village located in the Namtu Township of northeastern Shan state, Nandar (né Nandu Gawali) learned first-hand of the hardships women face in going against the traditional values of family and community in Myanmar.
“My mom told me I was a fierce child. I never liked to conform to stereotypes and never dressed the way my parents wanted me to,” said Nandar, wearing a t-shirt with “Menstruation is not shameful” emblazoned across it.
“When you live in a small village and overcome the barriers [placed on you], no one can limit you,” she added.
Nandar is a feminist, a translator, a theatre director and a podcaster. She has translated three books, including Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists, from English to Burmese, co-directed The Vagina Monologues for the last three years, and hosts two podcasts.
“I have a large following of young girls and I want to make sure they understand women’s issues. Boys too,” she said with a smile.
Building a movement
Nandar is trying to build a movement through podcasts, as well as her various speaking engagements at universities or international events.
Feminist Talks (listen on Apple/Google) is in fact Nandar’s second podcast — which launched on July 3 on Myanmar Women’s Day 2020 and distributed on Anchor. Last August, Nandar launched G-Taw Zagar Wyne (listen on Google/Soundcloud), a podcast focusing on women’s issues.
She hopes to see her new Feminist Talks podcast reach an even bigger audience than G-Taw Zagar Wyne. She doesn’t actively track her numbers, but her plan is to reach an audience beyond Myanmar’s borders and bring listeners into a broader discussion on feminism — even by including male feminists.
She said G-Taw Zagar Wyne tackles taboo topics like menstruation, abortion and consent in a more informative way rather than through storytelling like Feminist Talks hopes to do.
G-Taw Zagar Wyne is a nickname given to Nandar. In English, it means a woman willing to speak up and start a dialogue. She translates it as “boss lady”.
For International Women’s Day last March, Nandar hosted a live podcast recording of G-Taw Zagar Wyne. It featured an interview with Myanmar social media influencer, and beauty blogger, Win Min Than. The two had an engaging and sometimes funny conversation on relationships in Myanmar.
A fresh angle
In the crowd at that event was someone who’s been closely following Nandar’s work. Marisa Charles has spent the last eight years working in Myanmar. She’s become a trusted friend and mentor to Nandar.
“When Nandar speaks about her own situation, it’s that kind of personal storytelling that is adding a new angle to what has been going on for many years in the women’s rights movement,” said Charles.
“Podcasts are not popular in Myanmar yet so it’s refreshing to see something other than a training,” she added.
Nandar’s communication skills in both Burmese and English seem innate. She got her start at home, in Shan State.
“I always craved attention growing up. The place I got the most attention was in school because I was one of the best students in the classroom,” Nandar said. “I was forced by teachers to do public speaking.”
When she returns home from Yangon to visit her family, Nandar said she’s now treated as a local celebrity returning from the big city.
This is quite a drastic change from her youth, when Nandar was viewed as a troublemaker for not conforming to her role as a young woman set out by custom.
She refused marriage and left to pursue her studies in Yangon, where she received scholarships to study outside of the country, first in Thailand and then in Bangladesh.
“Now, everyone in my village respects me. They tell their daughters to be like me,” Nandar said with a wry smile.
She motions to A.J. to stop and hits the pause button on the audio recorder as a street vendor outside her home studio window shouts loudly so everyone on the block can hear what he’s hawking.
She waits for the vendor to pass, then returns to the interview.
“Nandar doesn’t give a lot of answers to people, but she brings them along the path of understanding. Just saying words like abortion is moving forward. You can’t talk about something if you don’t name it,” Charles said.
Before Nandar became known as Myanmar’s trailblazing podcaster, the young feminist interned at Rainfall Feminist Organization in Yangon. There, Nandar put what she learned to found Purple Feminists Group as a means to educate people on gender-related issues.
“She’s a great storyteller. She’s young. She’s energetic. Her public speaking skills are unquestionable,” said Shunn Lei from Rainfall Feminist Organization.
“It’s good that we have choices [in Myanmar], like feminist books, podcasts and blogs. But it would be great if we can make a platform to build solidarity among different classes, races and ethnic groups. This is what we need in the feminist movement.”
Adam is a journalist and media trainer living in Yangon. Follow Adam Bemma on Twitter.
Republished with kind permission of Splice: reporting on the transformation of media in Asia