Netherlands: Crossing Cultural Borders

In 2001, women’s organizations adapting Our Bodies, Ourselves for their own countries gathered in the Netherlands for a three-day meeting to get acquainted, share strategies, and provide mutual support. The meeting was the first-ever opportunity for members of OBOS’s Global Network to come to know the faces and voices of collaborating partners (known until then only through email). Members swapped stories about the making and remaking of Our Bodies, Ourselves around the world, and shared their experiences developing content and creating outreach and advocacy initiatives. 

by Sally Whelan, Program Director, OBOS Global Initiative

With just three weeks to go before the meeting in the Netherlands that would bring together groups from around the world that are translating/ adapting Our Bodies, Ourselves, the last piece of funding came in, last minute requirements of embassies and visa offices were met, necessary documents produced, and the final hotel rooms booked.

I sat bolt upright in bed at 5 a.m. one morning, realizing that if I got on email immediately, I might be able to catch our colleague Codou Bop on-the-spot at her computer in Senegal, or Liana Galstyan in Armenia to find out if wired funds had gotten through. This instant messaging worked splendidly.

It was an honor to attend this exciting meeting; now, the events of the past two months have made us even more keenly aware of the essential need for this kind of global dialogue. The only other large gathering of groups working on translations/adaptations of Our Bodies, Ourselves was in 1995 at the Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing. This time we arranged to carve out our own time and place.

Kathy Davis, a feminist sociologist at the University of Utrecht, and Marlies Bosch, presently a facilitator of the Tibetan translation project, helped organize and facilitate the meeting. The Federation of Women’s Self-help Centers, a coalition of groups funded by the Dutch government, graciously offered us a large, sunlit room. Chantal Soeters, one of Kathy’s students, took notes.

Seated at tables designed to come together in a comfortable ellipse, 21 participants from Japan, Armenia, Poland, Tibet, Senegal, Mexico, Bulgaria, Serbia, the Netherlands, and the United States put faces to the voices we had come to know through email and fax over the last several years.

For the next three days, women described the dramatic challenges they faced in creating adaptations of Our Bodies, Ourselves.

Six New Books

BULGARIA: Kornelia Slavova and Tatyana Kotzeva

The Women’s Health Initiative in Bulgaria took the risk of publishing their book in a culture where women’s roles have been “re-traditionalized” in the transition from Communism to democracy, and where feminism is seen as a Western, anti-male, antifamily, and pro-lesbian ideology. The collective voice of Our Bodies, Ourselves reverberates cynically, as does the idea of sisterhood, conjuring up a leftist agenda that smacks of Marxism and Leninism. A straight translation would have been culturally inappropriate.

Over-medicalization is not an issue, as basic needs in health care are not yet met; nor are abortion rights an issue, particularly not a moral one, because abortion is the primary method of birth control. Pro-natalist attitudes make for an especially difficult and charged environment for women experiencing infertility.

Speaking to the societal antipathy towards feminism, the authors recast it within the perspective of gender justice, providing a special chapter about women’s issues during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Throughout, they emphasized the rights of women in their roles as consumers, patients and citizens. They address their introduction to men as well as women. After sometimes challenging negotiations, the book was published by a prestigious publisher, Colibri, and came out in July. Find out more about the book.

SERBIA: Stanislava Otasevic and Bobana Macanovic

Much of the Serbian adaptation of Our Bodies, Ourselves was produced in war-torn Serbia. The coordinating group, The Autonomous Women’s Center Against Sexual Violence, supports and counsels women survivors of male violence.

A team composed of nine women from five groups spent over a year translating and adapting Our Bodies, Ourselves, publishing it themselves. Stanislava and Bobana proudly brought copies — hot off the press! — to our meeting, with the cover photo of the first ever “Take Back the Night” march in 1995 in Belgrade. Each page contains just one column of text, leaving a lot of space for women to write in their own experiences, for they said “These books will have many owners.”

This is the first book available in Serbia on the politics of women’s health. In a country that conceals health statistics for military and economic purposes, documentation about women’s health takes on a unique power. War has severely affected the health care situation, with long waiting lists, shortage of money and medicines, and general depression. Often Serbian women’s bodies have literally been used as weapons for military and political purposes; thus, these women have experienced them as instruments of pain and suffering, not as a functional or pleasurable part of their lives. Material on sexuality takes on a special importance.

As the authors see it, living within a regime that abhorred diversity and had well developed ‘mechanisms of hate,’ it is essential to underscore the diversity of Serbian women, and they especially have attempted to give visibility to lesbians and women with disabilities.

Recent events have increased the use of substance abuse and anti-depressant drugs, discussed at length in the book. The authors dropped the ‘Nutrition’ chapter, for it seemed terrible to speak of food when people were starving; ‘Women in Motion’ was dropped too, for it also lacked relevance, pertinent only to affluent people.

The authors hope that their printer’s comment, when they picked up the finished book in June, augurs well for a positive reception of the Serbian Our Bodies, Ourselves. He said: “This book should be given to each daughter by her father.” It is a testament to their strength, courage and perseverance that there is any Serbian edition at all. Find out more about the book.

ARMENIA: Liana Galstyan

The Armenian adaptation of Our Bodies, Ourselves arrived last month in our mailbox, almost ten years after work on this book began. During the past decade, Armenia endured an earthquake, severe losses in electricity and heating fuel, and paper shortages — some photos from the project’s first phase show the translators in a candlelit room wearing gloves.

Faced with hardships and logistical problems, the project was stalled until Dr. Mary Khachikian met Judy Norsigian at the Armenian World Medical Congress in Boston during 1996 and agreed to assume coordination of the project. After that point, the vision and dedication of Mary and her colleagues shaped a process and a product that is now beautiful to behold with its multi-colored cover filled with images of Armenian women of all ages.

With a declining birthrate and economic hardship causing serious emigration from the country, the book, with its extensive section on contraception, faced some resistance from some government officials and members of the media even before its actual publication. For some, the legacy of the Armenian genocide also contributes to a pro-natalist sentiment. Still, Liana reported, the authors managed to offer extensive information about birth control. They significantly adapted the infertility section of the book, as STDs cause infertility rates to be very high (28 percent). The book makes a special attempt to reach young women with chapters on body image and sexuality.

The coordinator of the Armenian Family Health Association plans to organize a series of awareness-raising workshops for women throughout Armenia, including educators, health providers and women in social service agencies. This edition holds special meaning for Our Bodies Ourselves Co-Founder and Executive Director Judy Norsigian, who is also Armenian and visited Armenia for the first time last year to participate in an Armenian women’s conference and to help with completion of the book project. Find out more about the book.

SENEGAL: Codou Bop

The present challenge for the authors of “Notre Corps, Notre Sante,” the “inspired” African-French edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves, is to secure funding for printing and distribution of their already completed manuscript. The book will serve 21 francophone countries. With French (the language of colonization) as the necessary working language, it will be distributed for free to schools, health centers and women’s groups, and translated into local dialects. The BWHBC is currently seeking donors who may wish to contribute to this endeavor.

Most Africans are being increasingly harmed by a new kind of re-colonization, among them the World Bank’s structural adjustment policies, increased debts to the global North, devalued currencies and the privatization of health and education, which used to be free or cost very little.

Women have little or no access to health care, land, jobs, or schooling. False interpretations of the Koran increasingly stand in the way of women’s health and rights. Young women rank low in the social hierarchy of power, with 56 percent married and mother of a baby by age seventeen. In general, women belong to fathers, husbands or uncles. Their role is to take care of others. Since they are not “allowed” to be ill, and there is no such thing as an “unhealthy” woman, women buy over-the-counter medications to ease symptoms enough to carry on with their work.

Some practices are oppressive and harmful: For instance, to be fat is desirable, since thinness is associated with poverty and AIDS. Thus, women are too often encouraged to eat high-fat diets and discouraged from exercising. Women age 15 to 19 are most afflicted by HIV/ AIDS (an insidious myth teaches that a man infected with AIDS needs to have sex with a virgin to purify himself). Women use bleach to whiten their skin (a result of colonialism), causing skin cancer and kidney problems.

The book emphasizes the cultural, economic, political and religious contexts in which African women live. It empowers a woman by telling her she belongs to herself, and constantly encourages her not to feel guilty taking care of herself. One chapter describes pre-colonial matrilineal societies in which women did have a great deal of power. Find out more.

MEXICO: Ester Shapiro, Alan West, U.S., and Lourdes Ruiz

An extensive cultural adaptation of Our Bodies, Ourselves was produced by approximately 20 Latin American women’s health groups spanning the Americas and the Caribbean in collaboration with a Boston-based editorial team of Latinas. Ester, coordinating editor of NCNV, discussed some of NCNV’s departures from Our Bodies, Ourselves, the tasks faced in adapting a U.S. feminist text (by emphasizing “mutual help” rather than “selfhelp” and eliminating some of the overtly ideological attitudes, for instance), and how the book’s text became a living tool for lively networking and community organizing.

The audience for NCNV is huge and very varied. As women worked in coalition across lines of continent and nation, North and South, locally and regionally, they broadened the definition of social change work to emphasize working with men and other social change movements. The “Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir” (Catholics for a Free Choice) prolife/prochoice perspective on abortion within the framework of women’s sacred responsibility for preserving life was tremendously important. NCNV embodies a participatory health education model, with an emphasis on community building and outreach.

As the only translation/adaptation project based at the BWHBC, NCNV has served in many ways as a bridge between Our Bodies, Ourselves and other projects worldwide. Important commonalities arise between NCNV and other books. NCNV redefines feminism within a gender and social justice model, as in the Bulgarian edition. It places great emphasis throughout, as does the francophone African edition, on the need to balance the care of others with the care for one’s self. And like the Arabic edition from Egypt, inspired by Our Bodies, Ourselves, but a new book altogether, NCNV acknowledges the importance of religion and spirituality in discussions of women’s health.

Ester offered her extensive knowledge in networking, media outreach, and promotion and held special sessions with participants whose books are already published, and for whom promotion and community outreach are now a priority. Alan provided an analysis of cross-cultural translations, which always involve the implementation of power relationships via the language used. Translation consists of a constant historic, poetic interaction between the text itself, the language and the culture. Lourdes, developer of CIDHAL’s impressive website, discussed the use of electronic media and encouraged us to think about how our books, or sections of books, can be brought into the electronic age. Find out more about the book.

JAPAN: Toyoko Nakanishi, Toshiko Honda, and Miho Ogino

Authors of the 1988 Japanese edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves, veterans of the translation/adaptation process, they brought to our circle at Utrecht invaluable experience and knowledge. They also brought, straight from the printer the day before their departure for Utrecht, the first-ever translation of “Sacrificing Our Selves for Love” —  a book co-authored by deceased BWHBC founder Esther Rome and Jane Wegsheider Hyman. They chose this book to translate because it deals with dieting, eating disorders, cosmetic surgery, domestic violence, rape, STDs, and HIV/AIDS — all serious problems today in Japanese society. Research carried out in Osaka City reveals that 2 out of 3 women have experienced some kind of violence from their husbands or lovers. In May, 2001, Japan enacted a new law attempting to reduce this violence. The authors working on “Sacrificing Our Selves for Love” included information on shelters and counseling services for battered women.

The Japanese women did not face censorship in publishing Our Bodies, Ourselves in the late 1980s, even when introducing subjects such as lesbians, masturbation, people with disabilities, or the sexuality of older women. However, the Japanese language itself was a challenge. For traditional characters, such as those for pubic hair (“shameful hair”), they substituted a new, positive language of sexuality.

It was useful to hear how a mostly direct translation of Our Bodies, Ourselves became specifically useful to Japanese women. The authors conducted their own research. They added the responses of over 200 clinics and hospitals to a survey designed to provide information on rates/policies on such things as episiotomy, labor positions, contraception, partners permitted at birth, and abortion services. They substituted information about the Japanese medical system, health insurance system, and Japanese law in pertinent places in the text, as well as the names of foods and drugs available in Japan.

Our Bodies, Ourselves inspired the formation of many groups that began to meet to discuss and conduct research on the birth control pill, endometriosis, menopause, reproductive technologies, sexual harassment, and domestic violence. Many new books have sprung up based on the information and experiences gathered. As a result of increased interest in and visibility of women’s health issues, the atmosphere of shame and secrecy surrounding women’s bodies and sexuality has been dispersed to a considerable degree. Find out more about the book.

New Projects

POLAND: Malgorzata (Gosia) Tarasiewicz

Pending funding, the Network of East West Women–Polska will focus on reaching young women. They envision putting selected portions of Our Bodies, Ourselves on the internet, using popular stars. Already, three women singers have agreed to deliver messages about health and sexuality. The site will be interactive, with room for questions. Magazines will reach women in rural areas and a short story competition for young women will encourage them to talk about their bodies. In these ways they will collect Polish women’s experiences for a booklet.

They anticipate attacks from the Catholic hierarchy and media that will cast them as “perverts.” But given that in their country prenatal exams are forbidden, abortions illegal, homophobia extensive, and bribes often required for health services, they are determined to bring about some change. “In two years, when we meet again, we’ll tell you our story,” said Gosia.

TIBET: Lobsang Dechen with Marlies Bosch, the Netherlands

Five-hundred Tibetan Buddhist nuns, their country occupied by the Chinese, live in exile in Dharamsala, India at the Tibetan Nun’s Project. Lobsang Dechen, a co-director of the nunnery, attended the Utrecht meeting. Through body awareness workshops held last year, the nuns identified some of the topics most useful to them. In meetings held this fall at the nunnery with Marlies Bosch, co-facilitator of the project from the Netherlands, women selected content from Our Bodies, Ourselves to be used for booklets in Tibetan.

Because most of the nuns are young (age 17 to 22) and without previous exposure to health information, they may also use parts of Ruth Bell’s “Changing Bodies, Changing Lives”(for teens) to enhance body awareness and teach basic health concepts. Dechen hopes that in the future they can make available to Tibetan women living in Tibet the information they have gathered.

The Last Day

Marlise Mensink of MAMA CASH, a women’s foundation in the Netherlands

With fundraising a constant reality for all groups, we each spoke about how our groups had raised money for our book projects. Marlise stressed the collaborative aspects of the funder/recipient relationship – funders love to give their money away and ‘ideals need money!’— and made amusing, practical suggestions about how raising money can be most effective.

Norma Swenson and Jane Pincus, OBOS co-founders and Our Bodies, Ourselves co-authors

We presented a brief history of the first Our Bodies, Ourselves, BWHBC’s early ideals and activities, and some history of the U.S. women’s health movement. We mentioned the times of right-wing censorship of Our Bodies, Ourselves.

In the post-meeting evaluations, participants said how important it was for them to hear BWHBC’s story. Utrecht gave them a chance to “listen to the extraordinary history of the book in the United States”; “to learn stories and crucial moments in producing and publishing its different editions”; “I was impressed with the enthusiasm of the women who were struggling for the publication of Our Bodies, Ourselves“; “I was surprised to find that they faced inspection and religious restriction.”

To complete the circle, Norma described her reaction to the stories of these extraordinary women and their works:

As I listened to their stories of truly daunting conditions — war, political opposition, lack of funds, lack of time, inadequate and unreliable technology, and dozens of other obstacles – I was strongly moved. I felt there is really no comparison between what we have gone through to produce Our Bodies, Ourselves over the years, under conditions of peace and relative ease and prosperity, and what so many of them have been going through. What we all seem to have in common is the willingness to pour volunteer time, money and effort into producing these books if necessary and the determination to get this vital information in accessible language into the hands of women who clearly need it. As I have felt many times over the years in many different places across the world, women can and do cross cultural borders powerfully with Our Bodies, Ourselves, and with us. I feel very privileged to have been there.

Looking ahead, OBOS plans to:

  • provide ongoing technical assistance to groups in every stage of the translation/ adaptation process;
  • complete a translation/adaptation guidelines packet that identifies typical challenges faced by groups around the world and illustrates through first-hand accounts how coordinating groups have resolved problems;
  • explore the establishment and coordination of a revolving loan fund program to support translation projects on a temporary basis, ensuring they can bring their projects to fruition and disseminate their books as widely as possible;
  • and facilitate communication, through a listserv, among emergent and experienced groups producing Our Bodies, Ourselves.

A million thanks to all who participated in the meeting as well as those who contributed funds: the Global Fund for Women, the MacArthur Foundation, Conservation Food and Health Foundation, and an anonymous donor. Thanks also to Ester Shapiro, who coined the title of the meeting. We appreciate all who have joined with us in this critical global work.