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Sexual Anatomy, Reproduction, and the Menstrual Cycle

In Translation: Redefining Women's Bodies

The "In Translation" sidebars in the 2011 edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves highlight the work of our global partners who develop health resources based on Our Bodies, Ourselves for their own communities.

 Israeli logo

The logo for Women and Their Bodies, OBOS’s partner in Israel
The cover of a Japanese adaptation of Our Bodies, Ourselves
Group: Women and Their Bodies
Country: Israel
Resource: Materials based on Our
Bodies, Ourselves
in Arabic and Hebrew                       
Group: Shokado Women’s Bookstore                                      
Country: Japan
Resource: Materials based on Our
Bodies, Ourselves
in Japanese

In many cultures, the words and images used to describe female bodies and sexualities are negative, derogatory, and oppressive.

This negative discourse reinforces attitudes that endanger the health of women and girls and silences their voices. It also allows a community to justify or ignore practices that are disempowering and prevent women and girls from fully exercising their rights.

Many of Our Bodies Ourselves’ global partners encounter this language problem. Here are two examples of women’s organizations that effectively changed the tenor in their communities by coining vocabulary that honors women and girls and affirms their sexuality and life experiences.

The Jewish and Arab women who together founded Women and Their Bodies, OBOS’s global partner in Israel, note that both cultures prize a woman’s ability to bear children, and the end of fertility is often seen as bringing despair. Though this attitude has deep historical and political roots, Women and Their Bodies is concerned about the pressure it places on women to increase the size of their ethnic community by having children. The group is also concerned about social attitudes that affect women who are unable or choose not to have children or are past childbearing age.

Cultural values are often reflected in language. For example, common Hebrew terms for menopause translate to “age of wilting” or being “worn out,” and an Arabic term means “years of despair.” While developing the Hebrew and Arabic adaptations of Our Bodies, Ourselves, Women and Their Bodies was determined to use terms that are respectful and celebratory. With support and help from women in the community, the group ultimately settled on the Hebrew “Emtza Ha’hayim,” or “midlife,” and the Arabic “San’ al Aman,” which means “years of security or safety."

In Japanese, words for body parts like vulva, pubic hair, and pubic bone were written using Chinese characters that conveyed “shame” or “shadiness.” Shokado Women’s Bookstore, OBOS ’s partner in Japan, revised these negatively nuanced Chinese characters to create neutral or positive terms for the Japanese adaptation of Our Bodies, Ourselves.

Since publication, at least one of the terms, “seimo,” which translates to “sexual hair,” has been integrated into some of the latest Japanese dictionaries. There is also a growing tendency in Japanese society to avoid the Chinese characters that convey “shame” or “shadiness.” Instead, the language now increasingly uses neutral characters or “katakana-go”—foreign words turned into Japanese—when talking about male and female bodies. The changes translate into a major improvement, in any language.

Excerpted from the 2011 edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves. © 2011, Boston Women's Health Book Collective. You can read other "In Translation" sidebars about women's groups who are adapting Our Bodies, Ourselves and creating resources to advance the health and human rights of women and girls in their countries. Click on these links to find out more about Women and Their Bodies or the Japanese adaptation.


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