For the longest time, women’s bodies have been a taboo topic. Coochie, flower, kitty—these are just some of the names we use to skirt around the word vagina. In our language—puki, tinggil, and puwerta are scientifically accurate parts of the vagina, yet there is a certain stigma when these words are said.
As Eve Ensler wrote in The Vagina Monologues, “There is something between my legs. I do not know what it is. I do not know where it is. I do not touch. Not now. Not anymore. Not since.” This connotation of shame prohibits women from literally and figuratively getting in touch with their bodies—as this ultimately defines how the world sees them and how they see themselves.
Sense in sensitivity
This taboo of talking about our intimate areas can be traced back to the Spanish colonial period. Beverly Siy, author of It’s a Mens World explains, “Sa konsepto nating mga katutubo, mainit sa lugar natin kaya mga suot natin noong unang panahon, exposed lahat. Merong pag-tattoo sa katawan—ibig sabihin, nahahawakan ang katawan, pinapakita ito, bahagi ito ng ating pinagmamalaki.”
(In the concept of the native Filipino people, it’s hot in our country so our attire before exposed our bodies. Native tattoos are proof of how we take pride in our bodies; we are touched, we are seen, we take pride in the bodies that we have.)
Meanwhile, Dr. Nathalie Lourdes Africa-Verceles, the Director of the UP Center for Women’s and Gender Studies, highlights the association of the vagina with sex, which might explain the conservative culture that surrounds discussions regarding this part of the body. “It (the stigma) became very much a part of our culture and amazingly, after so many generations it’s still there.” She adds, “It’s culture that tells us what we should not do and what we should not say and it’s people who reproduce culture from generation to generation.”
But why the vagina?
There is an irony in how the word puki is heavily associated as an instrument of sex, yet the owners of such—women—are expected to be “tamed”, inhibited sexual beings, held to a standard that is different for men.
Siy shares one of the reactions she got from a book that she illustrated called Biyak which tells a story of a young girl with a deformed vagina. The book was being endorsed to be a part of students’ reading list, but it was met with severe backlash. “Paano daw tatalakayin ng teacher ito? Kasi sigurado daw na riot, gulo, tatawa lang ang mga estudyante. Well, unang-una, ang mga teacher kasi, ‘di rin sila komportable sa sarili nila kaya it will take time,” Siy details.
(We were asked how the teachers could discuss the book because for sure, the students will riot and laugh at the topic. If in the first place, the teacher is also uncomfortable with their bodies, then it will really take time.)
Siy also frequently encounters malicious comments regarding the topic of her books. Once, a co-worker pointedly said that the title was “bastos”, and asked if she knew that the term biyak also insinuates sex, as in “biyakin mo na ‘yan,” which Siy herself never thought of given the honest premise of her book.
(Crack it already, referring to the act of sex.)
Siy was disappointed at her own reaction, “Nakangiti ako, which is a very bad way of explaining it because I was taking it lightly pero hindi dapat. They (women) shouldn’t take it likely.” She furthers that even with her age and stable profession, she is still struggling to find a proper response to the objectification she routinely experiences. But despite the backlash, she is still eager to share such stories, especially to the youth.
(I was smiling which is a very bad way of explaining it because I was taking it lightly but I shouldn’t have been.)
The consequences of silence
Teaching young children early on to internalize shame with their body parts cultivates a culture that enables unreported sexual harassment, unmitigated spread of sexually-transmitted diseases, and unwanted teenage pregnancies. This lack of knowledge and agency makes women’s bodies vulnerable as it becomes a highly politicized topic that some people feel entitled to control. Africa-Verceles posits, “[Women’s] reproductive capacities are not just being the subject of discussion, they are also being the subject of control. Why are [people] depriving us of choice when it comes to our bodies?”
The desire to control women can also lead to harmful cultural practices. One such practice is female genital mutilation, where young girls’ clitorises are cut off. In some cases, the vagina is sewn shut to ensure a woman is chaste until her wedding night. “[It’s one example of] how they use the vagina [for] power and control—they deprive you of sexual pleasure for your entire life so you won’t seek it,” Africa-Verceles says.
But it is also important to remember that openly talking about one’s sexuality and intimate areas does not correlate to being hypersexual. As more and more women are breaking the demure ideal, they are sometimes subjected to being called derogatory terms. However, for women to be reduced into this Maria Clara trope promotes a culture that favors a silent, voiceless version of women, rather than empowered females with agency.
More than what’s between the legs
It is important that we begin to understand that women are more than sexual objects or bearers of children. The more we cling to the rigid gender binary system, the more women are shackled to patriarchal ideals. Africa-Verceles asserts, “You don’t want to separate the vagina to the totality of what a woman is,” as we want to avoid reducing women’s value into that organ or equate one’s womanhood with the vagina because there are also women without it—specifically, transgender women.
Though speaking out about the vagina and openly saying puki does not absolve the issues regarding misogyny and patriarchy in the country, it’s an empowering way to start ending the stigma. Siy states that if a woman feels free to say any part of her body, it is a powerful statement that embodies where she belongs—her sense of self, strength, and, most importantly, her agency to make her own decisions. One need not be special in order to possess this kind of attitude. As Siy declares, “Isa akong karaniwan na babae at sineryoso ko ang aking sarili—sineryoso ko ang katawan ko.”
(I am a normal woman and I take myself seriously—I take my body seriously.)