Why is the word ‘vagina’ scary?

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Illustration: Naorem Ashish

IT IS indubitable that coming in contact with The Vagina Monologues and Eve Ensler completely changed our lives. When we met her at a cosy bakery in New York one cold morning in 2001 to finalise the rights to bring the show to India, a wonderous yet often fraught road emerged before us.

Honestly, in 2003, when the show opened at the Prithvi Theatre in Mumbai, we didn’t think we would last 10 shows, let alone 10 years and counting. We had been scared by people telling us, “You better have a good team of lawyers on call” or “Your name is going to become mud in society.”

At first, many actors would refuse to join our cast, the most priceless reason being, “I can’t say the V-word. What will I tell my guru?” A producer walked out three weeks before we were to open, fearing his name would be “sullied in decent society”. Sponsorships were (and to date, are) impossible to come by.

The good news is that with some small exceptions — Leftists in Kochi and Mayawati’s regime (before it fell) in Lucknow — political parties have not made the play a cause célèbre; in fact, members of just about every political party have come to see the show, and begged for tickets to our special V-Day performances. And even in Lucknow, this past December, Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav said that the play would be welcomed, and now we have performed there.

The play’s most vicious detractors have been from the theatre fraternity. In Lucknow, last month, while audiences filled seats for two shows, the nastiest comments in the press were from theatre practitioners. We are still banned at the NCPA in Mumbai and at all theatres belonging to Christian institutions. One theatre’s programmer feels the play is “semi-pornographic” while another says, “Put the word vagina in the title and any play will succeed.” Two noted stalwarts of the theatre found the play “titillating”.

To these sorts of naysayers, we have always replied: If you find violence against women titillating or semi-pornographic or worth censoring, the problem is with your mindset, not the play.

The V-word, a decade ago, and even today, unsettles many, despite it being merely a biological name for a part of the body common to half this world’s population. The animosity towards the word, we have learned, is related directly to misogyny at large. And even in a hyper-sexualised culture where everything is sold via sex (especially women’s hyper and unreal bodies), women’s sexuality is still threatening to the patriarchal status quo. We have learned that many women too have deeply internalised patriarchy and practice misogyny with the same gusto as some men.

Still, through the years our audiences have rewarded us with so much love and courage. Often, the most rewarding part of the performance is when men and women come backstage to share how and why the play moved them. We have had sons bring their mothers to see the show. We have had a couple who celebrated several anniversaries by coming to the show. One brave woman we met recently told us how the day she saw the show was the day she decided to walk out of a three-year abusive marriage. (She showed us a photo on her phone she had taken with the cast, herself and the abuser she left). An 80- year-old man in Mumbai told us he was glad to be living in India in a time when this play could be performed. Another in Bhubaneswar told us he wished we would live a hundred years, because that is how long it was going to take to change the Indian mindset. There have been innumerable times when women have told us about how they were genitally mutilated (right here in urban India) and how they have fought hard, at great risk and cost, to prevent their daughters from meeting the same fate. Equally often we’re asked by women who know too well why doesn’t the play address the silent epidemic of marital rape?

AS WE now embark upon a new movement, One Billion Rising, we do so because the need for ending violence is dire. All the work done in the past decades, in every corner of the world, by countless millions, has been muted by the escalation in rates of violence and the greater savagery with which women are violated and decimated.

Whether the Delhi gangrape case turns out to be a watershed moment is yet for history to determine. But in India, we have been violating women for centuries and post-16 December, there have been innumerable rapes and other brutalities, recorded and unrecorded.

Our mission with The Vagina Monologues and our larger work towards ending violence against women is now guided by the following points:

1. We see violence against women to be the greatest national security threat, for when our most vital resource is so plundered and destroyed, it will eventually wreak havoc on the basic fabric of the nation and the economy

2. We have to begin to make real sex education a priority wherein sex and pleasure are not taboo but rather things to be celebrated and normalised. The Justice Verma report is a good first step

3. Till India takes on a meaningful introspection and reinvention of the role of organised religion in our public and private spaces, the real roots of violence against women will be damaged

4. Patriarchy has to be dismantled, bit by bit, in order for real change to appear.

To be honest, we had become a bit jaded performing to audiences in urban theatres across India. In 2012, when we did a free show for women from the slums of Mumbai and saw their visceral response, we knew that the play had to reach deeper into the fabric of India. And just this January, when we did two shows in Lucknow and innumerable women came backstage and asked why we had not come earlier, because these were their stories and they were so glad to finally see them on stage, we more fully saw the epidemic of silence within which women become even more invisible, more violated. It dawned on us then that this play is more dangerous to the system and more relevant today than it was even 10 years ago.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. A brilliant read. Filled with gusto and strength. Please make sure to make the play available online. A live broadcast from the different venues would be a treat. Would encourage more viewers and society. God Bless You and may you definitely I’ve a 100 years.

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