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|Volume 11 |Issue 23| June 08, 2012 ||
The V Word
Sushmita S Preetha
There were a few hushed and a few loud mentions of the unmentionable all around Dhaka city over the last two weeks. There were uninhibited discussions about vaginas, sex, orgasms, masturbation, rape, childbirth, menstruation, and so on, as women of different ages and professions joined in a world-wide dialogue about their bodies and their sexualities. For the third time since 2010, Dhaka showcased Eve Ensler's celebrated play, The Vagina Monologues, to a stimulated and jam-packed audience.
In many ways, it differs from a traditional play – there is no music, no conventional plot, no fancy props or lighting. It's presented in a seemingly simple way, but it is its very simplicity that makes the play complex, memorable and dramatic. The Vagina Monologues (TVM) is a compilation of monologues, based on interviews with over 200 women of all ages, ethnicities, classes, sexual orientations and marital statutes. Interspersed with happy and not-so-happy facts about women's bodies and whimsical quips, the monologues, in all its diversity and humour, explore the mystery, pain, power, wisdom, anger and excitement buried in women's experiences.
“I bet you're worried. We were worried. We were worried about vaginas. We were worried what we think about vaginas, and even more worried that we don't think about them.”
Bold, funny and thought-provoking, the 'introduction' of The Vagina Monologues sets the tone for the rest of the performance, and gives the audience a context to understand and appreciate it. The play then takes us on a whirlwind journey – from dark and poignant stories of rape, sexual violence and invisibility to hilarious accounts about vaginal examinations, thong underwear and different types of moans. The monologues are informative, critical, brave and provocative, weaved together skillfully by Ensler, to ensure that the audience is engaged all throughout.
One of the things that make TVM so enjoyable is its wonderful use of humour. It manages to portray otherwise serious issues with effortlessness and wit, making it more palatable for audience members. This particular production of the play had the audience rolling in laughter in their seats, especially when it employed local dialects and references.
Shekufeh Zonji, the director of TVM Dhaka, says that they made a conscious effort to use Bengali dialects and costumes to contextualise the play. Although most of the monologues have universal appeal, the choice of particular issue-based monologues, such as 'Under the Veil', as well as the use of costumes helped make the play more relatable to a Bangladeshi audience
It's the third time that TVM is being performed in Dhaka. “I first watched the play in Germany, and I thought it would be great if we could perform it in Dhaka,” says Tasaffy Hossain, one of the key organisers of TVM, who has performed in the play for the last three years. It's not an easy feat to showcase a play as bold and as controversial as The Vagina Monologues in a place like Dhaka, where we still shudder at the thought of even talking about sex or sexuality, especially women's sexuality. “We started very small, because we weren't sure how it would be received. The first year, the show took place behind closed doors; we only invited people we knew to ensure there wouldn't be any fallback from it,” states Tasaffy. The cast has been more open this year about its production, prepared to deal with any criticism that might come its way.
But so far, the feedback has mostly been positive. “There have been some criticisms, but that really means that we are reaching a broader audience. If there is no backlash, you know you are just preaching to the choir,” adds Tasaffy. The Vagina Monologues were performed in North South University, American International School, Dhaka, the Goethe Institute and Banani in an attempt to engage younger audiences. Each venue was packed with enthusiastic viewers of all ages, if mostly with people from well-educated and upper-class backgrounds. “It seems like people were really receptive and open, and almost starved for places where they can openly express and communicate with each other about their experiences,” shares Shekufeh. Both the actors say they were impressed with the ease, boldness and clarity with which people, especially students of NSU, voiced their opinions on difficult issues.
A remarkable and inspiring aspect of TVM worldwide is its categorical emphasis on casting ordinary women and volunteers rather than professional actors. To reflect its inclusive nature, in Dhaka, too, the cast consisted of women from different walks of life who feel passionate about women's rights. This year's cast included Afia Rashid, Anuradha Hashemi, Neda Shakiba, Ayeleen Ajanee Saleh, Elizabeth Bass, Esha Aurora, Farhana Begum, Nadila Yusuf, Sadia Rahman, Shekufeh Zonji, Tahmina Shafique, Moutushi Rahman, Trimita Chakma and Tasaffy Hossain.
The Vagina Monologues is part of a much larger global activist movement, called V-Day, to end violence against women and girls. It is a “catalyst that promotes creative events to increase awareness, raise money, and revitalise the spirit of existing anti-violence organisations.” Every year, through V-day campaigns, thousands of students and local volunteers all over the world organise performances of TVM and other plays by Ensler. In 2011 alone, over 5,800 events were conducted by volunteers to raise funds and awareness. The proceeds from each event go towards a local organisation to assist its ongoing campaign on violence against women and girls.
This year, the funds raised through the performances in Dhaka will help victims of violence in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Since the 1970s, the rights of indigenous people have been systematically violated. Indigenous women and girls have been raped, assaulted, trafficked, abducted and murdered by non-indigenous Bengali settlers. Such acts of gross violation are normalised through the promotion and continuation of a culture of impunity and tolerance. The funds of this year will be used to increase the access of indigenous women and girls to justice; in the short run, the money will support the 'Justice for Shujata' Campaign, to demand justice for the rape and murder of Sujata Chakma, an 11-year-old Jumma girl. Her alleged rapist had also been charged for raping her cousin, but had been released on bail.
The Vagina Monologues, despite what its name might suggest, is not a sex comedy. It is a collective celebration of women's bodies, desires and experiences in a world that stills insists on silencing women's voices and privileging the male narrative. It is an act of defiance, of support and of hope. It is a means of reaching out to our male counterparts and making them empathise with some of the experiences that women share across the world. It is a way to stand up against violence against women and proclaim, “I am over it.”
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