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'Feminine energy must rule the world': Eve Ensler

By Rashme Sehgal

Eve Ensler's play The Vagina Monologues has helped raise $25 million for the cause of preventing violence against women. The playwright was in India to help raise money for a women's shelter in a village near Dharamsala

Eve Ensler and her team of V-Day warriors have just returned from a two-day trip to Sitabari, a village near Dharamsala. Jagori, a Delhi-based civil society organisation, has set up a learning centre in this village and V-Day, a charity that stands for Victory, Valentine and Vagina, and helps to fight rape, incest and other forms of violence against women, has helped raise the money for this centre.

When Eve Ensler wrote The Vagina Monologues , a play that focuses on female sexuality, she could never have guessed that nine years later it would help raise a whopping $25 million. This money has been distributed to NGOs and charities across the globe. She herself dislikes the word 'charity', saying it connotes weakness instead of strength. It is for this reason that she prefers to call V-Day a movement, with her play acting as the catalyst to raise awareness on violence against women.

You seem determined to build V-Day into a global charitable organisation .

When I first performed the play, The VaginaMonologues , women would line up afterwards to tell me their stories. I initially thought they were lining up to tell me good stories, but that was not the case. The majority told me how they had been beaten or raped. I soon realised, along with a group of friends, that I could use the play to help other women out.

In 1998, we held the first V-Day, a gala event on Valentine's Day, at which a group of well-known women performed the show. The next year, V-Day spread to London and to dozens of college campuses where participants began to raise money to end women-related violence. We've had more than 1,100 V-Day productions of the play.

In 2002,we opened a 40-bed safe house in Narok, Kenya, for girls escaping genital mutilation and early childhood marriages. We raised another $50,000 towards a shelter in Rapid City, SD, to protect the people of the Oglala Lakota Nation from domestic violence and sexual assault. V-Day has also supported the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan to set up a secret girls school to educate the girl-child. This was done at the height of the Taliban regime when educating the girl-child had been completely forbidden. We have also staged our play in Afghanistan.

What other charities have you supported?

I don't like the word charity. It connotes weakness instead of strength. I studied how other philanthropists gave away money including actress Joanne Woodward and actor Paul Newman, who have given away over $115 million from their natural-foods company. They don't make people beg. They investigate, they check things out and then they trust people.

How did The Vagina Monologues come to be written?

It was written after conducting interviews with more than 200 women about their sexuality, their bodies and their stories about violence and sexual abuse. I was talking to a friend about menopause, and we got talking on the subject of the vagina and I was sort of wondering what other women thought. So I just started talking to friends, and one thing led to another.

The play has been banned in both Shanghai and Chennai. But you managed to stage it in Pakistan which is a fairly conservative society...

It was banned in the city of Shanghai. But we managed to stage it in both Lahore and Karachi and that was fun. In Chennai, I've been told it will be staged this July. I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

Can you tell me something about some of the other plays you have written?

One of my earlier plays is called Necessary Thoughts . Jane Fonda gave a reading of it in Mumbai last week. It's going to be produced in Mumbai shortly and the money generated from that event will be used to build a shelter. It is based on my experiences of the Bosnian war. I went there thinking I would 'help' but in the process found my own life changing radically. For one, it taught me to understand just how militarisation, and especially war, affects women. We Americans are so isolated and sheltered -- we are very unaware of what other cultures are experiencing.

My latest play is called The Good Body . We start rehearsals on it when I get back to the US. This play is based on interviews that I have done with women across the world. I spoke to several women in Mumbai including Miss Worlds, fashion models and even older women. The younger women are obsessed with changing their bodies. They all want to enhance something and reduce something else. One thing or the other about their anatomy is not right. Even older women are fighting to reduce their 'charbi' and are going to gyms regularly.

Do you see this as a positive trend?

I see everything with great ambiguity. I do not go into the good or bad of a situation. The incredible influx of globalisation and capitalism has affected women who today are being injected with commercials, contests and god knows what else. Indigenous cultures have been disrupted in a way that is very disturbing. Every culture has had women conform to social norms about how to look, behave, dress and now capitalism is doing the same.

The only women satisfied with the way they were, were some older women I met outside Nairobi and in Mumbai. If a woman could escape putting these pressures on herself, she would be able to achieve a far greater degree of freedom for herself. But to achieve that state requires a deep struggle. But while we're obsessed with fixing our bodies, the men are running the world. That's genius!

You keep talking about the need for women taking over the reins of power?

Women must come into power. Not women who are male-identified but women who are female-identified, who are in touch with their vaginas.

I think the time has come for feminine energy to rule the world. This energy is non-hierarchical, it is non-violent, it realises that the earth has been loaned to us and so we must share everything we possess. It does not believe in domination and there is emotion and heart involved in it. Look at the male energy -- it is filled with violence, it is filled with testosterone. Testosterone does not provide for effective policymaking.

I was violated as a child. But there comes a moment in life when you have to make a fundamental decision, if you're going to let your identity coalesce around yourself as a victim, and live your life filled with bitterness, suspicion and distrust. You realise the wrong will never be made right. You have to move from there, so that something bigger can be born.

(Rashme Sehgal is a Delhi-based freelance journalist)

(InfoChange News & Features, March 2004)