Saturday, January 19, 2008

Naming the parts

If Eve Ensler’s phenomenally successful ‘Vagina Monologues’ had been called ‘The Womb Monologues’ instead, would Chennai still have gone ahead and banned performances of the show this week?

My guess is: probably not. There’s something about the V-word that chills the conservative soul in a way that no other female body part can manage, which is precisely why Ensler called her play The Vagina Monologues, not The Uterus Monologues or The Ovary Monologues instead. The police ban inadvertently places the good citizens of Chennai in the uncongenial company of the narrow-minded and the conservative. As the caustic theatreperson Mahabanoo Mody-Kotwal observed, Chennai clearly doesn’t have any people there who possess vaginas, but it does seem to have a lot of assholes.

Ensler’s play has toured the world to wide acclaim; recent shows in Mumbai ran to packed and enthusiastic audiences, and the shows in Delhi are expected to go off well. But The Vagina Monologues have not been welcomed everywhere. It was banned in China after performances had been scheduled in Beijing and Shanghai. The real fear was that the name of the play would draw crowds; and crowds, even in contemporary China, means dissent and questioning.

In Kuala Lumpur in 2002, complaints from some Islamic groups briefly blocked a second performance of the Vagina Monologues, but the authorities backed down when protests against the ban escalated. Malaysian feminist Salbiah Ahmed summed up the debate: “Is women’s speech on sexuality obscene?” The play was staged in Pakistan, but at an invitation-only performance, and it raised considerable controversy. Some members of the audience walked out in discomfort with the openness with which The Vagina Monologues addresses issues such as the names women secretly call their most private parts, the shame with which many societies smother women’s sexual desires, and the violence that many women have to battle in their lives.

One of my friends, a theatre activist in Pakistan, is currently working on a section that would allow the voices of women silenced in honour killings to be heard. “I want their vaginas—tortured, brutalised, finally killed—to be heard,” she wrote to me. “I want the screams of the vagina to be listened to, not muffled in silence any more.”

In America, conservative Catholic associations on several campuses have joined hands to prevent performances of the play in their colleges. Their argument is that the play is “vulgar”, which will sound familiar to the residents of Chennai.

The common thread is an irrational fear that allowing discussion and debate on feminine sexuality would unleash damaging forces. But by naming the most intimate parts of our bodies, we claim them for ourselves, and we refuse to shroud them in fear, or loathing, or embarrassment. Like the classical Tamil women poets who sang of their erotic longings, of their unquenchable desire to experience a love that could not be disentangled from worship,

Women’s bodies are not obscene, any more than Michaelangelo’s glorious nude of David is obscene; women’s bodies are not shameful, or the containers of original sin. That is the message of The Vagina Monologues. Why is Chennai so frightened of listening in?

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