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Earth Times: "Benefit Highlights Plight of Women"


By LUCY KOMISAR, © Earth Times News Service

Eighteen thousand people, most of them women, jammed Madison Square Garden in New York February 11th for a mammoth benefit performance of "The Vagina Monologues" to raise money for programs to end violence against women. UN statistics say that one of every three women in the world will be raped or beaten in her lifetime.

This was a women's event, and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and World Bank President James Wolfensohn, attesting to its international importance, sat in the audience unobtrusively, their presence unnoted by the emcee. The script was serious and comic, joyous and sad.

The program honored women representing two of the most extreme examples of violence against women: female genital mutilation, which afflicts 130 million women, largely in Africa, and the subjugation of Afghani women by the Taliban.

Kenyans Beatrice Torome, Agnes Parevio, and Soraya Mire spoke of their efforts to end female genital mutilation. When Beatrice Torome turned 13, she decided she would not have her clitoris cut off and ran away from home. She said, "My decision inspired my sister to do the same. I hope what I do helps to make it easier for others." Now she is an activist in the anti-FGM movement.

Agnes Parevio recalled the horrors of undergoing "circumcision" as a child and said that the reason for genital mutilation is men's "fear of women's sexuality." Soroya Mire walked through rural Kenya to oppose genital mutilation until V-Day gave her money to buy a jeep. Now, she drives that territory, teaching people about their bodies and promoting an alternative rite of passage with feasting, dance and song.

Soroya, a 23-year-old leader of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan ( spoke of the horrors of that country where women are whipped even for wearing the wrong color socks. Oprah Winfrey asked the audience to "imagine" they were shrouded in burqas, barely able to breath, forced to live behind cloth grids that afforded no peripheral vision.

Actresses Claire Danes and Julia Stiles played two sides of a young Bosnian woman who'd been raped with broomsticks, bottles and rifle butts. Before, she was a carefree joyous teenager and after, a distraught, sorrowful shell.

The men who enforce clitoridectomy and burqas would have had screaming fits if they had seen the excerpts from "The Vagina Monologue," a theatrical show which has run in New York for several years and is being staged in cities and college campuses in the U.S. and elsewhere. It is a clever, comic affirmation of women's sexuality.

The title encompasses the first message, a rejection of the notion that women's sexual organ is obscene or unclean, that even the word "vagina" is unmentionable. Eve Ensler, who wrote the show, joked, "It sounds like an infection. It never sounds like a word you want to say. If you use it during sex, 'Darling would you stroke my vagina?" you kill the act right there!"

The word figures in the show almost as a litany, repeated over and over so that it loses its ability to shock or shame. The famous women in the cast - most of them actresses, including Jane Fonda, Oprah Winfrey, Glen Close, and Gloria Steinem, march onstage and one-by-one shout out the slang words: "pussycat, twat, powder box, pookie, koochie snoocher, nappy dugout, muffin."

Ensler, a New Yorker of 47 who from age 5 to 10 was sexually abused and beaten by her middle-class father, wrote the skits after talking to over 200 women about their vaginas.

Some of the monologues are bitter-sweet comedy. Three actresses (Carol Kane, Julie Kavner and Ricki Lake) play an old woman talking for the first time in her life about her vagina. She'd gotten "wet" as a young girl when a boy kissed her. He made her feel so embarrassed, that she avoided ever getting sexually excited again.

She calls it "down there" and says, "I haven't been down there since 1953. It's a cellar, damp, clammy. You don't want to go down there. Down there you can hear the pipes. Things get caught there. Little animals. Sometimes, you have to plug up the leaks." The audience shrieked with laughter.

The performers glorified women's enjoyment of sex. Answering the question, "If the vagina could talk, what would it say?" they passed around the microphone to declare: "Slow down," "Is that you?" "Feed me," "I want," "Start again," "No, over there," "Lick me," "Think again," "Don't stop," "Remember me?" "Don't give up," "Yes, there!"

There was a comic riff on orgasmic moans: the Janice Joplin moan; the WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant) moan - silence; the Jewish moan: no, no, no; the Southern moan; the Zen moan: the diva moan - ending on a high note, and finally, the triple orgasmic moan - ending and starting again three times.

The skits included comic complaints about indignities done to vaginas. Comedian Rosie Perez declared, "My vagina doesn't need to be cleaned up, it smells good already!" They women made fun of gynecological exams: "Why the scary paper dress?" asked Rosie. "Why the Nazi steel stirrups," declared Meera Syal. "And thong underwear," declared Rosie. "What maniac thought that up!"

They provided some useful statistics. "The clitoris has 8000 nerve endings, twice the number in the penis." The audience cheered. "In some American states (Arkansas, Alabama, Kansas, Texas, Ohio) it is illegal to sell vibrators, but legal to sell guns. We have yet to hear of a mass murder committed with a vibrator!" "Texas!" (George Bush's home state) was reiterated to a chorus of boos.

Actresses Kathleen Chalfont, Swoozie Kurtz and Mary Alice talked about a famous workshop where women were encouraged to use mirrors to look at their own vaginas. Chalfont declared, "It was better than the Grand Canyon!" (Men were encouraged to look and appreciate, too.)

Actress Glenn Close brought down the house with her rendition of "Reclaiming Cunt," in which she repeats the word again and again. "I call it cunt. I've reclaimed it. I really like it. Cunt. Just listen to it: cunt," she drops to knees, raising her arm and shouting in triumph.
Finally, there was appreciation of the vagina's role in birth. Jane Fonda, who donated $1 million to the campaign, performed a poetically moving monologue Ensler wrote to describe the birth of her grandchild, which she describes arriving through a passage that's "like a Venetian canal."

Among the beneficiaries of the V-Day Fund, fattened by $2 million in ticket sales, will be the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan; Tasaru Ntomonok of Kenya which works against female genital mutilation; the Center for Women War Victims in Zagreb; the international Gathering to End Violence Against Women; Planned Parenthood of North America, which has added the issue to its agenda; Equality Now; and Women in Need (NYC) which helps homeless women recover from violence.