The horrific gang rape of December 16 on a bus in Delhi has led to a lot of asking. What is it about Indian society that has allowed such crimes to flourish? How are women’s lives to be secured against sexual predators? How are survivors to recover their sanity and spirit after the grievous assaults on them? The questions never end really.
Playwright and international women’s activist Eve Ensler doesn’t claim to know all the answers, but she has been grappling with such questions for years. Her play, ‘The Vagina Monologues’, which debuted on Broadway in 1996 and has since been enacted in over 140 countries, reflects this eloquently.
In one of those curious juxtapositions life throws up, Ensler’s tour of India to raise awareness over her One Billion Rising campaign – calling for an end to violence against women globally – coincided with hundreds of thousands of Indians literally rising in protest against the gang rape of the Delhi student and the exponential increase in crimes against women in India. “One Billion Rising is happening right here!” she exclaimed, calling the new activism on India’s streets “motivating”. As she put it to the media in Kerala, it’s very important that India, especially its youth, take the lead in this moment of distress.
For Ensler, the act of breaking silences and asserting the unexpressed is the beginning of change. ‘The Vagina Monologues’, which has been performed by iconic actresses like Meryl Streep and Susan Sarandon as indeed by hundreds of ordinary women around the world, brought to the public stage hitherto unarticulated aspects of women’s bodies and lives. In a more recent work, ‘I Am An Emotional Creature: The Secret Life of Girls Around The World’ (2010), it was the girls who got to monologue on their hidden fears, desires and experiences – an expression of ‘girl energy’ in Ensler-speak.
Mumbai, one of Ensler’s stops during her India tour, is familiar with her work, with ‘The Vagina Monologues’, having been translated into Marathi. According to Nandita Shah, co-director of Akshara, a Mumbai-based organisation working on gender justice concerns, Ensler’s greatest strength has been her ability to reach out to people, especially the youth. Says Shah, “Ensler is an unusual activist. She uses theatre and popular culture to connect with young people. Just consider her slogan, One Billion Rising. It is so simple, anybody can understand it. At this juncture, after the horrific Delhi gang rape, people from all streams of life – not just feminists – are suddenly very conscious of women and violence issues and they want to do something about them. So there is a double connect that Eve has been able to achieve this time.”
The India tour took off from Kerala, a state which despite its progressive veneer has seen a recent spate of extremely ugly incidents of violence, including women being sexually assaulted by their fathers, brothers, grandfathers. For Eve, who is herself a survivor of paternal sexual abuse, all this is just a reminder of the work that still needs to be done.
Feminist and trade unionist Nalini Nayak, general secretary of the Self Employed Women’s Association, Kerala, believes that Ensler can actually provide Kerala’s women with a chance to speak out on issues that have not figured in public discourse, “The women of Kerala have their own inhibitions about speaking on issues of sexuality, and here is someone who is actually encouraging them to do just that in a state where patriarchy is a huge problem and one that is not easy to address. There are some glimmers of change – films like ’22 Female Kottayam’, for instance, seem to reflect new attitudes. Ensler’s visit should also hopefully encourage young people in Kerala to question patriarchy and take it on.”
Nayak, who has struggled for years to protect the rights of fish worker against the plunder of the seas by global interests, is also struck by the comparison Ensler draws between the violence on women’s bodies and the rape of the eco-system by free market forces. Comments Nayak, “There certainly is a close parallel. It causes one to look at the root of the problem. It provokes you to ask: ‘why are societies so oppressive of women?'”
An assiduous blogger, Ensler’s take on the world is worn on her sleeve – rather like the hennaed tattoos she recently sported in Kerala. A recent one went: “I write after days of reading devastating blogs, stories and emails arriving from women on the ground in Palestine and Israel and Syria. Women who have been fighting for peace and an end to occupation and violence. Women who report the terror of bombs landing around them and the tremors and explosions and loss of limbs and lives and hope. Women who are burying the small bodies of children and who report feeling manipulated and controlled by politicians who do not see them, who use them merely as pawns in their game of power and rage.
“I write after the storm Sandy flooded New York and New Jersey – 23 US states in total – and the Caribbean, from Haiti to Jamaica to Cuba. I write in its aftermath, leaving neighborhoods and houses and lives destroyed. I write as drought and fires and extreme and unusual temperatures rage across the planet. I write as fossil fuel companies continue their drilling and plundering knowing that if this excavating of oil does not stop, it will soon be too late.”
That is Eve Ensler in essence. As her friend and sister-in-arms, Delhi-based feminist Kamla Bhasin puts it, “she approaches the issue of violence against women in a political way by making deeper connections – against militarism, against economic paradigms, against social relations that strip people of their dignity.” Adds Bhasin, whose organisation, Sangat, is coordinating the One Billion Rising campaign in South Asia,
“I respect her because of this. That is why when she asked me to come on board this campaign I had no hesitation in doing so.”
Bhasin is particularly touched by the fact that Ensler, a cancer survivor, has undertaken this long and arduous tour – four locations in all, Thiruvananthapuram, Mumbai, Delhi and Dhaka – in her quest to get women in the region to break free. And not just women. Ensler is clear that if violence against women and girls has to end, men need to become ‘active allies’ in a movement she terms as ‘Woman Spring’.