V-Day: Notes from the Rape-Free-Zone

By C.J.

Revolutionary Worker #1094, March 11, 2001, posted at http://rwor.org

How often do you attend an event in a gigantic sports arena and find on your seat a souvenir strip of red plastic tape imprinted with "Rape-Free Zone"? How about never?

But that's what happened to 18,000 of us on February 10 at Madison Square Garden in New York City. It was the first of many surprises to greet the throngs of women, and a good number of men, who attended V-DAY 2001, the gala performance of Eve Ensler's play The Vagina Monologues.

The massive pageant was a benefit to stop violence against women. It touched hearts in unexpected ways, I think, because it was woven around Eve's play, a powerful work of art based on her interviews with some 200 women. I went to the Garden event with 40 people brought together by the Artists Network of Refuse & Resist!, and in the days following, everyone spoke of the small and thunderous epiphanies they experienced that night.

Eve Ensler is a woman of many talents, among them the ability to bring an arena full of people to exhilarating laughter-without-scorn in an evening devoted to the reclamation and celebration of the most abused body parts on the planet--and the women who possess them. Eve welcomes us: "I bet you're worried. I was worried. That's why I began this piece. I was worried about vaginas. I was worried about what we think about vaginas, and even more worried that we don't think about them. I was worried about my own vagina. It needed a context of other vaginas--a community, a culture of vaginas. There's so much darkness and secrecy surrounding them--like the Bermuda Triangle. Nobody ever reports back from there...."

The monologues unfold, delivered by a dazzling array of women actors dressed in Valentine reds and pinks. The Vagina Monologues is a piece that shifts without warning from falling-off-your-seat hilarity over the sexual dilemmas confronting women to moments of chilling contemplation as we bear witness to the savage terror inflicted on women here and around the world. The play does not reveal the why's of all this, but the ways that millions of women are violated and diminished never leave you. And the territory traveled is by turns achingly familiar and almost beyond imagination.

Claire Danes and Julia Stiles took us to one such unspeakable place in "My Vagina Was a Village," a piece Eve wrote for the women of Bosnia she visited in 1994, tens of thousands of whom had been brutally raped as a systematic tactic of that war. Trading voices, the two actors deliver the story of a young woman whose vagina was once "green, water soft pink fields, cow mooing sun resting sweet boyfriend touching lightly with soft piece of blond straw."

"There is something between my legs. I do not know what it is. I do not know where it is. I do not touch. Not now. Not anymore. Not since.... Not since the soldiers put a long thick rifle inside me. So cold, the steel rod canceling my heart...

"My vagina a live wet water village. 
They invaded it. Butchered and burned it down. 
I do not touch now. Do not visit. 
I live someplace else now. 
I don't know where that is...."

*****

In a magazine interview before V-Day, Eve Ensler explained how her one-woman play spawned the V-Day Initiative. During a national tour of the play, she said, "So many women came up to talk to me about having been beaten and raped and incested that I started to feel I was going to have a breakdown. And I said, 'I'm either going to do something or I'm going to stop doing The Vagina Monologues, because I'm responsible now.' I made a decision that I was going to figure out my purpose, my mission. And one day the answer rose up: 'Stop. Violence. Toward. Women.' From that moment on, my life has been completely and utterly clear."

Eve Ensler brings some great strengths to her mission. She has an abiding confidence in women to resist their oppression if they are given good information and loving support. And she believes in the power of art to transform the hearts and minds of people. She also understands that artistic works are a different form of human communication from lectures or articles, and so her plays, her characters and situations, move us deeply, in the unique way art can.

The Vagina Monolgues--and the V-Day Initiative--have traveled to many places in the U.S. and around the world in the past several years. And Eve brought some of the women she has encountered to the stage at Madison Square Garden. We met African women who are campaigning to stop the widespread practice of female genital mutilation (FGM), including one 13-year-old girl who courageously defied authorities and family members by refusing to be cut. (In this cruel coming-of-age ritual, the clitoris is removed, eliminating the possibility of orgasm and causing pain and lifelong medical complications in many women.)

Oprah Winfrey did a piece that told the story of an Afghani woman living under the feudal tyranny of the Taliban. Afterwards she brought on stage a woman from Afghanistan clad in a burqa, a tent-like "bedspread" with a veiled opening only big enough to let in the knowledge that "others can still see the sky." This is currently the required garment for women in Afghanistan, a fact brought home when Eve and a fellow researcher barely escaped a flogging for not wearing a burqa while visiting this summer.

*****

As I'm sitting here writing this piece, someone has just sent me one of those provocative mass e-mails:

"If the earth's population was shrunk into a village of just 100 people with all the human ratios existing in the world still remaining:

6 people would possess 59% of the entire world's wealth, and all 6 would be from the United States.

80 would live in substandard housing.

50 would suffer from malnutrition.

1 would have a college education.

1 would own a computer..."

I consider how these stark statistics connect with the ugly brutality wrecking the lives of billions of women on the planet today. The images of male mercenaries ravaging villages in Bosnia and Afghanistan flash through my mind. They must be stopped. But tracking the source of the "ancient" conflicts and oppressive ideologies behind their brutality leads us to the fact that these countries and the people in them are dominated by a very modern international imperialist system.

We live in the belly of that beast, making for some startling commonalities among women worldwide. Eve said that when she returned from Bosnia she was "in a state of outrage": "Outraged that 20,000 to 70,000 women were being raped in the middle of Europe in 1993, as a systematic tactic of war, and no one was doing anything to stop it. I couldn't understand it. A friend asked me why I was surprised. She said that over 500,000 women are raped every year in this country, and in theory we are not at war."

This connection puts me in mind of a point made by RCP Chairman Bob Avakian about how the oppression of women and the whole ideology of male superiority and the degradation of women that goes hand-in-hand with it is "one of the most important cornerstones of the foundation of capitalism."

Avakian has also posed what to me are some exciting possibilities: "The whole question of the position and role of women in society is more and more acutely posing itself in today's extreme circumstances -- this is a powderkeg in the U.S. today. It is not conceivable that all this will find any resolution other than in the most radical terms and through extremely violent means. The question yet to be determined is: will it be a radical reactionary or a radical revolutionary resolution, will it mean the reinforcing of the chains of enslavement or the shattering of the most decisive links in those chains and the opening up of the possibility of realizing the complete elimination of all forms of such enslavement?"

Now, V-Day at Madison Square Garden was not raising these kinds of questions nor drawing these kinds of conclusions. But as I was sitting amongst this vast audience, watching the stunning performances of more than 70 women, many well known, in the biggest arena of the kingpin imperialist metropole...it stirred me to ponder the forces afoot in the world that give birth to such a gathering, and what it says about future possibilities.

I was struck by the dynamic relationship socially conscious artists can have with the people, and the special role art can play in opening minds and galvanizing action in these times.

And I was also struck by the strong response of the audience to the women from other countries who brought their staggering stories to the stage. It is clearly a positive phenomenon that women in this imperialist country who are enthusiastic about The Vagina Monologues are also driven to change the conditions of women around the world--and this impulse is growing as people are finding out more about the hell coming down.

*****

I get another email, this one from a young woman filmmaker who went with me to V-Day: "Hearing the women from Africa and Afghanistan speak was a pretty cool and intense element of the evening. It made the issues and realities simply more 'real' for me. But I always look for connections. Like, how just sending money to these countries or advocating for women's rights in other countries, or educating women about female circumcision isn't active enough for me in some ways. I feel like the root of the problem needs to be exposed and broken down somehow--this being our fucking country and its fucked-up use of power..."

Good questions. Since a class-conscious perspective is not even allowed into the current official "civil discourse," it's not surprising that the V-Day movement itself would embrace a variety of non-revolutionary views. The day before V-Day, Oprah invited some women to her TV show--professionals making good money who one day up and decided to abandon the race for the corner office and took off for India to try to do something to free young girls who are forced into prostitution. Oprah opened the show by saying that once we hear about these "extreme cases of woman-hating" going on in the world, we will know we are the luckiest women in the world to be living in the U.S. Well, you gotta credit Oprah for giving V-Day so much visibility. But the view she's espousing here is what I would call liberal imperialist logic.

In the last few decades, around the world, millions of people have been forced off the land and into the shantytowns and cities by the workings of international capital, and in this process women have been brought more directly and visibly into the "global exchange" via perverse arrangements such as sweatshops and the sex trade. This intensified exploitation outside the home and village has generated new forms of resistance and awareness among women. And at the same time twisted "re-inventions" of the old patriarchal and feudal modes of subjugation have come to power. The Taliban regime is one such example. And, notwithstanding the mock-indignation from certain U.S. officials or Time magazine journalists, the footprint of U.S. imperialist domination can be found all over these societies. Meanwhile, the "powderkeg" situations proliferate.

I recall a statement by Iranian women for International Women's Day 1999, which said, "The Western European powers...boast about their many international and European laws against violation of human rights. But these capitalists have a greater law in command: the law of maximizing profit. Under this law, these powers court, strengthen and guard the most anti-people and woman-hating regimes like the IRI (Islamic Republic of Iran) in different corners of Asia, Africa and Latin America.... Let us stand united against the slave and semi-slave conditions of women on this dog-eat-dog planet Earth and fight for a future world where nobody thrives at the expense of others."

*****

The playbill for the Garden event says: "V-Day simply demands that the violence must end proclaiming Valentine's Day as V-Day until the violence stops. Then it will be known as Victory Day."

Okay, I'm game, but I'm thinking, let's be realistic. What will it take to end this violence....

My mind drifts to the mountains of Nepal, where, quiet as it's kept in the media, thousands of women and men have embarked on a mission to rid their part of the world of these oppressive relationships by waging a Maoist Peoples War to defeat imperialism and the local feudal ruling order. I'm remembering the women guerrillas I read about who crowded shoulder to shoulder on a bed in a small dwelling somewhere in the eastern region of Nepal. They were shy but eager to tell their stories to a visiting RW reporter. One woman, 16, says "The police came to our home and terrorized us. They raped women and arrested many people in the village... now in this village of about 26 houses, there is no one left. Everyone has been forced to leave and go underground." A 15-year-old explained how her father is in jail and her uncle, aunt and brother had all been arrested. She said, "There was no other way except to take part in the People's War. So that's why I picked up the gun."

The Communist Party secretary for that area explained to the RW reporter why she felt so strongly about the role of women in the revolution: "It is said in this society that women should work according to the wishes of their fathers, their husbands, and their sons. This is how society treats women. Capitalism exploits women and gives them no equal rights in property and in other aspects of society....It is clear, we cannot get success in our struggle, solve our problems, and get rid of all kinds of exploitation and oppression as long as this reactionary government and system exists. We can only overthrow it by using guns and this is why we have to wage people's war."

*****

By the end of the V-Day performance, I couldn't help but think that the stories brought to us from women around the world that night cry out for revolutionary solutions. And, while most people there didn't see it that way, there was a real spirit of 'let's stop all this.' I kept thinking, let's take that feeling and follow it through...all the way through.

Late in the evening Eve Ensler came out and asked every woman who had ever been raped and beaten to stand up. I watched as women hesitated, some consulted a companion, then thousands rose, many of them sobbing but proud. Then Eve asked everyone to stand who knew someone who had been beaten or raped, and who would no longer allow this to go on. The whole arena stood up, and it was like one big fierce embrace.

I got an email the next morning from a friend who had been there. The red "Rape Free Zone" tape had appeared on one of the trees outside her building.

Note: The text of Eve Ensler's play and her story of the V-Day Initiative is available in the book: "The Vagina Monologues--The V-Day Edition," published by Villard, 2001.


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