As I walked away from the Saturday night showing of the acclaimed “Vagina Monologues” at the Mekan Artı theater in Istanbul, I felt inspired, intrigued, a little Vagina-ed out, and content. I’ve been trying to catch the “Vagina Monologues” for a while now. They’d come and go to my university over the years, but I could never quite make it because I was too busy, too unaware, or too scared to go alone, just me and my vagina. But that’s what the “Vagina Monologues” are all about: being okay with who you are as a woman and being okay with what your vagina is as an essential, for some possibly the quintessential, part of the female body.
The “Vagina Monologues” are based on interviews conducted by Eve Ensler, an American playwright, performer, and activist. Ensler spoke with hundreds of women about how they feel about themselves, their bodies, and their unique phenomenological experiences as females in male-dominated societies. Ninety percent of the proceeds from this particular performance of the “Vagina Monologues”, the first of its kind in Istanbul, went to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), an organization that provides assistance to women and children refugees, and victims of human trafficking. The remaining 10% of the proceeds went to V-Day, a global movement founded by Ensler to combat violence against women and girls.
I am about as far from a theater critic as you can get, but the variety of emotions the “Vagina Monologues” evoked is impressive. The multinational performers had me laughing until I cried one minute and on the verge of genuine, sad tears the next. Although they were performing the stories of other women, they all tapped into those experiences and found themselves within the context of the other woman’s story. Their committed performances enabled audience members to identify with the stories as well.
The topics of the monologues range from self-discovery and acceptance to rape and violence against women. The stories are raw, real, and can likely resonate with women around the world. The “Vagina Monologues” recognizes, lampoons, and challenges several commonly held beliefs that women are raised to hold about their bodies, specifically their vaginas. These include the vagina as being something forbidden, secretive, sinister, dirty, shameful, weak, unwanted, and, perhaps most disheartening, anyone else’s dominion but their own. Thus, it was empowering to see females proudly reclaiming the word ‘Vagina’ for themselves and other women when it is so often presented as anything but a source of pride.
Unfortunately, my positive experience at the “Vagina Monologues” was quickly made tragically relevant to Hollaback! and the issue of street harassment. Feeling uplifted as I left the show, I was surprised when I passed an English-speaking man angrily punch a nearby wall after confirming with the woman accompanying him that “It [had] happened again?” I glanced back to see what had happened, but decided it was none of my business since they had continued walking. Later, Kacie, friend and founder of HB! Istanbul, passed along an article in Today’s Zaman (http://www.todayszaman.com/news-276394-a-walk-in-my-girlfriends-shoes.html) detailing what I had actually witnessed. The article described a frustrating day the author and his girlfriend had had walking around Istanbul and experiencing harassment several times. It turned out they had attended the “Vagina Monologues” as well and when I passed them his girlfriend had once again been subtly groped. The thought that the author had been aggravated by a perpetrator of street harassment had never crossed my mind.
My reaction highlights how subtle street harassment can be and how easy it is for us as bystanders to be unaware of, and overlook, such instances. Yet an unwanted touch can remind a person of just how vulnerable they are and make them fearful of the world and insecure about their place within it. This slow marginalization occurs daily all around us. Thus, movements like Hollaback! and the “Vagina Monologues” that raise awareness and consciousness surrounding women’s issues, whether it be domestic violence in the home or misogynistic aggression in public, are vital. They not only aim to improve the status of women in public spheres of life, but also in the most private sphere of life, the way women feel about themselves and interpret the world around them.