On September 29, while Tony Blair was arguing for Britain to align itself with Bush on war in Iraq, female Labour Party MPs were speaking up for vaginas. In fact, they were doing the first-ever parliamentary performance of Eve Ensler’s play, The Vagina Monologues. Ensler, who did the unthinkable as an artist by forgoing her royalties on productions of The Vagina Monologues, offering it free to any campus or community as long as it does the play in its entirety and uses the performance as a fundraiser to benefit antiviolence initiatives, has made it her latest unimaginable goal to end violence by 2005.
When people say to her, “You can’t,” she responds, “Why?” like a powerful, precocious 4-year-old, replete with Little LuLu hairstyle and a predilection for hearts and boas. The most recent enterprise of Eve and the women of V-Day (the organizing arm and virtual–as in there’s no office–foundation that came out of The Vagina Monologues‘ success) was to call a V-World Summit. On September 20-21 two dozen antiviolence activists from around the world got together in Rome–to share strategies, align their resources and eat gnocchi. The resulting meeting was, like the V-Day phenomenon itself, deeply political while still being fun and girly: Camp David meets Bridal Shower.
After a well-attended press conference presided over by the mayor of Rome, the activists–only three of whom were from the United States, while several had never before left their home country–gathered at a hilltop hotel. The group of women sat in a circle on red cushions, exchanging red or heart-shaped gifts. “Do you know how hard it is to find a red object in Bulgaria after the fall of Communism?” complained Mariana Katzarova, a journalist, as she presented hers. After Carole Black, the CEO of Lifetime and a major supporter of V-Day, gave everyone sterling heart bracelets from Tiffany, the women went around the room and described their relationship to V-Day.
Agnes Pareyio, a round-faced 46-year-old Masai woman, had a story that was typical for this group. For years, she traveled village to village in southwestern Kenya on foot, educating girls about female genital mutilation. Circumcised herself, she urged girls not to get “the cut” and discussed other ways they could mark their transition to adulthood. Her one tool in this mission was a plastic female torso with removable vulva. Pareyio would show a whole vulva, then one without a clitoris (the circumcision ritual in Kenya, recently outlawed but still widespread) and finally a vagina that had been infibulated, which is the removal of labia minora and clitoris and the stitching shut of the vulva, leaving just a tiny hole. (When a girl is married, that pea-sized aperture is expanded to accommodate sex by inserting an animal horn.)
Eve saw Agnes sitting in a field conducting a class two years ago and asked her what V-Day could do to facilitate her work. Agnes said, “If I had a jeep, I could get to many more girls.” So they got her a blue jeep with V-Day printed in white on the top, a satellite phone and, this year, gave her $65,000 for a “safehouse” for girls escaping genital mutilation. A second safehouse might open later this year. Traditionally, women in Kenya aren’t allowed to own property, so the vision of Agnes zipping around the savannah in her jeep, talking on her cell, is sort of like seeing a giraffe in the White House–or The Vagina Monologues in the halls of the British Parliament.