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September 2004
V-Power! Women Flex Their Political Muscle
The Satya Interview with Eve Ensler


Eve Ensler
Photo courtesy of Eve Ensler

Eve Ensler has devoted her life to stopping violence, envisioning a planet in which women and girls will be free to thrive, rather than merely survive. Her work grows out of her own personal experiences with violence. The Vagina Monologues, based on Ensler’s interviews with more than 200 women, celebrates women’s sexuality and strength, and exposes the violations that women endure throughout the world. This Obie Award-winning play translated into over 35 languages and running in theaters all over the world (including sold-out runs at both Off-Broadway’s Westside Theater and in London’s West End), initiated what has become known as V-Day.

V-Day is a nonprofit organization that distributes funds to grassroots national and international organizations that work to stop violence against women and girls including rape, battery, incest, female genital mutilation, and sexual slavery. V-Day is a catalyst that promotes creative events to increase awareness, raise money, and revitalize the spirit of existing anti-violence organizations. In just six years, it has raised over $25 million and was named one of Worth magazine’s “100 Best Charities” in 2001.

V-Day stages large-scale benefits and produces innovative gatherings, films, and programs to educate and change social attitudes towards violence against women. These include the 2004 documentary Until The Violence Stops; community briefings with Amnesty International on the missing and murdered women of Juarez, Mexico; the December 2002 V-Day delegation trip to Israel, Palestine, Egypt and Jordan; the Afghan Women’s Summit; the Stop Rape Contest; and the Indian Country Project.

Created by the thousands of V-Day activists and organizers, “V Is For Vote” is a grassroots get-out-the-vote effort. It also conducts outreach to political candidates of all parties urging them to make violence against women a central issue of their campaign platforms, not just a sideline or women’s issue. Ultimately, V-Day will mobilize its activism into political power as V-Day supporters “Vote to End Violence.” Kymberlie Adams Matthews caught up with Eve Ensler recently to talk about the upcoming election and plans for V-Day.

Let’s talk V-Day. How did it start and how did you get involved in it?

Well, when I started to do the Vagina Monologues everywhere I went in the world, women would line up after the show to talk with me. At first I thought, ‘Oh great—they’re going to share wonderful stories about great sex and the fact that they love their vaginas!’ But in reality, 90 percent of the time, the women were lining up to tell me how they have been raped, beaten or battered.

It became daunting, overwhelming. I was actually going to stop doing the show because I felt so irresponsible—having all this horrible information and not doing anything about it.

Then in 1997, I decided to get a group of women together and ask them how we could use the play to stop violence against women. We came up with the idea of V-Day—an energy, a movement, a cataclysmic decision to end violence against women.

It was seven years ago that V-Day took off with a huge event in NYC. All these fantastic actors came and preformed. And last year, six years later, there were 2,300 events in 1,100 cities around the world. We raised close to $26 million. But more importantly, we have really been able to support the local existing groups who have been working for years to try and stop violence against women and to draw attention to the issue.

It’s remarkable how things just took off for V-Day. How many states do you have leaders/groups organized in now?
I know we are in 76 countries thus far. And in this country, I am pretty sure that every state is signed up. There were 700 colleges involved last year and most of those are in the U.S.

I saw the Vagina Monologues twice, once during college in New Paltz, NY, and again several years later in San Francisco. Both times it renewed my sense of empowerment and motivated me to get out and do something. Do you perceive your plays to be ‘tools’ for global changes in consciousness?
The Vagina Monologues has been a really thrilling experience because I think it has in fact supported the globalization of women to stand up for their rights and to stop violence. When you rape, beat, maim, mutilate, burn, bury, and terrorize women, you destroy the essential life energy of the planet. You force what is meant to be open, trusting, nurturing, creative, and alive to be bent, infertile, and broken. What seems important is that we don’t forget the major issues, we unite together against violence, discrimination and oppression but most of all, that we take action against this oppression together, so that we can make a better future for our daughters, granddaughters and great granddaughters. In order for the human race to continue, women must be safe and empowered. It’s an obvious idea, but like a vagina, it needs great attention and love in order to be revealed. A tool, yes, to help women find their voices. And I think that is terrific.

V-Day is outreaching to the presidential candidates (of both political parties) urging them to make violence against women a central issue of their campaign platforms. Are you finding that you have an impact with one candidate over the other?
Well, one candidate at this point has responded—Kerry actually talked about violence in his recent address at the [Democratic National] Convention, and [his campaign] has let us know that they are thinking about the issues. The Bush campaign so far has not responded to any of our questions or any of our outreach. So we shall see.

But more importantly, it is really about putting violence against women in the center of the agenda.

I read that single women are the largest group of people not participating in our democracy.
Right. And that is where we are focusing. We are really hoping to get those women out to the polls. We need them to really develop a sense of political purpose. We actually have thousands of V-activists in the country and it is time to turn that into political muscle. Even if we don’t get exactly what we want in this election we can start developing ‘us’ so that as a group women can begin to have political power in determining who does get elected.

Congratulations on the world premiere of your new play The Good Body, I hear it had an extended run at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre. Can you tell our readers what makes this play so powerful? Do you think it relates to women not voting?
It is all so very exciting…well, I am very excited about the new play. It is a much more personal play for me. I think it is really looking at this compulsion, obsession that women have especially in the West to fix their so-called not-perfect, not-good bodies. And how much energy is devoted to that. It actually begins with my own obsession with my own not-so-flat post-40 stomach, and it takes me around the world.

I truly believe that if we weren’t hooked into this kind of patriarchal, Judeo-Christian idea of who we are supposed to be and what we are supposed to look like, and we weren’t devoting every inch of our lives to dieting and beauty products—lipo-ing, botox-ing—and everything else we are doing, we would actually be running the world; let alone voting.

What is your opinion of the Republican Party, namely the Bush II administration?
From my personal point of view, not speaking for V-Day, I was deeply opposed to the war and I still am. I believe that the war has been one of the great failures of American foreign policy; Al-Qaeda has multiplied from 400 to 18,000 we have killed thousands of Iraqi women and children, not to mention American soldiers. We have completely uprooted a country so that women are completely unsafe. We have also completely desecrated the countryside and the land itself. There are bombsites all over; uranium is loose. We have napalmed children. We are in the middle of a war that we have instigated.

I am now trying to figure out what we are doing there. Why, and how this war has made anything better. Sure we removed Saddam Hussein, but that removal has not left anything in its wake but chaos. We have no idea why we have done this and so from my point of view as a feminist, as a woman who spends her life devoted to ending violence; I cannot imagine what on earth this government was thinking.

Not to mention the complete desecration of women’s rights, whether it is the ending of women’s reproductive freedoms, the complete cessation of funds that go to stopping violence against women or the lie that the women of Afghanistan are better off. I can go on and on…

Necessary Targets is your groundbreaking play about women and war—about the violence of dark memories and the enduring resilience of the human spirit. Many people think the invasion of Iraq has raised awareness of the crisis of the oppressed women living there. How do you think the war has affected them?
The Bush administration promised a liberation of women, and in fact the opposite has occurred. It is just so crucial that this information gets out.
The Bush administration proclaimed that women’s rights would be the centerpiece of making Iraq a democratic world, but for many Iraqi women the terrible regime of Saddam has been replaced by a growing religious conservatism that has actually killed their hope for freedom. And for many women it has actually put their lives in much greater jeopardy.

Right now in Iraq, honor killings are on the rise in a way that wasn’t happening under Saddam. I find it really outrageous that women are at greater risk in both Afghanistan and Iraq after the invasions. Bush’s huge promise of liberation has not been fulfilled.

The fact is, years after the ending of the Talilban regime, [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai’s government has proved that they are unable to protect women. Rape and sexual violence by the armed factions is still incredibly high. Forced marriage—particularly of girl children—and violence against women in the family are widespread in all areas of the country. Women are continuing to wear burqas because they don’t feel safe. According to recent reports, many girls’ schools were recently attacked; married girls aren’t allowed to attend ordinary school; and women are being threatened, raped and kidnapped by gunmen.

At least before we were over there, we were thinking about the women of Afghanistan. Now people have this illusion that liberation has occurred.

I question how Americans can be patriotic or consider themselves patriots when, in our own country, women are subjected to violence daily. How can women upgrade their visibility in these conflicts?

Well, here is my feeling about patriotism—it doesn’t interest me much. I don’t think that clinging to nationalism and national boundaries is where this world is headed. Of course I love this country, but I have loved every country I have been to. I feel we have to start moving toward stepping outside of patriotic fervor, the feeling that we think one country is greater or more important than other countries. We have to start realizing that we are completely interdependant as a world and that the survival of the women of Afghanistan is completely intermingled with the survival of women in Idaho—there is no separation.

We are talking about one out of three women in this country of ours is raped and beaten. That is the UN statistic. I cannot tell you the degree of violence I have witnessed and heard about in America.

I see us as one world and as long as we proclaim that one country is greater or more significant than another, we will be willing to dominate, invade and occupy in order to preserve the life of that country. When we see that we are all completely of the same world and responsible to each other, and interdependent, then another trajectory will begin to evolve.

How can we get the world to recognize rape and subjugation as part of this international conflict, not just their marginal by-products?
Look, we have Christian fundamentalism, we have capital fundamentalism, we have Islamic fundamentalism, Jewish fundamentalism, and at the root of all the fundamentalisms is the subjugation and undermining of women.

The truth is, none of those fundamentalisms can exist without the undermining of women. And to some degree, extreme patriotism is a form of fundamentalism. When you truly believe your country is right no matter what, it becomes a right or might situation. I am interested in the examination of behavior and why we do what we do; and accountability—keeping the memory that we are responsible for bombing Iraq. We are responsible for the sanctions we held against Iraq which killed 500,000 people. We are responsible for the deaths of civilians—whether they were so-called accidental or not. I think memory is really important.

And V-Day gives you hope?
V-Day gives me incredible hope. Because I see this other world evolving where women and children across this planet, who have been a victim of violence or exposed to violence, devoting their lives to ending it and finding brilliant, clever, outrageous, humorous, subversive ways of ending violence, rather than creating more. To me that is what’s most interesting. That is what I am working towards.

I mean, anyone can bomb someone, it doesn’t require deep thinking. But to think about how not to respond to violence with violence… You know, I heard Salman Rushdie the other night say how we respond to terrorism will determine the fate of civilization. If we become terrorists in responding to terrorists, if we end civil liberties in responding to terrorists, that will determine who we are. You know, the 9/11 Commission actually makes some very good recommendations: it talks about educating people who are not educated and feeding people who are hungry, and supporting people to build houses in the Islamic world. The other way to go, the way I think we should go, is by being a support rather than an enemy. Frankly that is how I think you will end terrorism.

Idaho? Lahore? In small communities, large communities, can one person really make a difference? Because sometimes that’s all you have.
Hugely. Every V-Day that has happened has been brought together by one person to their community and they have gotten other people involved. But whether it is in Lahore Pakistan or in a church in Idaho it is usually one woman or man who says I want to stop violence in my community. And those people have changed their communities. So what I have seen is that one person can change many.

In closing, is their one thing you’d like readers to take away from this interview?
I hope, really hope women get out to vote. And vote with their vision. Vote with their hearts. Vote, so that we can really stop this dreadful dangerous paradigm of violence destroying the species.

To learn more about V-Day visit



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