In 1997, playwright and performer Eve Ensler began her famous The Vagina Monologues based on material she gathered interviewing women. It may have seemed tongue-in-cheek at first, but after every performance, lines of women would come up to share their personal stories of rape, incest and other sexual trauma. The word of Ensler’s work spread like wildfire and she realized she could parlay her efforts into a way to stop violence inflicted on women and girls. In 2002, eight hundred communities around the world participated in the project. This program was called V-Day. Producers Abby Epstein and Paulo Netto found the event worthy of a film documentary and the result is V-Day: Until the Violence Stops.
I know it must seem odd to cover something like this on a blog that focuses on little girls, but the plain fact is that in the name of advancing civilization, women have been relegated to second-class status and girls even more so. It is upsetting for people like us to watch girls with a kind of awesome respect and realize that for the most part they are not treated that way. The more I analyzed it, the more I concluded that we are in fact unwitting allies in this struggle. Yes, there are those who would exploit girls solely for selfish purposes, but the legitimate appreciation of little girls and young women that we are trying to convey comes from the simple pleasure of watching these girls pursue happy, healthy and creative lives.
The first part of this documentary deals with breaking the silence. In almost every case shown in this film, there is the problem of ostracization for those who speak up about abuse or discuss sexual subjects at all. The first step is to get women—and men for that matter—to openly use the word “vagina” properly affording women and girls the opportunity to express themselves fully. The Vagina Monologues were a good start as performers of all kinds integrated the word into their public performances, even revealing their own traumatic or humorous experiences. At the same time, young girls can use the word as a vehicle for frank discussion of their concerns and as a tool for personal empowerment. Here are some young girls engaging in such an exercise, punching the air each time as they yell out VAGINA!
The V-Day project was conducted in many countries and this documentary focuses on three. The video montage introducing these international efforts included this charming shot of a girl in Afghanistan. It is hard not to feel compassion looking at these sweet faces in the knowledge of what they may face in their particular cultures.
The first country featured is the Philippines. Here is a still from a street scene in Manila.
Monique Wilson was the producer of her country’s participation in V-Day.
The Philippines has long been a hotbed of the sex trade, but an underdiscussed topic seems to be what the women went through during the Japanese occupation during World War II. Many women were drafted as comfort women and performed sex services for the Japanese soldiers there, yet the women who came forward with their stories were ostracized by their own families and communities. The reason for this is the establishment of Catholicism since the Spanish colonization of that country, for which the discussion of sexual matters is taboo. I could name a number of artists who have received flak for nudity and sexual themes in their own Catholic countries.
The next region is the American Badlands of the U.S. and how the poverty of the Lakota people exacerbates the mistreatment of girls and women. Especially touching about this segment was the prominent involvement of men in this movement. Wayne Weston shown here was the director of the Cangleska Outreach Program and there is a lot of material from Marlin Mousseau, one of its co-founders.
The point that Weston makes is how the role of a Lakota warrior, which all men should aspire to, has been distorted by the relentless interactions with the white man. It is now regarded as a sign of ownership and initiation when a man beats his wife and many actually look forward to the day they can do so. Weston’s contention is that a proper warrior’s duty is to protect girls and women, not to treat them as objects of one’s frustration. As the physically weakest members of human societies, women and especially girls receive the brunt of the stresses of poverty. On one hand, it is a delight to watch these children take part in the joyous practices of their culture, and yet there is a dark unspoken side that gets passed down.
Of course, plenty of women are on hand to tell their stories and contribute performances. Crooked Braid is my favorite in the whole film because it vividly illustrates the ambivalence created in the relationships between men and women.
The most moving segment takes place in Kenya.
The efforts of Agnes Pareyio is impressive but slow-going. In that part of the country, there are three different forms of female genital mutilation (or “female circumcision” as it is sometimes euphemistically called) practiced. She opened a Safe House in 2002 for girls who refuse to undergo these procedures.
The Safe House also functions as a kind of school to educate girls about the truth of the damage it causes. It is a challenge, because these girls too are ostracized and disowned by their own families. In the film, Pareyio even graphically explains the three different procedures the girls may be subjected to. It is easy for us in the West to condemn these practices, but I remember I was talking about the practice of male circumcision to some students in the U.S. and despite my insistence that it was an unnecessary mutilation, they said they would still subject their baby boys to it; they were concerned about the ridicule their sons would suffer otherwise. Fighting against an ingrained cultural practice is not easy, no matter how rational the argument.
Here are some Kenyan girls in native garb, dancing at a V-Day event.
V-Day: Until the Violence Stops also has special features covering the efforts in Croatia, Italy, Guatemala, United States (New Jersey), Afghanistan and Mexico. More information on the V-Day program can be found here.
V-Day (official site)
There has been criticism of Eve Ensler’s “V-Day” organization and its “One Billion Rising” event on February the 14th. First February the 14th is an important date in the struggle of Native Canadian women, it is the Annual Women’s Memorial March for Missing and Murdered Women, and Native Canadians feel they do not share the same oppression as European settlers:
Next, the “V-Day” functions within the framework of “carceral feminism”, relying on state power and repression to protect women from violence, which means in the US supporting the bloated prison system (the US incarceration rate is the highest in the world, in modern history it has been exceeded only by the USSR at the time of Stalin, or maybe Kim’s North Korea):
There are also other criticisms, such as failing to tackle the social roots of violence against women and girls.
You see, the topic of violence against women is highly political, there can’t be unanimity about what is to be done…
As always, you are a font of knowledge. Thank you. I know many women’s/girl’s issues are very political and even though Pigtails has enough problems with the issues of content and focus, I still felt we could not shy away from stories of this nature. I realize I am a man and women’s issues may not have the kind of visceral emotional impact on me as they do for many women, but I also realize that the nature of our civilization makes it virtually impossible for women to get serious press time that does not involve some type of bullying from men. Likewise, you make a strong point that perhaps white women do not experience the kind of oppression that Native Americans or Black Women do. Given the nature of today’s politics, though, it may be necessary for women (and supporters of their issues) to band together to affect political change.
It is disturbing to realize the rate of incarceration in the U.S. right now. It is a strong symptom of the almost nauseatingly commercial nature of its culture and, worse, how its ideology has been spread globally. Follow the money: investors in private prisons are not willing to sacrifice their lucrative investment for the sake of justice. And many incarcerations have been truly petty and strongly motivated by race.
Indeed, the problem of violence against women has its roots in the system and how to change that is an almost intractable problem. I have been watching some Sut Jhally videos lately and he seems to get to the root of gender roles, gender identity and the media. The great challenge to making substantive change in the right direction is education of the general public (the right kind of propaganda if you will). Given the natural cynicism we have due to relentless bombardment by advertisers, convincing people of the means of real change is challenging. On top of that, massive mainstream media consolidation means that anything that seems to disturb the current world order will get no press at all. Even the so-called free internet is being infected by this capitalist paradigm restricting the expression of non-mainstream ideas that deserve airing, including those of Pigtails in Paint.