CAIRO (WOMENSENEWS)–The first Egyptian performance here of Eve Ensler’s "The Vagina Monologues" drew large crowds and raised about $1,200 for the country’s very first shelter for battered women.
But the show last week attracted more than just people and their money. "The Vagina Monologues" drew so much controversy that even feminist organizations chose to keep theirdistance.
The play, first staged in the United States in 1997, explores themes of identity, sexuality and abuse. It tackles topics that are taboo in the Middle East such as rape, masturbation and menstruation, using a mixture of shock and humor to move the audience. The show was organized by an amateur female theater group to raise awareness of domestic violence in Egypt. It was staged in English for three nights last week (Feb. 19 to 21) at a small theater at the downtown campus of The American University in Cairo, an English-language university established in Egypt in 1919.
The Association for the Development and Enhancement of Women, a women’s rights group that works in Cairo’s poorest areas, estimates that about 1-in-3 women in Egypt suffer from domestic abuse, a rate matching estimates elsewhere around the globe.
While most of Egypt’s legal system is based on French civil law, those covering domestic issues are derived from Islamic–Sharia–law. Domestic violence is a criminal offense in Egypt and is grounds for divorce, but penalties for men are often light. In addition, family codes of honor and strict gender roles discourage women from reporting abuse. In cases of rape, for example, unmarried women are sometimes encouraged by their parents to marry the rapist in order to preserve family honor.
The government has begun to recognize the problem and has opened 150 counseling centers for families suffering from abuse.
That’s not good enough, say the women who acted in "The Vagina Monologues." Tickets to the play were free, but donations from the standing-room only performances totaled about $1,200 and went to help buy supplies the first nongovernmental women’s shelter in Egypt, which is expected to open in Cairo within the year.
Invitations Kept ‘Confidential’
Due to its explosive nature, the play was not advertised and tickets were not sold in advance, although 100s of invitations were issued through foreign embassies and private e-mail networks. Attached to the invitations was a letter saying that "due to the sensitive nature of the play it is important [that] performances be by invitation only and remain confidential."
Local women’s groups kept an official distance from the showing. The only organization associated with the play’s Egyptian debut is the playwright’s own nonprofit corporation, the New York-based V-Day, which works worldwide to end violence against women and girls.
While this was the first public staging of "The Vagina Monologues" in Egypt, it was performed privately once before. During a December 2002 visit to Cairo, Ensler performed her own play at the offices of the Association for the Development and Enhancement of Women, a local women’s rights organization. At the time of that performance, Iman Bibars, director of the association said the play "helps raise awareness to the reality of how women live . . . that it [violence against women] is not something made up."
But that reality is not by any means widely acknowledged here. Last week, for instance, Muhammad Omar, a columnist for the leading Arabic-language daily Al Akhbar, reviewed a pamphlet from the association that contained stories from abused women.
"I didn’t pity any of them," he wrote. "I give every man the right to do what [these men] have done." He went on to say that only "ugly" women are abused and that domestic violence would end if there was "plastic surgery at the expense of the state."
Women’s organizations say domestic abuse will only end with more societal awareness about the issue. Still, some groups take issue with how "The Vagina Monologues" confronts violence against women, arguing that the play borders on pornography and offends Egyptian morals.
Rumors of Reprisal
Rumors in the Cairo feminist community suggest that the Association for the Development and Enhancement of Women faced reprisals from the Egyptian government for hosting the play last year.
The National Council for Women declined to comment for this story.
The Association for the Development and Enhancement of Women’s Bibars was out of the country and could not be reached for this story. Nobody at her office would comment on any aspect of "The Vagina Monologues." The American University in Cairo posted a sign outside the theater saying it was not connected to the production in any way.
While the Cairo show was generally warmly received by the audiences that sought it out, not everyone approved of the play, which includes monologues on lesbianism, tampons and orgasms. A few people each night walked out mid-performance, clambering over fellow audience members in order to reach the door.
During an intermission, one man called the play "disgusting so far" although admitted afterwards that it was worth seeing, if only for the comedic bits.
Sophia Al Maria, a 20-year-old student at The American University in Cairo, originally from Qatar, produced and directed the Vagina Monologues. She says that some people she spoke to thought the play was not relevant to Egypt. "But," she insists, "these issues are relevant everywhere."
Al Maria, who is Muslim, says that the bold nature of the play doesn’t contradict the values of Islam, noting that "Islam celebrates women and so by default it celebrates vaginas too."
Some cast members expressed concerns that their performances might draw the ire of their friends, employers, family or even the police.
"There is some personal risk involved, no question," says Lana, a 25-year old Saudi native who didn’t want her full name published. Despite the risks, "it is important for us to do this because women in Egypt and in the Gulf area don’t ever speak of what they want," she says.
About half the cast was Egyptian. One, who did not want her name published, said that although it was clearly written for a Western audience, "there is plenty that is relevant and interesting for Egyptians . . . But I would love to see it adapted into something more culturally relevant."
The women who acted in "The Vagina Monologues" call themselves "vagina warriors" and say that performing the play in English was just the beginning. The success of their performance has some of them thinking of expanding the show, performing it in Arabic or holding further performances in Cairo.
Christopher Walker is a Canadian journalist who lives and works in Egypt, where he writes for the Cairo Times and freelances for newspapers in the Middle East and Canada.
For more information:
Association for the Development and Enhancement of Women (ADEW):
National Council for Women: