As reported in The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2023/feb/13/v-day-womens-rights-activism-gender-feminism
The playwright V (formerly Eve Ensler) and a group of activists started a global movement for women’s rights in 1998. On V-Day’s 25th anniversary, they tell us what happened in their communities after they took action
The pushback against women in this moment is terrifying and vast. When we started the global V-Day women’s movement after the publication of The Vagina Monologues, saying the word “vagina” out loud was taboo. It’s not any more, but our work remains as pressing as ever.
Although we may not have ended violence against all women, trans and non-binary people, we have made a mark. We have disrupted the normal, been instrumental in changing laws and traditions, and deepened the understanding that we cannot end the violence without looking at all the intersecting violences: racism, capitalism, climate catastrophe, imperialism.
In the last 25 years, we have opened safe houses and the City of Joy in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and supported women in telling their stories and coming back into their bodies. We have stood in solidarity with communities struggling for liberation in the aftermath of Black women being murdered by the police in the US, and with women grappling with war, femicide, militarism, forced migration and resource depletion in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Palestine, Congo, Haiti, Mexico, and in Indigenous communities from Brazil to South Dakota.
Most importantly, we have built a global network of gorgeous solidarity between women. These are some of our stories.
– V (formerly Eve Ensler)
Asali DeVan Ecclesiastes. Photograph: Ryan Lash/Ted.com
It was after Katrina. Life was intense – you had to be two, three of your former self to make it in the city. You had to work your job, work on your home, work through the infrastructure failures, the bureaucratic BS, and work like crazy to keep from going crazy.
Mama Carol [poet and co-founder of the Ashé Cultural Arts Center] called a few times and told me to come write with a group of women about what we’d been going through. I didn’t want to, not with my lil’ bit of free time. I was having too much fun forgetting. Going out to see the bands, poets, drinking hard and dancing harder – living the glorious New Orleans barroom nightlife. Nah, I ain’t know no Eve Ensler … yeah, I heard of the Vagina Monologues, NO, I don’t feel like being in no white lady writing club talking about the federal flood of my black home.
But you can’t avoid or say no to Mama Carol, so one day I went.
All the women there were authentic, diverse, talented, wiiiiise, intergenerational, a smart AF collective of creative geniuses who helped make and remake community every single day. It will always be one of the biggest honors of my life to have been part of their group. Then there was V, a jazzy lil’ woman, a black bob, red, red lipstick, and the most mischievous eyes I’d ever seen outside of a child. I met those eyes and became an instant co-conspirator.
Together, we all created Swimming Upstream, a work of literature and performance art that is still the most honest, heart-wrenching, fun and beautiful telling of the Katrina story I’ve ever seen. Today, as I lead the same center where we met 15 years ago, I carry with me how to be a disruptive dismantler of systems and a luscious lover of life at the same time. Passion is just as appropriate in boardrooms as in barrooms, and often more impactful (unless you’re an old-school twerker like me, lol).
It’s a joyful revolution y’all, get onboard.
Dana Levinson on stage in 2017. Photograph: D Dipasupil/Getty Images
In 2016, I took part in a production of The Vagina Monologues that toured women’s incarceration facilities, and one men’s facility, around New York City. The cast was a mix of experienced actors and formerly incarcerated women. To say that the experience was life-changing is an understatement. Not only was it eye-opening as an exercise in self-education, but I am a trans woman and had begun medically transitioning only a little over two years prior.
The experience of being brought into a group of women and made to feel a part of it was transformative. I performed the monologue that V had woven together from the experiences of multiple trans women, and through it, I felt seen. Because fundamentally, the monologue recognizes the experiences of trans women, no matter the era of our lives, as female experiences. It shifted hearts and minds through art.
The following year, I spoke at the V-Day Artistic Uprising in Washington Square Park. I had spent my weeks since that November, like many others, out on the streets protesting the incoming administration. I was acutely aware of the rising anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and the distinct challenges that my community would face in the coming years.
I remember arriving in the square and hearing V say that it was an uprising for the rights of women and all those who face gender-based violence – a term that includes all women, cis and trans, as well as other genders that face violence at the hands of misogyny. Immediately, I knew that I was in a space that recognized my experiences as valid, and most of all, that I wasn’t a newcomer to dealing with it.
When I was called slurs in elementary school because I wasn’t performing my assigned sex as expected, was that not misogyny? When I was beaten up in middle school for the same reasons, was it not misogyny? When I had to switch schools because of the violence I faced from boys who saw me as a threat because of the way I walked, talked and dressed, was that not misogyny? This noxious form of oppression didn’t care what kind of body my femininity was housed in, only that it was to be punished.
While that experience may have been different from the experiences of cis women, what unites us is the common marginalization at the hands of a too-common form of oppression. Despite our differences in experience, we are in this fight together. Liberation for all means liberation for all .
Célia Xakriabá. Photograph: Edgar Kanayko Xakriaba
Brazil is currently under an international microscope. What happens here affects the world, and the global community agenda has a direct impact on the work we are doing.
It is particularly important now, given the humanitarian crisis under way in Yanomami territories. The atrocities these communities are bringing to light demonstrates how deforestation, the invasion of Indigenous territories by wildcat miners, and the rape of Indigenous girls , among other crimes, are spreading in the wake of violence against our homelands.
In 2019, we launched the Not One More Drop of Indigenous Blood moving protest, which took us to 20 European cities in 12 countries over a 35-day period, and culminated in our denouncing the Bolsonaro government before the international criminal court at the Hague.
V-Day’s importance in our lives lies in its collective nature, and it helped support events on Earth Day and another organized by the Ancestral Indigenous Warrior Women group, which enabled us to mobilize a caravan that drove across 10 Brazilian states last year to debate the bioeconomy, violence against women, and, most of all, the leadership role Indigenous women can assume in various decision-making forums, including universities.
Over the last four years of the Bolsonaro government’s dereliction of duty, the only reason Brazil did not lose its place on the world stage is because the Indigenous peoples ensured its continued relevance. Indigenous peoples have been recognized by the UN as the best solution for curbing climate change: we account for 5% of the world population, but we protect over 80% of its biodiversity. In this, the global community also has a fundamental role to play, strengthening and, above all, funding the work being done on the ground on our Indigenous territories.
Now, as a congresswoman, I will be assuming the role of coordinator of the congressional investigation into the socio-environmental, socio-economic and socio-territorial crimes committed by the previous administration. Our voice will be heard: with the new minister for Indigenous peoples, Sônia Guajajara; the head of the Indigenous affairs foundation (Funai), Joênia Wapixana; and the secretary for Indigenous health, Weibe Tapeba, we are now occupying key spaces, and that is sorely needed.
Rada Borić. Photograph: V-Day
I was there in 1998, at the Here Theatre in New York City, when women in the dark cried softly or laughed shyly at the words spoken in The Vagina Monologues. At last, women talked about their vaginas – something about their own lives that needed to be spoken out loud.
I was there, over the years, in the theaters of Santa Fe and Belgrade, Nis and Helsinki, Sarajevo and Sofia, Brussels and Bukavu, Skopje and Stockholm. I witnessed how women waited for the play to end to share their stories, or to say the word for “vagina” in their own languages for the first time: pička and vittu, pilu or mindza. I was there at Madison Square Garden when over 18,000 women and men freely shouted “cunt!”
I was there when the V-Day movement was born – a global movement for women like me, who decided to use the energy that flowed from this art for political change. I was there when, across the Balkans, women who had been raped in the war sang My Vagina Was My Village as it became an anthem and helped heal war rape traumas. I was there in many places to witness how the words of pain, grief and tears grew into a resistance.
I was there in the squares where we organized events, protests and performances demanding justice for those who had survived violence and rape during conflicts and wars, under the patriarchal military regimes in Afghanistan or Iran, Congo, Syria or Palestine – and to celebrate our victories with dancing and singing. I was there when, in my own country, we changed the law to get compensation for survivors of sexual violence in war. I am here, 25 years later, even more determined to never give up until all women are free.
Agnes Pareyio and girls at the safe house. Photograph: Paula Allen
I underwent female genital mutilation at the age of 14. After I was married at the age of 18, I joined the women’s NGO MaendeleoYa Wanawake, where I was the district coordinator. It is at this time that I turned my efforts towards female genital mutilation (FGM).
V asked me what I needed to do my work. I told her I walk for days from village to village talking to the Maasai people about the catastrophic effects of FGM. If I had a Jeep, I could get around a lot faster. V-Day bought me a jeep, which began to radically change my work. She then asked me what else I needed. That is when I told her my house was small and I could not accommodate the girls because most of them had started running to my house. I needed a shelter that could accommodate them. V-Day sent me money that I used to construct a safe house where the girls were protected from being mutilated while going through their academic life.
Twenty years later, hundreds of girls have lived there, avoided mutilation and early childhood marriage, gotten their education, jobs and independence. They have gone to universities and they have become role models to their siblings, and are now influential women in their communities.
V (center left) and Christine Schuler Deschryver. Photograph: Paula Allen
Across decades of horrific wars in the Congo, women’s bodies became the battlefield, with multiple militias targeting us with the most extreme and cruel violence. Nobody seemed to care. We were alone with our own ghosts. I stopped believing in humanity.
When V first visited us in the DRC in 2007, her energy was different from the passive people who had come before, agreed it was all terrible, left and never came back. She seemed to know exactly who I was and encouraged me to deploy my long wings and be the real me – a leader. She trusted me and I started trusting myself again.
In 2008, V-Day invited me to New Orleans with thousands of people from around the world. Being in the Superdome with 30,000 people standing up for the DRC was something that I will never forget; the level of emotion and commitment to ending the violence we faced was very high. Those activists went on to raise $500,000 towards the building of the City of Joy, the only place in the DRC run by Congolese women for Congolese women, where after being raped and mutilated, they can physically and mentally heal and return to their communities as leaders.
As climate catastrophe affected our communities, we became ecologists, creating the V-World Farm, where we have planted over 30,000 trees and educate women abouthow we will protect our Mother Earth in this time of emergency. We have graduated 1,902 women.
I’ve spent my entire life being called “too much” – too tall, too expressive, too radical, too emotional, too empathic, too feminist for an African woman. I couldn’t find my place. It all changed. When you are valued, you are trusted, you are loved, you can move the mountains.
Lu Pin during a televised intervention. Photograph: One Billion Rising
The first time I heard about the V-Day movement was in 2001, when an American woman came to a monthly reading group that some friends and I had started, and brought a video of Harvard students performing The Vagina Monologues.
In April 2011, my colleagues and I began hosting a civic activism center in Beijing and were able to bring together some passionate young feminists. We began to imagine how we could speak out against gender violence in China.
I recalled a news photo I had seen on the internet of Turkish women protesting against domestic violence. I was impressed by the wedding dresses worn by some of the women at the front of the protest. So I purchased three white wedding dresses online. We staged a short protest in the downtown area of Beijing, dressed in bloodied white wedding gowns and wearing scar-like makeup, in front of many surprised and curious onlookers.
The police tried to stop us. In a country where protest is illegal, feminism is taboo and gender violence has long been normalized, this unprecedented public action by young feminists was significant. The action, known as the Bloody Wedding Gown or Wounded Bride, was one of the earliest public advocacy campaigns by young Chinese feminists.
Three years later, five Chinese feminists, two of whom had played the “brides”, were arrested before International Women’s Day 2015 for planning a campaign against sexual harassment on public transportation. Between then and now, the Chinese feminist movement has been constantly repressed, but it has also been resilient and growing. In 2001, there were probably only a few hundred people in China who identified as feminists, whereas today there are millions.
Women from the Alianza Nacional de Campesinas with Mily Treviño-Sauceda. Photograph: Alianza Nacional de Campesinas
In my youth, I worked with my father as an organizer for the United Farmworkers. As a family, we fought exploitation in the fields where we worked. Many of us were fired for demanding dignity and respect.
I quickly learned about the abuses that farm worker women experience – particularly sexual harassment and violence. But we had no space to express ourselves. In spaces dominated by men, women were told to be quiet. We began to envision a women-led movement that would create safe spaces for farm worker women. So we started where we stood, and began to band together to fight back.
The American farm worker women movement had been working parallel to the V-Day movement for decades. Our paths finally crossed in 2012. That day, representatives from our 15 member organizations were present. Together, we organized many of our national convivencias (gatherings) and a funders’ briefing. We also launched a Campesinas Rising campaign to raise awareness about our plight. These events are critical for farm worker women to share their personal experiences and devise strategies for change.
Our courage grows as we persevere and bring visibility to campesinas ’ struggles, which include the fight for fair wages and access to healthcare, and the imperative to break glass ceilings and shatter stereotypes that have been forced upon us. No woman should be abused, and that includes women doing the essential work in our fields.
Zoya, an Afghan activist. Photograph: Joyce Tenneson
Under the first rule of the Taliban, the world was silent about the suffering of Afghan women. The news of their crimes – such as public executions and beheadings, stoning to death, cutting of hands and more – were never covered by the media.
There was a rare exception: the women of V-Day. They came to be with us in Afghanistan. They published the story of Zarmina, an innocent woman who was brutally killed in the sports stadium in Kabul in front of her children and the public. They supported the City of Knowledge, an educational center that ran for many years and helped educate many women so they could thrive, becoming lawyers, doctors and businesswomen with good-paying jobs. We will never forget that.
Now, in our darkest hour, as the Taliban try to crush us again, nobody is more firm in their solidarity than our sisters in V-Day. In the meantime, we will continue to fight for every woman until all forms of fundamentalism, ignorance, inequality and oppression are eliminated.
Monique Wilson at a V-Day event. Photograph: V-Day
I began producing The Vagina Monologues in September 2000 in the Philippines. In December that year, I flew to Tokyo to perform the part of the play about rape in Bosnia, as part of the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal that would take the Japanese emperor and the imperial Japanese army to task for the sexual crimes they committed against women during the second world war.
The women who were raped then had been labeled “comfort women”, as women in this position have been labeled all over Asia. As I sat on stage preparing to perform the monologue, I was overcome with fear and emotion. I was about to perform in front of 300 ”comfort women” who were only now speaking about it, and I suddenly felt that I had no right to be up there on the stage speaking a story that was not my own. But then, from the stage, I saw women who had survived this abuse weeping with recognition.
From that moment on, the play became a catalyst for awakening, for consciousness and awareness raising, for collective political action. The play’s intersection with Gabriela’s Purple Rose Campaign – to end sex trafficking of Filipina women and children – had long-lasting impact, including the passing of our anti-sex-trafficking bill (following 12 years of delay and inaction) after we performed the play in the Philippine congress.
That moment in Tokyo made me experience sisterhood and true interconnectedness. But most of all, this sisterhood gives me a sense of how powerful a movement can be when women come together – of how the world can change when women’s voices are heard collectively. We are never going to be silent again.