Author of Vagina Monologues gives lecture on violence against women

Eve Ensler, author of “The Vagina Monologues,” spoke in Cohen Auditorium last night as part of the Merrin Moral Voices Lecture series sponsored by Tufts Hillel.

Ensler began by addressing the global feminist movement and noted that there was significant progress for the social effort in 2013.

“I’m utterly thrilled that this year has been devoted to working against gender-based violence,” she said. “I’ve just been witnessing and experiencing this unbelievable wave of energy that’s just rising around the world … Combating violence against girls and women is the central issue, if not the mother issue, of our time.”

Ensler shared some unsettling statistics about worldwide violence against women, saying that a third of all women will be beaten or raped in their lifetimes — a figure which does not account for other atrocities such as sex trafficking and genital mutilation.

“Violence is, simply put, the methodology that sustains patriarchy,” she said. “The majority of women on this planet have not only experienced violence, but have never felt safe or sure enough to share that story.”

Ensler said that her father physically abused her at a young age. The resulting trauma has inspired her to help prevent the same ordeal from happening to other women, Ensler said.

“I do not tell you this to enlist your pity,” she said. “I was wildly lucky in that I had the friends and resources to put that violence behind me, when a billion women on this planet do not.”

Ensler explained how she transformed the experience, alongside those of other women who have been abused, into “The Vagina Monologues,” which debuted in New York City in 1996. She noted that the play has inspired many women to discuss aspects of their personal feminine experience for the first time.

“Theater and the play had opened up the door, had opened up an energy for people to come forth and share things they hadn’t shared before,” she said.

Ensler addressed the play’s rapid growth in popularity — which she has labeled “the V-Day Movement” — and said that it is now being staged across the world in regions she would have never expected, including underground productions in Iran and Saudi Arabia.

“For 15 years, the movement has been happening,” she said. “It’s a self-directed, autonomous movement … we’ve never tried to get anyone to put on this play, it’s just been an offering. In many cases, people have risked their lives, they’ve risked their reputations, [to stage the show].”

Ensler said she was especially moved when she traveled to Islamabad for the first Pakistani production of “The Vagina Monologues,” in which women from both Pakistan and Afghanistan performed.

“Everybody just sobbed,” she said. “I realized theater had the potential to break binaries, to get people to open their hearts.”

Ensler said she hopes to see more men attend the play, as many who have done so have benefited from the experience. She also said that one of the most meaningful outcomes of the play’s popularity might be an increase in sex education worldwide.

“We teach people biology, we teach people math, and we teach people French — why don’t we teach people good sex?” she asked. “I really believe we need to talk about sex … it would radically decrease sexual violence.”

Ensler described some of her personal experiences that had inspired her to take action as a feminist. She said that it had been especially grueling to travel to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and learn of the numerous atrocities which have occurred against women in the years that the nation has been engaged in civil war.

“I had a semi-breakdown, looking back at it,” she said. “I was shattered. I really didn’t know if I wanted to continue living. After Congo, I stopped sleeping. I haven’t really slept normally since. If we allow women to be treated the way they are treated in the Congo, it will happen everywhere.”

However, Ensler said that when she shared her story with a group of Congolese women upon returning to the United States, they suggested that she start dancing as a means of taking the pain away. Ensler said it was then that she became inspired to found “One Billion Rising,” a global campaign which aims to assemble a billion women worldwide annually on Feb. 14 and have them dance together as a symbol of their collective strength and support for one another.

“The power of dance cannot be underestimated,” she said. “I believe that until our thinking and brain power is embodied, transferred to our bodies and mind and our souls, then change will not happen.”

“One Billion Rising” made a successful debut last year and Ensler encouraged the Tufts community to get involved in its second annual staging next month.

“We will dance,” she said. “It will be an outrageous, unearthing, uplifting dance. I promise you we will know justice.”