In February 2015, my sister sent me to an audition for The Vagina Monologues. At that time, I had no idea what the monologues were about.
I Googled it to find out more about the history of how Eve Ensler had come to interview women from around the world from different socio-political backgrounds to write the play.
The first day of the rehearsals, I found myself seated in a room full of very young women—many of them in their 20s. I was the oldest.
Bivishka, who was moderating the conversation, asked us to share the names in our mother tongue for the word ‘vagina’. Interrupted by giggles from the others in the room, I struggled to say the word I had only ever heard spoken as a forbidden term.
A flurry of synonyms went around the room, some cute, some a bit jarring for the way they have been used in the way of hurling a condemnation. Regardless, the girls had pulled together synonyms from across the country.
I came away wondering why I had found it so difficult to say the word, even as there was just one word in my mother tongue I knew for it— and the meagerness of it should have made it precious. Precious, also for everything it connotes, from menses, to desire, to the battle against subjugation that history has bracketed it under.
As The Vagina Monologues workshop progressed, I heard and used the word more than I had done in my entire life. The show even opens with a dedicated monologue to the term.
In the years that followed, Kathmandu has seen two groups performing the Monologues annually. One by seasoned theatrics, and the other by women from different professional backgrounds.
The shows have been a huge hit in Kathmandu. We needed something like this, a space to be heard and seen where we talk about the most intimate experiences of our lives—ranging from desire to assaults, to othering.
The performances also cater to a certain ‘class’ of the ‘Kathmandu gentry’, rubbing the fissure in our society on our face. Personally, it felt like a word deeply connected with each one of our lives, had been probed. And by that I’m referring to our mothers, the very reason we all exist.
I was shuddering when I performed the monologue of a woman who had been raped by soldiers. Not just because of my own experience of having known someone who had been through it, but also because it made me think of the vagina as a metaphor for assault. When I went back to my seat after performing my monologue, I could not stop sobbing and for the rest of the show, Akanchha held my hand.
One of the shocking revelations that emerged after the recent arrest of Bhagirathi Bhatta’s alleged rapist and murderer was that he said he had attacked her to get back at her father.
The assailant said that Bhagirathi’s late father had raped a woman in his “clan” which had been settled by the two families but that his act of revenge had been to treat Bhagirathi the same way.
It was not the man who was to be punished for his crime, but a woman close to him. So, between two men who had sexually attacked women, what we lost were two women, in a way that reduces them to owning vaginas, instead of individuals with emotion and intellect. I use the term ‘reduce’ to denote the way the attackers acted.
Recently, I pulled out my copy of Naomi Woolf’s Vagina and re-read some parts that had been important to me when I read it some years ago. My friend who had gifted me the book had said: “Here’s your vagina,” when he handed it to me, letting the word step out of the boundaries.
Last month, we heard the term ‘vagina’ brandished in public in Kathmandu, when Hima Bista addressed a crowd of protestors. “My vagina will vote you out,” she said, speaking just that sentence in English, motioning down the boulevard towards Singha Darbar.
The crowd cheered at her fiery words, while the statement also gave way to conflicting social media posts and trolling, which often happens to women who are more vocal than not. This was also evidenced in the threats received by Sapana Sanjeevani and others as a backlash for their powerful words at the recent street protests.
Does the term ‘vagina’ represent people outside of the binaries? While the vagina has been synonymous to womanhood, being woman is not synonymous to having a vagina.
The first instance many of us are aware of the term ‘vagina’ being used in public as a slogan for protest was in Michigan, after legislator Lisa Brown was banned for using the term in the senate during a discourse related to an abortion bill. Protests followed later with some women carrying placards that read: ‘Vaginas brought you into the world and vagina will vote you out.’
When Hilary Clinton was running for US presidency in 2016, we heard more debate along those lines with women arguing on different sides of the vagina. ‘I am voting with my vagina: for Hilary Clinton,’ author Kate Harding had written, after the press quoted actress Susan Sarandon as saying, ‘I don’t vote with my vagina.’
There have been other variations like ‘There’s no such thing as voting with your vagina’ by Jessica Grose, where she argues why she would not vote for Hilary Clinton just because she is a woman.
I have been tempted to ask other women what they think about the use of the term, ‘vagina’. When I ask my mother to say the word in Newa, she refuses, calling it a swear word.
I turn towards Sanu Didi, who is helping my mother do the laundry and ask her. She goes into fits of giggles and says: “What is the use of saying it? It has a purpose, which is why we all use the toilet. But yes, it is also how I have a daughter, and how my daughter has a daughter now.”
Suburban Tales is a monthly column in Nepali Times based on real people in Pratibha’s life.