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Women's Witness

Eve Ensler and colleagues enlist Miriam Thomas and Nnenna Freelon to fight violence against women

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Most would agree it's the most disturbing, most poignant section of The Vagina Monologues. In simple, poetic and chilling language, a refugee tells of her violation at the hands of soldiers. Of what was once "a live wet water village," the woman says, "I dream there's a dead animal sewn in down there with thick black fishing line. ... And its throat is slit and it bleeds through all my summer dresses."

The woman was a Bosnian refugee, attacked in 1993 during the depths of ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia.

Playwright Eve Ensler returned to Sarajevo, Bosnia, last week, during a tour of Central Europe. The occasion was a V-Day celebration in Bosnia, and Woman's Day in Afghanistan, two events all but impossible to imagine within the last few years. In places where unspeakable acts filled nights one year ago--and 10 before that--Ensler is now witnessing public performances of The Vagina Monologues, featuring actresses from Chechnya, Kosovo and Montenegro, performing the narratives in their own native tongues.

On the day of the U.S. invasion in Iraq, Ensler ponders the changes in Afghanistan, Bosnia--and the ones to come in the Middle East.

"It's been 10 years since the fighting in Bosnia," Ensler says, "and it's distressing to see how slow reconstruction has been. Looking around now, you can still clearly see that the war had a deep impact on this place."

She pauses. Then says, "And here we are, about to do it all again in Iraq."

She cites the drawn-out rebuilding process in Bosnia and Afghanistan as a caution to those who think the aftermath of the current Iraqi conflict will be brief. And for those who would celebrate the progress in both regions for women, Ensler has two words: "not yet."

"Yes, there have been noticeable improvements," she says, "but it's incredibly precarious, incredibly tenuous and if attention is removed, I guarantee it will all be taken away. Nothing is on solid ground in terms of security for women. Yesterday, a woman was shot in Kandahar for teaching English. The Taliban is not ruling, but 90 percent of the women are still wearing burkas because no one feels safe."

The latest word from Human Rights Watch supports Ensler's findings. In the city of Herat, religious police are arresting women who are accompanied in public by men unrelated to them. The women are then given gynecological exams to see if they have recently had sex. In parts of the country, whatever progress had been made in women's rights is being negated by warlords and religious factions who are regaining the power they exercised before the war.

It's a situation, Ensler notes, which particularly places Afghan women's rights activists in peril. "They're in a much more dangerous position now than they've ever been," she says, "because they've come out and identified themselves as supporting women's freedom. They're in the open now."

Then Ensler cites the event she calls "a total metaphor for everything that's happened in Kandahar."

She was one of hundreds of women at the unveiling of a sculpture dedicated to the women of Afghanistan, at an event sponsored by an Afghan woman's union one afternoon two weeks ago. "It was concrete," Ensler remembers, "and it came up to my waist. It showed two hands clasping each other. The next morning, it was gone."

Ensler's play continues to provide a witness against violence to women. At this point, over 1,000 performances of the work have been scheduled across the globe this year, including this week's stand at Durham's Carolina Theatre. By the end of last year, The Vagina Monologues had raised $14 million to fight violence against women around the world. Ensler projects that by the end of 2003, that number will have increased to $20 million.

Toward that end, the upcoming Durham edition enlists the help of two well-known locals. Former regional newscaster Miriam Thomas joins New York actors Gretchen Lee Krich and Joyce Lee on stage tonight through Friday night and again on Sunday. Singer Nnenna Freelon takes her place in the hot seat Saturday night.

Carolina Theater marketing director Thomas "TeKay" King recommended the pair to Ensler's colleagues for the Durham dates.

"It made me think about what my own early messages were," Freelon said in an interview last week, "both from family and the culture. Good girls didn't talk about 'IT,' you know. I think it's also a metaphor for larger issues: not just the physicality of the vagina, but everything that is powerful and female and hidden."

"Eve Ensler doesn't need my props," Thomas says, "but I just applaud how well written it is. It's all over the place: it's vulgar, and it's very vividly insightful too, I think. The way it approaches perfectly normal biology ... it's an amazing read."

What may be nearly as amazing to some is the fact that neither Freelon nor Thomas has had much experience in theater. After citing some community theater in her past, Freelon observes, "I'm a storyteller: That's what I do inside my music. There's an element of theater in what I do as a singer." For her part, famous broadcaster Thomas isn't nervous, despite no prior theater experience on her resume: "By now I can hold my own with an audience, I reckon."

By Sunday, both will have joined over 3,000 women who will perform the work around the world this year. "It's been performed to members of Parliament and to small villages in Zaire," Ensler says. "I know it's had an impact on liberating women and giving women pleasure."

At the same time, the playwright remains painfully aware of the fractures in the world. "There are two existing, opposite things. There's an emerging world where women and vagina-friendly men are trying to reduce violence," Ensler notes. "There are also women and men who are driven by selfish agendas that do not have the greater good at heart."

"You can see the pattern all around the world," she continues. "Afghanistan represents a completely unrealized promise, an incomplete promise. And the same thing's happened in Serbia."

"I've realized one thing in my travels," Ensler notes. "It is in between the cracks of broken promises where terrorism is born. If we abandon Afghanistan--and it's already happening, trust me--bad things will happen in the world."

For hope, Ensler cites "this emerging international peace movement--because it's something we've never seen before. In this civilization we've never seen this large a group of people mobilize around the world in the cause of peace."

"I think there is a great awakening right now," Ensler says. "When I think that actors in 1,052 productions are celebrating women in Pretoria and Bosnia I am incredibly hopeful. We just have to keep going and emerging, and hopefully create this new energy before these other people blow up the world." EndBlock

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