Eve Ensler: "Afghanistan is everywhere"

The novelist, playwright and activist behind "The Vagina Monologues" talks about gender apartheid, the dangerous shedding of burqas and the seeds of violence we've begun to sow.

Published November 26, 2001 8:00PM (EST)

Eve Ensler went to Afghanistan and did not ask the women she met about their vaginas. There were, she says, more pressing issues to discuss: "Women were being beaten, and were starving, and were living in orphanages. Going in and saying, 'So, let's talk about your vagina' -- it seemed so glib."

Instead, Ensler -- the acclaimed playwright, novelist and one-woman dynamo behind "The Vagina Monologues" -- has focused her concern for the women in Afghanistan on the much larger issue of the nation's gender apartheid. After visiting Afghanistan a year ago, Ensler embarked on a quest to raise both awareness of the crisis and funding for the Afghan feminist activist group RAWA, which surreptitiously aids the oppressed women under the Taliban. Her efforts, including a sold-out celebrity fund-raising performance of "The Vagina Monologues" (this as part of the worldwide anti-violence benefit "V-Day"), have helped her become one of the Afghan women's most vocal advocates.

Ensler has built her career on the relationship between gender identity and violence against women -- as manifested, in part, through women's beliefs about their own vaginas. She doesn't pull her punches; by her own admission, she's a radical feminist who makes people face that which makes them most uncomfortable. Her goal is to put herself out of business by eradicating worldwide violence toward women, which she hopes to achieve within 10 years. And yet she faces this daunting task with a wicked sense of humor, a breathless energy and an uncanny ability to pull everyone she meets -- from Glenn Close and Hillary Clinton to the waitress in the café where we sip our coffee -- into her orbit.

Not surprisingly, Ensler has strong views about the current situation in Afghanistan, along with an unorthodox and idealistic vision of how we might bring an end to the cycle of violence taking place there.

How did you first become aware of the situation in Afghanistan?

I've been aware of the women in Afghanistan for quite some time. Probably ever since the Taliban came to be. I've always been obsessed with Afghanistan. I have some very mystical connection to it. There are places in your soul: Bosnia and Afghanistan are places I feel like I've been to before.

I was going to do a world trip for my new book, "The Good Body" -- a play about women around the world and how they shape, change, mutilate and hide their bodies in order to fit in with their particular cultures -- and I realized I absolutely had to go to Afghanistan. Here's a country where women are essentially disembodied. Their bodies aren't a part of the culture at all. It seemed like the furthest extreme of what I was looking at.

And you went in with the women of RAWA?

We had found RAWA on the Web, and had asked if we could come and interview them. We met them in a hotel in Pakistan where they interviewed us to decide if they would take us into their clandestine world. Then they made the decision to trust us and took us in.

There were these incredible orphanages and schools in Pakistan, where girls were being brought up as young RAWA women. It was really incredible -- they were being brought up as revolutionaries. There was one group of orphan girls that I interviewed in a circle; they all told their stories, and each of them cried and the others would hold them. It was the most moving thing. Each of them would say that RAWA saved their lives, RAWA had become their mother. These girls were their family, their sisters, and they were devoting their lives to liberating the women of Afghanistan.

I was completely smitten by them. I may not be the most thorough investigator -- that's why I'm not a journalist. People move me and they enter me and then I write. It's funny, because I've become RAWA's greatest defender: I feel like I'm defending women who are struggling for their lives!

Why do you use the word "defender"?

There are a lot of people who say all kinds of things about RAWA -- that they are Maoists, they are communists. They are very militant, they are very pure. They are very radical. And I'm very drawn to that. People call them uncompromising, and they are right. But bravo! I feel a kindred spirit.

Do you feel that the crisis in Afghanistan, and the attention that is being paid to the women's situation there, has helped your mission to eradicate the oppression of women? Will this foment radical change?

I hope so. I think everything remains to be seen right now. The situation is so volatile in Afghanistan, and so unexamined in the deepest sense. I am shocked to see how profoundly we have not thought any of this through -- not surprised, but shocked.

What was your reaction when you heard that the Northern Alliance had marched into Kabul, and women were shedding their burqas?

I was so confused. It's exactly how I feel all the time these days: I feel like we live in a state of total ambiguity. Part of me was weeping to think of women and men being freed, that men could shave their beards, listen to music and dance in the street; and then I also felt utter terror about what was coming down the road.

Do you think the Northern Alliance will behave themselves because the world's eyes are on them?

Wouldn't it be ideal if the Northern Alliance marched into Kabul and Kandahar and all these different groups lived peacefully? But I think we're on the verge of a civil war.

The fact is that we, as a country, have no foreign policy. What's our policy? If you don't have a policy that you believe in, with a mandate, you are always shifting. Ten years ago we thought the exact opposite: We supported the Taliban, we created Osama bin Laden, we built those bunkers! So what do we believe?

To me the most disturbing thing going on right now, second to the bombing of all the children and women and tortured people of Afghanistan, is that we haven't had a discussion about foreign policy. There's not a discussion in sight, anywhere, about what we're learning from this.

We have, however, had lots of discussions about eradicating evil from the world.

I have problems with this "evil" thing. Evil is a really problematic word. I run a writing group in a woman's prison, and most of the women are murderers who are called evil people, and they are not. They have done something terrible, and that's an absolute fact. They are complicated, multifaceted, mind-blowing, unusual, original, disturbing angry people. So is the Taliban. That is my feeling about the Taliban.

Evil is reductionist. It destroys ambiguity and takes away duality and complexity; it says that they are dark and we are light, they are evil and we are good. That's all a lie. We all have the capacity for great goodness and love, and we all have the capacity for terrible deeds. I've seen the best people behave terribly in the worst situations, and the worst people behave well. Who knows why? There are a lot of things that govern us. But I'm not going to accuse anyone of evil.

Why aren't we creating hope and goodness in the world [instead of eradicating evil]? There's poverty, inequity and justice: How are we as a country going to rid the world of these? How are we as a country going to be bigger than we've ever been? [We need to] expand our generosity, and see ourselves as people who have responsibilities to those who are poor, or who don't have education or access to opportunities. I have heard no word of that.

Instead, [our approach] feels very arbitrary. We have targets, perhaps; we are bombing, and we are working with a completely brainless operation [the Northern Alliance]. And we are banking the future of Afghanistan on this? No -- because we aren't thinking of the future of Afghanistan. I would not be surprised if we were to find Osama bin Laden and then get out of Afghanistan, the way we have time and time and time again. That's what made this problem.

The devil's advocate would say that if we stay in Afghanistan and take control of what's going on there, that we are going to be accused of imperialism.

I don't think we should stay there, I think there should be some U.N. force that goes in there as a transitional government and helps establish women's rights and democracy. I don't think it should be a stability force, as the British are talking about right now, but a world- and U.N.-supported government.

And what about women in all this? Sixty-five percent of the population of Afghanistan is female, and not one woman has been entrusted with ruling. I haven't seen one woman represented anywhere in Afghanistan.

If I've learned one thing, it would be this: The violation and desecration of women and the undermining of women is an indication of everything. It is the primary symptom of a civilization gone awry. Look at America: We have one of the highest levels of violation of women of any country.

Where is the next Afghanistan? People said years ago that there was trouble brewing in Afghanistan, just by looking at women's problems there. What other countries do you see on the verge of boiling over?

I think Afghanistan is everywhere. I hate to say it, but I think if we do not really address what is going on with women in this planet -- that one out of three women in the world will be raped and battered -- it's basically gender oppression. Fifty-eight girls under the age of 14 are raped in South Africa every day. There is not a country in the world right now where the kind of violation that is going on to women is not out of control. I'm talking epidemic. I can't even talk about it because people can't tolerate hearing it.

To me, we are at the end of something, if we do not understand that patriarchy has done this.

So, what's your solution?

First of all we have to address what's going on, that we are living in a paradigm of escalating violence -- based, in my opinion, on corporate greed and the emerging corporate globalization of the world. Women are commodities within that structure: They are bodies, serving or not serving. I think we have to stop and say, "Is this the paradigm we want to keep living in? Is this the paradigm we want? Do we want to perish as a people?"

James Gilligan has a great book called "Preventing Violence." He basically says that humiliation and shame are at the core of everything: You humiliate people through relative poverty, through racism, through child abuse -- he goes down the list. The restructuring of the world will look at the un-shaming and recovery from humiliation, in all the forms that it takes.

That's what we should be setting out to think about. Thinking how we are going to end violence; in my case, violence towards women. What is violence towards women, the mechanisms of it, the trajectory of it? And then, what are we going to do to stop it?

Considering who's in power in the government right now, do you think this kind of ideology is likely right now?

I don't think this is going to happen during the Bush administration. But you never know, sometimes the strangest people are accidentally leaders.

I have fantasies of an international party, a world party. We start to see ourselves as a world and come up with a global party. I have to say that I think it is the future, that nation-states are over.

I take it that you are opposed to the bombing. Yet it seems to have rid Afghanistan of the Taliban.

I know in my body, more than I know anything, that violence only creates violence. And there may be a momentary, apparent victory in Kabul, but that violence has created in so many other people seeds of things that will come to be, in our lifetime, as deadly as anything we've seen. Having been a person who was beaten into submission, quieted, stunned and made mute by terror, I know that there comes a time when you get people back, because that's survival. It's an organic part of what violence does. So I don't believe in the perpetration of it anymore.

I'm not saying I don't believe in self-defense; if someone comes after you, I will protect you, but I think that's very different. Our terror is better than their terror? I don't believe that.

Do you have any problems with Islam? Some have accused it of being a religion that is problematic for women.

Is there a religion that is not sexist?

I believe that the body is gorgeous and sacred and women should walk the earth in anything they want to wear, any day. If someone is wearing the veil because it makes them feel sexy, exotic, erotic, fabulous, empowered, delicious, protected -- power to them. If one is wearing it to shut oneself off, to not exist, to not be present, to not have a voice, to turn over all their rights, to not be sexual, not be alive -- I have issues with it. That's the bottom line with any piece of clothing in the world. It has nothing to do with veils.

I feel that way about religion, too. If religion liberates us to the desire of our bodies, makes us feel good about our vaginas and makes us believe we have love in our hearts -- genius! If it makes us feel bad or guilty or shameful, I can't get with it.

Do you think that, though this may sound perverse, the recent tragedies have been good for the world in terms of jump-starting a dialogue?

I think there's nothing good ever about thousands of people being killed -- nothing. Nobody deserves it; they weren't asking for it; they didn't sign up for it. I don't buy that at all. I don't believe the way you teach people is by beating them and killing them.

But if those lives were not to be lost in vain, we had better wake up right now. We have to use that as a calling to our deepest selves to come up with a way out of this. I actually believe it could be that. I've been lucky: For five years I have been watching this little seed of an idea, this little idea of a vagina, spread and spread around the world. The play is in 45 countries right now, and 30 languages. V-Day this year will take place in 600 colleges in 200 cities around the world.

For me, it's been a great model of what a global party could be like. I've seen how decentralized community-built organizing could really work. If we could agree with certain basics: That all human beings are entitled to food, shelter and education, and that could be a tenet, we could take that and go with that. Ending violence is the most essential thing, we could work on that. Where do we all come together?

By Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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