“My Vagina Speaks Many Languages”—a title so shocking that it is bound to echo throughout the tiny former Soviet states of Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. That’s precisely what some women’s rights organizations are aiming for by dubbing their cross-border project—featuring the powerful play, “The Vagina Monologues”—just that. Their aim is to stop violence against girls and women and to propel regional and domestic discussions on the issue, a topic that’s often deemed too taboo for public acknowledgement.
The Women’s Resource Center in Yerevan has been spearheading the national debate on domestic and sexual violence in Armenia. This year, they will launch the first ever Armenian performance of Eve Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues.”
For those unfamiliar with it, the play tells the stories of various women, covering topics such as sexual violence—battery, rape, incest, female genital mutilation, and trafficking of women—and love, sex, menstruation, childbirth, and masturbation. It has been performed in over 140 countries, and in over 48 languages.
“I first thought, years ago, to translate it into Armenian—just to distribute—so women here can read it and get inspired. Then, one of our partner organizations in Tbilisi, Georgia, suggested translating it to their language. We had a discussion with them to do it regionally, and [to] also include Azerbaijan—[through] another partner organization we knew there,” said Lara Aharonian, the founder and director of the Women’s Resource Center, in her statements to the Armenian Weekly.
To support anti-violence organizations across the globe, Ensler founded the V-Day organization. In an effort to raise awareness about injustices against women, and to impact women’s lives in a positive way, V-Day allows local groups to produce a select number of monologues, under strict guidelines and as a fundraising and advocacy tool for organizations fighting violence against women.
Audiences in Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan will soon have the opportunity to absorb the play in their native tongues, and even dialects. “‘The Vagina Monologues’ is being translated into three languages,” noted Aharonian. “Until now, we [have] translated five monologues into Eastern Armenian and one into Western Armenian. We will do one in a Barskahay [Armenian-Iranian] dialect, and will try to find other accents also (Gyumri, Kapan…).”
The organizers are hoping to hold the opening of the play in Tbilisi by the end of February, under the headline, “My Vagina Speaks Many Languages.”
From Tbilisi, the production will travel to Yerevan and a few regional cities in Armenia, where it will be performed solely in Armenian. “If everything goes well, we will do it every year as a tradition, and [will] also include local monologues,” said Aharonian, who hopes to reach larger audiences in the future.
In order to produce the play, an organization must be a registered member of V-Day. Although there are over 200 monologues, the production must last about 90 minutes, limiting the number of featured monologues. “The monologues are already chosen by the official V-Day organizers in the US. We officially registered with them and they are very excited with helping us, since it is the first time for the region and in Armenian. We will also send them the Armenian version for their archive,” she explained.
Aharonian ‘s encounter with Ensler’s work goes back to her college years. “I was first introduced to ‘The Vagina Monologues’ performance by Rada Rovic, who is a professor of women’s studies in Zagreb, Croatia,” said Aharonian. “[I] learned from her how they used [the play] as a way of voicing women’s life, hard topics like sexual violence and other related issues in a very artistic and direct way… This way, they could touch many women’s lives and get them to speak about things that they would find very hard to do so otherwise.”
Years later, as the director of the Women’s Resource Center, Aharonian decided the play would be an effective tool in discussing topics that are often avoided or suppressed. “I found that this is a good way for the women in Armenia as well to voice their issues, talk about things that are very difficult to talk about, the body, the violence, [and] women’s lives,” she said.
Chilling, powerful, and often graphic, the monologues can draw strong emotional responses from audience members. “My Vagina Was My Village,” for instance, draws from the testimonies of Bosnian women who survived the rape camps, and is a harrowing rendition of their accounts.
The center held a casting session on Jan. 20 and now has a group of six women ready to work on the production. Maral Bakavan, the project coordinator, will supervise the performance.
“The performers are regular women from different ages and backgrounds. [They] will practice with Maral for the next weeks,” said Aharonian. “For the Yerevan opening, we are thinking to do it somewhere at the end of March—during women’s month in Armenia—in a small theater, and donate the raised amount to the sexual assault crisis center.”
V-Day requires that profits be donated to an organization fighting to end violence against women and girls. Ten percent of that must be donated to the organization’s yearly project spotlight. This year, the focus is on Haiti, where violence against women and girls is high—at 74 percent prior to the January 2010 earthquake, according to V-Day, and increasing ever since. On Feb. 4, the organization is opening its all-female village in the Congo, a country devastated by war and where rape is systematically used to destroy communities. The village, called “The City of Joy,” will be a place for rape victims to recover from their psychological and physical traumas.
Each year a new monologue is added to the list. Ensler wrote this year’s monologue in memory of Myriam Merlet, a woman’s rights activist and writer, who died in the Haiti earthquake.
In Armenia, reactions to the play have been varied. Given its title, some are expecting a much different, R-rated production. “The media is very interested to know more here—but more for sensational reasons. They never heard about this, and they think it is an erotic show that we will be doing, so they call us, inquire,” said Aharonian.
Others have voiced criticism or disapproval. “Of course, some nationalist youth are starting to criticize, mock, and demean us on their blogs, but we are getting used to this kind of reaction,” said Aharonian. “We are taking our precautions. That is why for the first year we will aim more at a smaller audience and build it up gradually.”
In a Dec. 2010 op-ed published in the Guardian, Ensler wrote, “Vagina is the most terrifying word, the most threatening word, in any language of any country I have ever been to. Even when the vagina is worshipped in theory, as the yoni is in India, it is denigrated in practice. It is more reviled and feared than words like plutonium, genocide, and starvation. In many countries the word for female genitalia is so derogative or disgusting, it cannot be spoken of in public. In a few places, there is no word in the language for vagina at all.”
Misunderstandings or fears aside, awareness of women’s issues is rising in Armenia. In recent months, the Coalition to Stop Violence against Women in Armenia was formed, and planned and executed the “16 Days of Activism to Stop Violence against Women” dedicated to the memory of a 20-year-old mother—Zaruhi Petrosyan—whose brutal murder sent shockwaves throughout Armenia. The Women’s Resource Center has been at the forefront of these efforts, pushing the envelope. And like it or not, “The Vagina Monologues” will encourage an undaunted discussion of women’s concerns and rights in Armenia.