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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Sunday, March 06, 2005

entry arrow8:02 PM | Dumaguete Does 'Vagina,' One Last Time

Dumaguete may be, in the words of playwright Eve Ensler, the most "vagina-friendly" city in the Philippines. On March 11, and for the fourth year in a row -- and in what may be its last staging -- it will see the benefit performance of Ensler's groundbreaking play, and in turn, help smash some stereotypes about the place of women in Philippine society. And raise awareness and funds for local organizations working to end violence against women and girls.

It hasn't always been easy for the people behind the show.

When people first hear about The Vagina Monologues, they immediately think of several things. First, that it must necessarily be obscene and virtually pornographic -- after all, it has the word "vagina" in the title. Second, that it is controversial. And third, that it cannot be appropriate -- and the usual complaint that comes with that reason is this: "It may be worthwhile, but I don't think our community is ready for it."

Which is sad, because ultimately, TVM is none of the above, two out of three. Yes, it is controversial -- but that is a given, considering the taboo over the subject matter: the vagina -- "a body part that thirty years after the sexual revolution people are still embarrassed about naming aloud."

Nobody talks about the vagina, and renowned critic and feminist Gloria Steinem, in her introduction to Ensler's book, rightly put it when she referred to that culture of stultifying silence by calling herself as a relic of the "Down There Generation." In soft parlance, the best way we refer to it is through strange euphemisms like "flower." Since language is primarily expression of oneself, this culture of silence is by virtue an imprisonment of identity, a socially-approved denigration of a gender, and a culturally constructed shaming of the natural.

It is neither obscene nor pornographic. What it is about really is women's -- and humanity's -- liberation from machinations of discreet evil that can produce, for one, such accepted practices as vaginal mutilation in the form of clitoral circumcision that is tolerated and practiced widely in many societies in the world. What Ensler does in TVM is to present voices of women's oppression, and does it through the one thing that symbolizes and unites them -- the vagina, and talks about the symbolic persecution of their gender -- the silencing of discourse about the vagina.

It is frank, it is enlightening, it is explicit, and it is occasionally erotic, but it is never pornographic. Unless, of course, one finds the sketch of a Somalian woman being raped in a camp ("... they took turns for seven days... smelling like feces and smoked meat, they left their dirty sperm inside me...”), or a traumatic tale of vaginal circumcision vaguely sexually arousing.

It is not inappropriate, but it is necessarily discomforting. Yet that happens when a community -- especially one that is, by choice, closed off from enlightening discourse in the name of misplaced conservatism (Resty's favorite phrase) -- encounters something that has been culturally submerged and swept aside for "decency." But there is nothing indecent about a play that only seeks to instruct and to educate, and to placate long-held notions of female oppression.

When plans were being discussed to import The New Voice Company's local production in Dumaguete City in 2000, the initial reaction was a mixture of excitement, titillation, amusement, and hesitation. The organizers -- led by Silliman University's Bing Valbuena -- faced brickbats by moralizers who deemed the whole enterprise "a parade of porn." For the last three years, and every year in commemoration of Woman's Month, they seem to have weathered the criticisms and the hindrances.

Those who were hesitant were invariably people who turned out to not have heard of the play or of Ensler before -- or were sadly uncomprehending in the prison of their literalness. "Vagina," they read, and immediately think of the ugly and the gross. They were hesitant, even horrified, over the word 'vagina' in the title. "Can't you just change the word in the title? Like 'The V Monologues' or something?" they would suggest.

"They did not comprehend that the word 'vagina' was the sum and substance of the play. To change the title was also essentially running counter to the message of the play," Ms. Valbuena said.

Does Dumaguete City deserve to see The Vagina Monologues again, in commemoration of V-Day? "Without doubt, it does, if it is an academic community that thrives on liberation, and on respect of women," says Ms. Valbuena. "To admire Ensler's efforts may be the true reflection of all we long to be as a community: transparent, intelligent, respectful, enlightened, always surging forward to the pursuit of understanding what makes all of us human."

(The benefit performance of The Vagina Monologues, directed by Laurie Raymundo and Ian Rosales Casocot, will be on 11 March 2005, at the Luce Auditorium. Tickets are available at the Silliman University Student Government Office, the SU Psychology Department, the SU Peace Resource Center, Sted’s, and the Lautner Ads and Services Officer.)

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