By Kevin Powell
I cannot even remember how I first heard the name Eve Ensler, but I know it was right around the time, many years back, when her play The Vagina Monologues, came into my consciousness. It was the late 1990s, Bill Clinton was president, and word of this dynamic woman and this dynamic play spread like wildfire. Eve starred in it herself at first, and then celebrities began to participate and The Vagina Monologues became an international movement inspiring and empowering women of all backgrounds everywhere. From the stunning success of this play came Eve’s next vision, V-Day, a nonprofit organization focused on ending violence against women and girls globally. As a man who myself once participated in this kind of behavior towards women I can say, without hesitation, Eve has been a huge part of my work as an ally and as someone who works directly with men and boys. One of the highlights of my life was participating in a conference Eve spearheaded on behalf of Anita Hill upon the 20th anniversary of the famous sexual harassment case between Ms. Hill and eventual Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Anita was rightfully saluted by all in attendance. But when Eve came out there was a kind of rock star affect that was simply beautiful. I remember Eve having such a great rapport with the audience, effortless, humbled, appreciative. I have been fortunate to have a few great conversations with Eve Ensler since the Anita Hill gathering. When we talk about leaders and visionaries on this Earth at this time I feel very strongly she needs to be at the top of any list. There is a power in her words, in her presence, in her sense of peace, even as she fights daily to challenge and change this world for the better. — Kevin Powell
BKN: For those who may not know or understand, why are you in the Congo and why now?
EE: I was just there in February and March. I have had the honor to work with women in Congo for the past seven years. I was invited there at the request of a man named Dr. Denis Mukwege. He runs the Panzi Hospital, it is in Bukavu in Eastern Congo. He is a gynecologist, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee, and he has been on front lines of the ongoing conflict in Congo, stitching up women’s bodies as fast as the militia was ripping them apart for fourteen years. I was so taken by his courage and nobility, his dedication to women of Congo. He asked me if V-Day would support their efforts and I knew we had to go. We began this extraordinary relationship with a woman named Christine Schuler Deschryver who is the director of City of Joy and V-Day Congo. I’ve been in many war zones and rape zones–in Haiti, in Afghanistan. But what was happening in Congo was beyond the imagination. There was this explosive synergy of capitalism, sexism, greed, and colonialism. You actually see the destruction of women’s bodies and vaginas in the name of corporate greed. It was shattering. We spent months listening to what the grassroots women of Congo wanted and then we found the resources for them to fulfill their vision. They own, envision, and run a place called City of Joy, a revolutionary center for healing and leadership in Bukavu. The women literally built it with their own hands. It houses 90 women for six months at a time. Everything is paid for—food, medicine, clothes, education. They have fled the bush, or come from extremely difficult circumstances. Many of the women have been exiled because they have been raped. Many come with gunshot wounds, nightmares, depression, with spirits that have been absolutely devastated. They undergo an extraordinary process of therapy and dance, theater and song. They learn computer training, literacy, rights, self-defense, agriculture, and many other skills. They graduate as leaders who have agreed to return to their communities and share and spread what they have learned and inspire resistance and change.
As of May 8, 2014, we will have graduated 400 women. They’ve started food cooperatives, many are challenging the government, some have gone back to school. They return to their communities so powerful and so strong. They are shaking up the Congo. In five years there will be 1000 women who have graduated. A year ago we found this amazing land, V-World farm, 20 minutes up the road from the City of Joy. It’s the size of Central Park and through generous donations we were able to buy the farm for the women. We have begun a collective working this farm, with fish, vegetables, pigs and fruits. It will eventually be a full-time collective with an agricultural school. Right now it is growing food for City of Joy.
BKN: Please let’s talk about violence against women and girls globally. Why should both females and males be concerned and engaged in this work to end gender violence? And what is V-Day and where did the idea come from?
EE: I honestly never understood how violence against women became a women’s issue. 95 percent of the violence men are doing to women. Women not only get violated, but then we take on the struggle to end it too…As a man, how could the destruction of women be anything to you but devastating? Think about the fact that the women being hurt are your mothers, daughters, sisters. We know many, many men who do not rape or beat women. The problem is good men are not speaking up. Until that happens I do not think we will end violence against women. I do not understand why men do not make this a central concern in their lives. Do they want to send their daughters into an unsafe world? It is not about blame. It is about responsibility. All of us are saying there is a global epidemic where one out of three women will be beaten or sexually assaulted in their lifetimes? How are we going to build a future of love and connection? And why would this not be of utmost concern to men? I think there are pockets of ignorance, and there are pockets of change. We’ve seen men stand up with their wives and daughters. I see a lot more men involved in this movement than I’ve ever seen before. Then you hit these pockets where there is profound ignorance. But there are people who are radically changing. Last month in the Congo Dr. Mukwege, the godfather of the V-Men’s Movement, and other Congolese men wrote a solidarity proclamation that everyone should read. (Click here to read the solidarity proclamation. Scroll all the way down for the English version). They read it in unison, aloud, to the media. That kind of activity is beginning to happen in places. The crucial aspect is beginning with children. As soon as they are aware we must teach children about love, safe touch, respecting boundaries, about it being okay for boys to cry and have feelings. And when children get older, sex education is the most important thing. But not just teaching about condoms and STIs and pregnancy. That approach always treats sex like a problem. I think we need to teach pleasure. What beautiful touch means. What reciprocity means. What being connected and what intimacy means. Boys get out there at a young age and the performance posturing is so great and ends up being hard and aggressive. Then girls go, “Oh my God worst experience of my life, I hate sex.” The spiral of sexual misery begins. Why don’t we teach sex the way we teach math or history? It is such a deeply crucial and healing part of life and we offer no road map. I think it is core to ending violence.
BKN: How do you respond to some males, and even some females, who say we unfairly demonize men and boys and never bring up female violence against males?
EE: We live in a racist world. Everywhere there is racism. We say to White people, “You really have to examine how you behave in the world. You are responsible for deconstructing internalized racism and being part of a ongoing process of decolonizing yourself.” I don’t think this is demonizing White people. I think it is making us responsible and part of a process of transformation, awareness and justice. We say to men you have grown up in a sexist rape culture. You are responsible for changing for your behavior and your consciousness. This is not demonizing. It is awakening.
BKN: If you could change how we define both womanhood and manhood in America, and on the planet, what would that be?
EE: I think we should just talk about humanhood. What does it mean to be a human? What does it mean to grow up as a human, to grow up in the fullness of your human self? What does it mean to celebrate ritual, imagination and the heart. This culture is sadly about consuming and striving individually at the expense of everything else. Why don’t we bring everyone up to be caring and compassionate, to believe that we are connected with everyone and everything around us?
BKN: What do the words “change” and “nonviolence” and “peace” and “love” mean to you?
EE: We are on the brink of an apocalypse here—the climate crisis, the wealth gap, the number of people living with scraps of no real income on the planet, the level of violence on the planet against women. If human beings do not shift from I to We, I do not know if we will be here that much longer. The path of love is the only path now- where we envision an economy and ethos that serves the many and not the few, where the earth is our mother and not a thing to be exploited, where we honor the most marginalized and understand that the freedom and safety of women will determine our future life. But, I believe in fierce love, pushing the edge, calling the robbers, the corporates, the elites, the pillagers and insanely wealthy to task, going whatever distance we need to go now to protect our earth and each other.
BKN: I want to go back a bit. Who were you as a girl, as a younger woman, and what would you say to those versions of Eve Ensler from where you are now?
EE: I think so much of my early life, even though I grew up White and middle class, I was completely shattered by the horrifically violent atmosphere I grew up in. I am a consequence of violence. That opened a door to many realities that I would not have experienced had I not survived what I did. I also think there are so many children being brought up in some form of violence, be it violence of poverty or sexism or racism or homophobia or transphobia. That violence takes a life to transform or overcome. I don’t think people should be spending their lives dealing with that. I think people should be thriving, playing, creating, evolving.
BKN: Did you think The Vagina Monologues would become an international phenomenon?
EE: No I just was hoping to put on my plays way in Downtown Manhattan and just survive. The initial response to the The Vagina Monologues was completely surprising to me. How many people came. How many people wanted to tell their stories. Then it became organic and took its own energy. It’s been an astounding journey and often I feel like I am just trying to keep up.
BKN: What are your thoughts on what has happened with feminism since the great movement of your generation, especially among younger women?
EE: For me I was literally brought up in the heart of the Civil Rights and Women’s Rights Movements. I cannot imagine what it is to say, “I am not a Feminist.” I felt empowered to tell my story in The Vagina Monologues because of Feminism. I found my voice because of Feminism. If there had been no Simone de Beauvoir, no Grace Slick or Tina Turner, no Dr. King, no Malcolm X, no Muhammad Ali, there would have been no change. They were models, leaders, artists who challenged and resisted the givens. And because of them, we learned to do the same.
BKN: I don’t know if you recall this but you said to me a few years back that we must create alternative spaces. Well, that is what BK Nation is, including this website where your interview will appear. Why are you so adamant that alternative spaces be created, and by and for who?
EE: I think one of the problems with the capitalist mainstream is this: no matter what you create to respond or resist it they will buy it. I remember when jeans were a radical notion in the 60s and now they are 300 dollars a pair. What I have found is that even when you try to transform existing structures they are so powerful they often overwhelm, seduce, and control you. Terence McKenna says, “The culture is not your friend.” I am not sure we can change this culture. But I think we can rise above it and create a new world. That’s why I so deeply believe in alternative spaces. That’s why I believe in the power of art and activism.
BKN: What makes you happy, what keeps you going after all you have seen and done?
EE: I think the thing that has always made me happy is being in the struggle, in a community of struggle with other people. At the City of Joy when I hear the sound of women singing and dancing or watch a young woman who arrived with bullet wounds who is now alive and beautiful and in full possession voice and ready to take on the world, that makes me so happy. Writing and giving voice to what I am feeling makes me happy. And supporting people in finding their voice, passion, outrage and resistance. There is nothing better than that.
V-Day is a global movement to end violence against women and girls through benefit productions of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues and other artistic works.