Eve Ensler’s brave memoir is a wake-up call and a testimony to her fighting spirit.
Eve Ensler’s visit to India happened to coincide with the brutal rape in Delhi, a time when the nation stood poised at a solemn moment resolved in unprecedented solidarity to bring about speedy, effective and strong legislation along with a change in the perverse mindset. The One Billion Rising events initiated by Ensler around the world against gender violence and sexual orientation coincided with this national outcry. It was a moment of reflection, introspection and accountability on the pervasive culture of male-dominated power structures, on the pathology of apathy and the callous disregard of human rights.
Ensler’s presence in India during the days after the rape lent a new impetus and an awareness of our social malaise. The success of her play The Vagina Monologues inspired this galvanising feminist activist to create a global movement called V-Day, which stands for economic security and self defence as well as education for deprived women in countries such as Congo, Kenya, Iran and Afghanistan. After the V-Day events grossed more than a $100 million, Ensler utilised the funds to set up revolutionary women’s organisations around the world, particularly building the City of Joy in Congo to fight gender violence, discrimination, and genital mutilation. She has been of immense inspiration to Congolese women through her literacy movements, which have enabled them to express themselves through their literature and other art forms.
As is clear from her unflinching activism and her writings, Ensler has been passionately involved with the suffering of women and especially the brutality of violence in Congo, which becomes a heartrending narration in her engaging memoir In the Body of the World (Random House, India) where she remembers the nightmare of being raped by her father from the age of five to her early teens. Other than her harrowing childhood experience, she battled a long, painful treatment of uterine, colon and liver cancers which finally led her to connect with her body through all its agonising suffering and mutilation, ‘pricked, punctured, cut, scanned’. Her bodily pain and illness become the objective correlative of the devastation and ravaging of the world. This connection underlines her sense of responsibility towards the overall health and well-being of the world. The private and the public coalesce in her scheme of being, and from a state of ‘exile’ she finally returns to her body and, in turn, the body of the world: “It was like that moment when the Gulf oil spill happened, when I had that horrible infection in my gut and I had days where I just couldn’t separate the drilling in the Gulf and the explosion, from the horrible infection and tubes in my gut. I became porous, no separation.”
Having missed out on the love and care of her mother, Ensler writes: ‘A mother’s body against a child’s body makes a place. Without this body against your body there is no place. I envy people who miss their mother... The absence of a body against my body created a gap, a hole, a hunger. This hunger determined my life.’ Her body became a burden for her until she began her struggle to discover it through drinking and rampant sex that gave her the experience of being held by another ‘body’: ‘Why I needed people to touch me all the time. It had less to do with sex than location.’ Living in a state of exile and estrangement, her life would become a ‘machine’ trying to revisit her body. She began to question other women across the world about their sexuality, visiting more than 60 countries: “I went to Jalalabad, Sarajevo, Alabama, Port-au-Prince, Peshawar, Pristina. I spent time in refugee camps, in burned-out buildings and backyards, in dark rooms where women whispered their stories by flashlight.” This experience of women talking about their vaginas and their miserable sexual lives forms the text of The Vagina Monologues.
But then came her visit to Congo where she finally awoke to the horror of violence and pain witnessing two events: a young girl incessantly incontinent because she had been repeatedly raped and an old woman whose legs were broken at the hip when soldiers ravaged her. Horrified, Ensler writes: “All the stories began to bleed together. The raping of the Earth. The pillaging of minerals. The destruction of vaginas. They were not separate from each other or from me… I witnessed the end of the body, the end of humanity, the end of the world. Femicide, the systematic rape, torture, and destruction of women and girls, was being employed as a military/corporate tactic to secure minerals. Thousands and thousands of women were not only exiled from their bodies, but their bodies and the functions and futures of their bodies were rendered obsolete: wombs and vaginas permanently destroyed.”
Through the ages, men have used violence on the body of the earth and of the woman to inflict maximum damage to the environment and woman’s selfhood, feeling empowered when they hurt her at her most personal space. It’s a man’s prerogative to violate her so completely that she’s destroyed from the inside out.
Ensler had finally arrived where the experience of the world mimicked the pain of her diseased body ridden with cancer: “The cancer of cruelty, the cancer of greed, the cancer that gets inside people who live downstream from chemical plants, the cancer inside the lungs of coal miners. The cancer from the stress of not achieving enough, the cancer of buried trauma. The cancer that lives in caged chickens and oil-drenched fish... Cancer, a disease of pathologically dividing cells, burned away the walls of my separateness and landed me in my body, just as Congo landed me in the body of the world.” This was her reconnection with her body and the body of the world. Chemo became for her a ‘shamanic experience which could burn away things inside of me that needed to go’ leading to her transformation.
This deeply personal and evocative account lends passionate impetus to the vibrant movement for women’s rights, and hopefully, will result in a worldwide revolution of making patriarchy history and ecological consciousness the single most vital need of the hour. Her story, both raw and ugly, takes civic activism to new levels in a very alert and consciously written memoir that draws attention to the biggest irony and paradox in our society where we worship god in the form of a woman, we climb mountains and stand in queues waiting for her sacred darshan, and then we come home and spurn the woman in our personal lives, demean her, dishonour her as a lesser human being and think of ways of despoiling our Himalayas with new strategies of neo-liberalism and free market economy, a parallel reflected in the pursuit of minerals and wealth in Ensler’s candid view of Congo.
The book is indeed a wake-up call.