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Who Decides What People Should See or Say?

The statement made by the Ugandan Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting to Journalists released on February 10, 2005, was extremely disturbing. Finding criticism for a play that advocates the rights of women and condemns violence under the section "corruption of morals" was even more bizarre. As the Special Representative to V-Day for Africa I am bewildered by the outrageous statements made by the Minister. It is sad that the rare occasion that the topic of violence against women tops the public agenda is under such a context.

There was a time when governments in Africa and other places said that human rights and democracy were Western. Before that education was western. Articulating and challenging a system was given to the West. And now a woman expressing her pain, shame and body is a western concept. Sometimes I wonder about the amount of time that some government officials spend having meetings and making decisions about a play that has the word "vagina." I cannot help but wonder what would happen if they spent the same energy on education, human rights, justice or the conditions under which the people live. Why is it that even the president has an opinion about the word "vagina" but ceases to express his opinions about issues of more importance?

Whatever you know about the play, let me remind you that "The Vagina Monologues" is entirely testimonial, written from interviews with 200 women from different places, different religions, with different cultures.

What women had in common in every country, in Uganda, Kenya and in the US, is the joy and celebration of their bodies as often as the pain and shame of violence against them. The issues are far beyond each country and a culture alone.

In "The Vagina Monologues", there is a story of a woman witnessing the birth of her grandchild. There is a girl who has been circumcised, telling her feelings and pain. There is a woman beaten by her husband. There is a woman remembering the rape by soldiers during a war. Are these only Western women? Are these not Ugandan women, Egyptian women, Guatemalan women, Indonesian women as much as American or European women?

The reason "The Vagina Monologues" has been performed by women in 76 countries and translated into 35 languages is because it is universal, not Western, because these stories are the stories of our sisters, our mothers, our daughters, ourselves, everywhere that we are in the world.

I can only guess that the word "vagina" in the title is truly where your objections and concern lie. I too had a problem with "vagina" in the title when I first heard about the play. But when I saw "The Vagina Monologues" I understood that I was taught never to say anything about myself or my body, not even in its defense. And that silence, that censorship, is the fuel that allows violence to ignite and burn like a flame that will never go out.

Because if you can't say it, then you can't own it. If you can't own it, then you can't protect it. If it's violated, you can't protest or complain. Because it never belonged to you, if you can't even say it, claim it, or name it.

I know that you cannot really understand. But I think you can agree that in Africa the female body is generally adored, loved. In a continent where women are very comfortable with their bodies, where African culture is not ashamed of the human form, why is this one word, this one part of women so taboo? How can the eyes, nose, breasts, hips and backside be celebrated but the vagina is illicit?

If the vagina is a dangerous or dirty word to be punished for using, then the real thing is obviously an even more potent target to be punished for having. Do you see that when women break silence about the vagina, they can break silence about the violence?

In a major shift "The Vagina Monologues" empowers women and men to hear and speak openly about sexual violence they have experienced, witnessed, feared, or fought. Once women have had an opportunity to discuss deeply intimate (i.e. vaginal) experiences of violence in a venue of safety and security, they learn they are no longer alone with their pain.

Silence gives way to songs and stories, stories to conversations, and conversations to action from speaking privately to speaking publicly, educating, advocating, and making change, from the life of an individual to the attitudes in a community and the laws of a country.

Mr Minister, this issue is far beyond just a play. It is over the freedom of expression and art and people having to decide what they should or should not see, like people deciding who should and should not speak on their behalf. In Africa it is time we treated our people like adults and let them make their own decisions about their lives, rather than assuming they are simply incapable.

Hibaaq Osman
V-Day Special Representative for Africa, Asia & The Middle East