20 years after The Vagina Monologues, I’d like to say that feminists have won. But patriarchy is a virus and we are in the midst of a massive outbreak

The first time I ever performed The Vagina Monologues, I was sure somebody would shoot me. It might be hard to believe, but at that time, 20 years ago, no one said the word vagina. Not in schools. Not on TV. Not even at the gynaecologist. When mothers bathed their daughters, they referred to their vaginas as “pookis” or “poochis” or “down there”. So when I stood on stage in a tiny theatre in downtown Manhattan to deliver the monologues I had written about vaginas – after interviewing over 200 women – it felt as if I were pushing through an invisible barrier, and breaching a very deep taboo.

But I did not get shot. At the end of each performance of The Vagina Monologues there were long lines of women who wanted to talk to me. At first, I thought they wanted to share stories of desire and sexual satisfaction – the focus of a big part of the play. But they were lining up to anxiously tell me how and when they had been raped, or assaulted, or beaten, or molested. I was shocked to see that once the taboo was breached, it released a torrent of memories, anger and sorrow

And then something I never could have expected took place. The show was picked up by women all over the world who wanted to break the silence in their own communities about their bodies and their lives.

Memory one. Oklahoma City, the very heart of the Republican heartland. A tiny warehouse. The second night, word has gotten out about the play and there are too many people and not enough seats, so people arrive with their own lawn chairs. I am performing under what is essentially a light bulb. In the middle of a monologue, there is a great scuttling in the crowd. A young woman has fainted. I stop the play. The audience takes care of the woman, fanning her and getting her water. She stands up and declares what the play has emboldened her to say, for the first time: “I was raped by my stepfather.” The audience hugs her and hold her as she weeps. Then, at her request, I continue with the show.

Memory two. Islamabad, Pakistan. The The Vagina Monologues is banned. So I attend an underground production where brave Pakistani actors are performing the play in secret. There are women who have come all the way from Taliban Afghanistan in the audience. Men are not allowed to sit in the audience, but instead sit in the back, behind a white curtain. During the performance, women cry and laugh so hard their chadors fall off.

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