Friday, March 13, 2009

If your vagina could talk...

The stage is set up like a jazz lounge, as the cardboard and glitter words reiterate on the back drop, the small tables are surrounded by six young women dressed in fitted and low cut, feet donning stiletto heels bounce atop crossed legs; thirty minutes late but right on African time, the production begins with a murmur of nervous giggles.
“In Ewe, they call it ‘kulo.’”
“In Ga, they call it ‘tuntun.’”
“In England, they call it ‘fanny,’” she pauses dramatically as she turns around, showing the crowd her full figure, “even though in America that means your booty.”
I saw an advertisement for the open audition weeks ago and was instantly curious: Vagina Monologues being performed in the most conservative country I have even visited was not an event to be missed. My mind reeled at the thought of how this play, controversial by its own American standards, would be accepted in such a patriarchal, predominantly Christian, traditional country. Would they be supportive, engaged, offended, confused, or intrigued? Would Ghanaian women want to talk about their vaginas on stage, in front of the whole world, and would their peers pay to hear them rant and rave in western feminist fashion? For the weeks between the audition advert and the production announcement I entertained these ideas, hypothesizing and analyzing, until less than a week before the production date my apprehension found an outlet with the help of Edna.


During the bus ride to campus from our hall’s anniversary party the last week of January, Edna and I occupied ourselves with small talk until my interest in working with high school students came up. “Oh, that’s nice,” she said, “I have a program you might be interested in.” No sooner had she uttered the words, “HIV prevention workshop” and I was ready to talk business. With career goals pointing more and more towards sex education, this was exactly what I had hoped to participate in while living in Ghana. We discussed the goals of the program, I shared my previous experience working within the field, and we parted ways enthusiastic about working together in the coming weeks. The day drew near and I felt familiar nervousness. High school students want to learn this stuff, I told myself; just remember objectivity, empowerment, and cultural relativity and the rest will flow at its own comfortable pace. The first two I was more than prepared to deal with; the latter, however, presented the real problem, I would come to find out.
I was unprepared for the degree to which this small group of willing high school students was in the dark about the basics of sex and sexuality. In many countries, mine own included, students are being let down in a very intimate way. Claiming myth as fact, selling church ideology as empowerment, and a strategy of scare tactics involving gruesome films and photographs where how I ‘learned’ about sex and, unfortunately, the group of students sitting before me that first Friday afternoon were even more starved for information. After introducing ourselves and trying to loosen the students up, we opened the floor for questions. In what seemed like an instant, the students were paying attention. While not all raised their hand, they all listened to the questions being posed and locked their eyes on the front of the room as we addressed them. One student, a gregarious first year female named Mena, raised her hand and with confidence I could have never shown under similar conditions, asked, “What, exactly, I mean, what is masturbation?” Okay, I thought, this is good. I took a breath, collecting my words before they began to spill. Edna, however, took the reins.
“Masturbation is bad. Studies show that if you do it you can become addicted and later in life your sexual relationships will not be satisfying.”
Houston, we have just lost cabin pressure.


The young women on the stage were met with a mixture of acceptance and indifference. The crowd was overwhelming white and female as, unfortunately, were the actresses. Of the seven young women, 4 were American and they were all given the more powerful, high energy monologues. The first night, the monologues remained just as Eve had spoken them, mentioning US cities, decrying the comfort of tampons (which do not really exist to African women), and chanting ‘cunt.’ Later nights, however, subtle changes brought the monologues closer to home. While there were cat calls, the few men in the audience generally played along, even if some seemed to be ignoring the stage in what appeared to be complete discomfort. There were rumors after the first night that the show was to be canceled, “too vulgar” they said. While I would not have been surprised had this occurred, luckily, it did not. The show continued in the same manner as the high school workshop: while the message was important, it was not as easily passed as I might have hoped.
As a global community, we still struggle with the idea of gender equality. Whether it be professional, emotional, or sexual, there are few cultures that do no profess a difference (if not deficiency) between the sexes. Fuel to this problem is the way in which many young people are learning about sex and sexuality. Young girls are taught about their bodies as the sexually acted upon or as the carriers of babies and boys know even less. While it might be easy to point fingers at this institution or that government, there is no such effortless solution and I cannot bring myself to say that it is about personal choice or open-mindedness because I am seeing more and more that choice and any manner of mindedness are not often in the cards.