Eve Ensler now calls herself V, for reasons she explains in her book, Reckoning, which is a collection of her writings and lectures over all the years she has been a vocal activist for the rights of women and the vulnerable. Best known for her play, The Vagina Monologues, equal parts startling and moving, she has worked relentlessly against violence against women. The play has been running since 1996 (it has been done in India by Mahabanoo and Kaizaad Kotwal of Poor Box Productions, and by others in translation); many celebrities have participated in the show, that talks of rape as well as female desire, and the title itself seeks to remove the taboos and shame attached to a part of the female anatomy. She then founded V-Day movement to raise funds to fight violence against women around the world.
If women in progressive societies feel safe and valued, that rug can be pulled from under their feet any time, like it did in the US, when there was a legal ruling against abortion in many states, thus pushing back women’s fight for control of their bodies by many decades. “Will we be passive, obedient followers of unjust laws?” she writes. “Will we be concerned with formality than justice acquiesce to corrupt and delegitimizing institutions — rather than devotion to conscience and each other?” Wherever activists are fighting for human rights, they would agree with her words.
V does not sugarcoat her own childhood suffering, abused by her father, and unprotected by her mother who preferred financial stability over the well-being of her daughter. In her years as writer, commentator and activist, she travelled all over, from the Berlin Wall at the time it came down, sites of the concentration camp of Theresienstadt, to Congo, where the violence against women is so horrific it defies the worst nightmares. In Congo, she has helped Dr Denis Mukwege, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning doctor, who has dedicated his life to surgically repairing the ravaged bodies of women, and trying to heal their minds. “How do I convey these stories of atrocities without your shutting down, quickly turning the page or feeling too disturbed?” she wonders.
Post the #MeToo era, and the instant, ephemeral outrage of social media, V acknowledges that age (nearly 70) might have rendered her irrelevant. Still she writes and speaks out for the women who have no power and no voice.
Reckoning is a sad, angry, wise, pessimistic book about many issues, but mostly about how women and children become the first victims of any social upheaval, whether it is war, right-wing resurgence, religious fundamentalism (the ISIS sex market), or even the pandemic.
The lockdown months were particularly tough on women, whose workload increased, income decreased, domestic violence shot up. Many women who were in low-end jobs were fired, while others who were in essential sectors like health care, warehousing, food packing, farm labour, were forced to work long hours without adequate protective gear. Many nurses had to wear garbage gowns instead of gowns and reuse masks. Female wait staff in restaurants had to put up with a more obnoxious kind of “maskular” harassment—male customers forcing them to take their mask off to see if they were pretty enough to tip!
“When women are put under greater financial pressure, their rights rapidly erode,” states V, “With the economic crisis created by COVID, sex- and labour-trafficking are again on the rise. Young women who struggle to pay rent are being preyed on by landlords, in a process known as ‘sextortion’. I don’t think we can overstate the level of exhaustion, anxiety, and fear that women are suffering from taking care of families, with no break of time for themselves. It’s a subtle form of madness. As women take care of the sick, the needy, and the dying, who takes cares of them?” Underprivileged girls who had to drop out of school may not be able to return, and that is most detrimental to the progress of women.
“COVID has revealed the fact that we live with two incompatible ideas when it comes to women,” she writes, putting the major problem into cogent words. “The first is that women are essential to every aspect of life and our survival as a species. The second is that women can easily be violated, sacrificed, and erased. This is the duality that patriarchy has slashed into the fabric of existence, and that COVID has laid bare. If we are to continue as a species, this contradiction needs to be healed and made whole.”
Patriarchy gains strength at times of crisis because, V, argues, “it has never truly been deconstructed; and that, like an untreated virus, it will return with a vengeance when conditions are ripe.” And the world has seen this happen time and again, and more often than not, stood by and watched helplessly as the fundamental rights of women are systematically erased. The Taliban comes up in any such conversation, but wherever there are conflict zones, there are atrocities against women.
When she keeps reiterating her hope for gender justice, V is accused of being naïve or too idealistic. She calls herself “passionate absurdist,” agreeing that struggling to change the world is to a large degree absurd. “And I am, at the same time, wholly committed to this practice.”
Kimberly Harrington’s review in The Washington Post states, “It’s hard to take issue with these good intentions. Unfortunately, V’s conclusions and solutions can sometimes feel vague, overly upbeat — or frankly unrealistic. And although her perspective consistently radiates from the personal to the global, times have changed. Does the world really need another older White woman (and I say this as an older White woman) speaking on behalf of communities we are not a part of? What more than two decades ago would have been considered the well-intentioned act of sharing a substantial platform now feels a bit like inserting an unnecessary middleman (or woman) into the mix.”
However, in a world with such a shortage of peace and compassion, looking away from a situation because it is too unbearable to contemplate is sometimes an easy way out. V looks ugliness in the eye and does what she can to help by communication and also direct humanitarian action. In the end, as she says in the book, “It is up to us. Up to us.”
Deepa Gahlot is a Mumbai-based columnist, critic and author.