July Issue 2003
Interview: Nadia Jamil and Ayesha Alam
“So what if you are in control of your own sexual pleasure?”
– Ayesha Alam
Q: One of the main themes of The V Monologues is women taking control of their own sexual pleasure, in a very permissive sense. How do you think The V Monologues applies to a country like Pakistan where there is a very strict code of morality, and where most people believe in sex only within the bounds of a heterosexual marriage?
Nadia Jamil: Well, I don’t know if this society believes in sex only within the parameters of marriage. Everyone in Pakistan has sex — let’s face it, not necessarily only if they are married. Marriage is an institution that exists all over the world, but it does have more importance in Pakistan.
This play, however, is not just about taking control of one’s sexual pleasure — although why that should be less important because we are in Pakistan, is something we should think about. Whether or not you are married, or whether or not you are in Pakistan, taking charge of one’s own desire and sexual needs is a great step to take. Also important is identifying your own sexuality and being comfortable with it, whatever gender you would like to have sex with. For me, The V Monologues is a funny play. It is about being able to sit down and laugh about things that are painful, to talk about them. This only happens when one is comfortable with the issues and comfortable with oneself.
Ayesha Alam: A friend of mine, who comes from a conservative family, told me that this play should be called “breaking the silence.” So what if you are in control of your own sexual pleasure? If you are married or not, this is your own choice. The point is that the sexual aspect is a very important part of womanhood. Sexual molestation is an occurence that is very common in Pakistan. It has happened to most people I know, including myself, and I am very open and honest about it. I know a girl who told her mother about being molested by a maulvi and her mother said, “So what, so was I, it happens to everyone.” So it is treated as the norm and no one says anything. Why? Because sexuality is something people think they should be ashamed of, especially women. Forget having fun — although this too is important — I feel getting people to talk about it in an open atmosphere is a liberating experience.
Q: But the play does not deal simply with issues of sexual molestation. It also deals with very controversial topics: the message is that lesbianism, under-age sex, multiple sexual partners, prostitution, etc. is nothing to be ashamed of. What do you say to the critic who is strongly against sexual violence, but believes that the context of The Monologues prompts promiscuity and perversion?
AA: No, this is missing the point, it is not so at all.
NJ: There is not a single piece in The V Monologues that encourages promiscuity and only one piece is clearly about a woman with multiple partners. A lot of the pieces are about rape, how a woman is perceived by her husband within a marriage, about the clothes that she wears etc. Monologues in which the woman was not married to the man aren’t about sex, but about how the woman perceives her own body. The play is a celebration of womanhood. I suppose some people will see this play as immoral. Some people still think that Shakespeare is immoral. It depends on who you are. I think censorship on PTV is immoral.
AA: It would have been very easy to sell this play out, run it for over two weeks and make oodles of money. But we didn’t do it. Why? Because we didn’t want people to think it is an exhibitionist piece. We are not promoting promiscuity or free sex. I didn’t invite a lot of people I knew to the play, because I knew they would see it as sleazebag act. There are certain parts of The Monologues that one might not agree with. But at least I am clear about my choices, which is something not everybody can say about themselves. If this play opens the door and makes people realise that they do have choices, the play’s objective has been achieved.
Q:Think about their sexual choices in a religious society that discourages all non-heterosexual sex or sexual activity outside the bounds of marriage?
AA: Look, the play makes people aware of sexual repression and encourages them not to feel ashamed.
Q: If this was the aim, would it not have been better to rewrite the monologues to apply more to the sensibilities of this society?
AA: That would have entailed writing a whole new play for Pakistan. We were performing Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues. We did use some local words in the script. It is important to remember that this play is not just for Pakistan, but for women everywhere.
NJ: The only step we can take is to translate the play into the venacular. Those would be different monologues that deal with different sensibilities. But Ensler’s play is written for an audience that understands certain sensibilities and a certain language. The play puts a finger on the pulse of issues that affect women.
AA: A lot of men came over to me and said I had given them something to think about — a new perspective on women. I was scared of performing this play in front of men. In Islamabad, we did it just for an all-woman audience. Nighat Rizvi was the driving force behind this venture; she is responsible for bringing the play to Pakistan. She saw the play in New York, registered with V-Day and that is how the process started. A lot of the women there encouraged us to open up the play to men, as they felt it was something they needed to hear.
Q: Did their reaction surprise you? The V Monologues is a play that is not very pro-men. Sexual repression of women, using women as a weapon of warfare, and men not understanding women are major themes. The elite male audience that watched the VM, however, are probably not like the stereotype in the play.
AA: No, I don’t think the play bashes men at all. The only aggressive piece is ‘my angry vagina’ — and it has nothing to do with men. It is about consumer products and about public perception.
NJ: It is true that men do control women by their sexuality. But, there is one piece in which the man is the one who sexually appreciates the woman in a way that makes her realise her sexual potential. This play is not about women screaming out their sexuality. It is not aggressive and it does not promote a clash of sexes. It is about women being comfortable with themselves first. Even in the lesbian monologue, nowhere is the man blamed. The girl does not say she did not enjoy sex with men or that she was a lesbian because they were cruel to her. She only says that men were intimidated by her.
AA: The piece on Afghanistan was specific to that country. Focus on the ‘my short skirt monologue,’ in which the woman says, “My short skirt has nothing to do with you.” I love that statement.
NJ: Even in the Afghanistan piece, nowhere does the woman blame the man for putting her in purdah. She only talks about what it feels like in there.
AA: Well, we do mention that this happens mostly in Africa. These are facts. Nothing is being done to stop it. Why? Because we don’t talk about sexuality.
NJ: It is important to expose this play to a certain sort of man who is interested in understanding women. The majority of men are not interested in this. They would just come to the play to get sexual kicks. There is no point exposing this play to such people. It is important for the monologues to not be sensationalist. It is very easy for that to happen — even the name The Vagina Monologues is controversial. We don’t want to sensationalise sex or the vagina. We have to think ten times before we have this play in Lahore. Lahore is a very provincial place. Even billboards with women on it, are being splashed with paint. So if one wrong person comes to this play, we might be in danger. It is not a risk worth taking.
Q: You don’t think a woman having mutiple orgasms on stage is sensationalistic?
NJ: It is in the context of women talking to women. Before we staged this play I made a mental note of the worst thing that could possibly happen. My biggest fear was that while I was orgasming on stage, someone would pull out a gun and shoot me! Women have been mutilated and shot for a lot less in this country. There were two men at one of the performances, that were overheard saying “tauba tauba…” and walking out. I laughed when I heard this, but I was so relieved that the only thing they did was walk out. The way some men think here is very tribal.
AA: Yes, I felt the fear too. Every time the door would open, I’d think, this might be someone with a gun.
Q: What motivated you to stage this play? What is the message you want to get across?
AA: Sexuality is a part of who you are. Until you are comfortable with yourself, you cannot be comfortable. Women’s own personal empowerment is very important to me. I think this was a step to start dialogue, to face the demons that have been haunting you. It is amazing how much is hidden in the closet.
NJ: A friend of mine hated this play. But as she spoke, I realised she was not comfortable with her own sexuality. I felt bad for her. Abroad you have support groups to help you. Our women are encouraged to hide things considered “shameful” — whether they have been molested or raped, or if they are lesbians etc. Over here, women do not have this support system. I feel the monologues provide this space to feel comfortable with yourself.
Q: But this play was staged for Pakistan’s ‘elite crowd.’ You are not reaching the people you profess to want to help.
NJ: Yes, that’s true, not yet. But it is a slow process. Right now we are honouring the true stories of women who went through these experiences. The second reason why we performed this play is because it is fun! It’s a celebration — a party. Try to understand, I was always told as a child to sit properly, cross my legs, make sure I was dressed decently. I always felt this was unfair, why couldn’t I sit the way I wanted to without having to worry about a man looking at me in an indecent way. This is unfair as it is men who are known to be rather vulgar. A lot of them even scratch their genitals in public.
Q: So a large part of the motivation to stage this in Pakistan was defiance.
NJ: To a certain degree it was about a teeny bopper sort of defiance. I am not going to hide myself. I put out the most intimate thing possible — orgasming — on stage. Acting this very private thing on stage is a statement: I am not ashamed of my body, I am not ashamed of the fact that I know how to please myself, or that I love sex. I don’t want to tone down. I don’t want to sit with my legs crossed! Why can’t I just be comfortable. A man sits any way he wants to, after all.
Another thing that annoys me is the hypocrisy of society. People’s minds are very closed to homosexuality. If two women are in love with each other and want to live their lives together, that is their choice. Even very liberal people freak out when they realise that their daughter might be bi-sexual or if their son wants to marry a prostitute. It is pseudo-liberalism and one has to expose these people. We have to realise that people have a right to live and love the way they want to. These arguments are a very long way off for this country, because of its religious stance.
Q: These are not ideas that are necessarily accepted in the west either.
NJ: Exactly, this is why such thoughts are a very long way off for this country. But we have to realise that such people should not be treated like freaks. I am sad, because of the religious perspective that this country takes on sexuality, where everything is controlled by religion, especially one’s sexuality. I think this is a patriarchal control issue. So any attempt to bring such ideas to the fore will always have to be underground or insiduous.
AA: Who knows what will happen with The Monologues. We might take it further. There are a lot of angry women out there, unable to deal with their issues, and this play gives them a forum to do just that.
Q: Was it difficult to find actors willing to take part in The V Monologues?
AA: Well, when Nighat called me up with the idea, I jumped at it right away. I knew Nadia would do it because she has courage.
Q: The older cast members, Samina Ahmed and Shahnaz Ismail, did not seem at all comfortable during their performances.
AA: Shahnaz wanted to be a part of it. As for Samina, she warmed to it slowly. She took it on as a professional actress. I asked her on numerous occasions if she was sure she wanted to go through with it. I think it is very courageous for someone who is not completely comfortable with something to go ahead with it, especially if they don’t necessarily agree with the concept.
Q: Did your family support you?
NJ: Yes. I have been waiting to do The Monologues forever. I had a ball performing it. My mother and sister-in-law came down from Lahore to watch me. My parents are very bohemian, but my sister-in-law is conservative. Her coming to watch meant a lot to me because she doesn’t believe in a lot of issues that the play deals with. My husband was there on all the days. He sat at the back, and while I was acting, I looked right into his eyes. That gave me an incredible energy. I have known him for 17 years, and he has evolved into the sort of man who can understand the space I need.
Q: The V Monologues have raised millions in charity funds internationally. If your aim is to empower women, why was this not a charity event, especially as the tickets were very expensive?
AA: It would have attracted a lot of media attention that way. So I decided to restrict it to a private performance. I wanted to keep it low profile. I was nervous about the fact that it was being staged for a mixed audience.
Q: Are there any plans to take your message to the masses rather than continue to restrict it to an elite audience?
AA: Next month we are performing in Lahore. After this, we will look into some workshops. We want to have V-Day workshops: one for men and one for women. Each group will write a monologue and it will be performed. That will give it a local touch.
NJ: I want to take it to women’s colleges. This would be distinct from the performance in Lahore. I am nervous about the Punjab, so I wouldn’t want to sensationalise The V Monologues there. The possibilities are endless. For certain colleges, the play could be adapted. For example the monologue ‘My Short Skirt’ could be omitted for a performance at the Islamia or Government College. We need to be very careful how this happens, as we do not want to be misconstrued as people “corrupting the youth of the nation.” But I feel it is very important for young girls to be exposed to this sort of openness and understand that it is ok for them to talk about these issues.