V-Day 2009: Women artists come together to defy violence

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For a decade, women on U.S. college campuses from Israel and Palestine to Afghanistan and Iraq to Africa and southeast Asia have staged readings of Eve Ensler’s play The Vagina Monologues, bringing to life the stories Ensler created from interviews with 200 women and evoking emotions ranging from awkwardness to glorious self-discovery, from humorous observations to revelations of horrific abuses and lasting scars.

In 120 countries, the V-Day movement fights to stop violence against women and girls, including rape, domestic violence, incest, female genital mutilation, and sexual slavery. The event raises consciousness and funds for battered women’s shelters and services for sexual assault survivors. This year’s event will also fund a hospital/refuge for women and children in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the rape and sexual mutilation of women is being used as a weapon in that country’s civil war.

v-day in the twin cities

• february 27, at 11 a.m. on catalyst, hear more from kristen strissel and kierston hayman, including two excerpts from the vagina monologues, on kfai radio. (archived online for two weeks after broadcast.)

the vagina monologues: march 5-6, 7 p.m., march 8, 2 p.m. admission $10. (march 5: pay what you can.) old arizona theatre, 2821 nicollet ave., minneapolis.

what i want my words to do to you: march 7, 12 p.m., march 8, 6 p.m. admission by suggested donation to women’s prison book project. old arizona theatre.

• v-day benefit concert. lucy michelle and the velvet lapelles, sha cage, the nancy drew crew, desdamona, gospel gossip, maria isa, tish jones, and nikki schultz. march 7, 7 p.m. (doors 6 p.m.), Varsity Theater, 1308 Fourth St. S.E., minneapolis. $15 door/$12 advance.

“This year we’re really happy to find community spaces,” says Kristen Strissel, a local organizer of V-Day activities. “It allows us to meet women we didn’t know and enhance discussion because we’re coming from drastically different viewpoints and experiences.”

This year’s Minneapolis V-Day event is more diverse than ever, expanding beyond performances of Ensler’s play to include a benefit concert with some of the Twin Cities’ most powerful female hip-hop/spoken-word artists and the screening of a film that exposes the links among racism, violence against women, and the escalating number of women in U.S. prisons.

Kierston Hayman discovered The Vagina Monologues through a flier advertising auditions for this year’s performances. “I was really moved,” says Hayman. “Knowing I’m not alone made me feel more connected…I can act to help other women feel safer and feel more connected to their own bodies.”

Called “funny and poignant” by the New York Times, Ensler’s play features the voices of grandmothers, college students, and women representing different classes, ethnicities, and sexual orientations. The first-person honesty is powerful, whether it’s an older woman looking at the most intimate part of her body for the first time or a middle-aged woman talking about desire and aging or a young woman breaking her silence about being raped. There’s affirmation of women’s bodies as they actually are—often accompanied by much laughter—and there is the acknowledgment of the wounds inflicted by sexual violence.

The Women’s Prison Book Project (WPBP) benefits from screenings of the gritty What I Want My Words to Do to You, a film Ensler made inside the Bedford Hills prison in New York. About 80% of women in prison are survivors of sexual abuse, rape, and/or domestic violence. Hearing how these women ended up in prison calls into question a society that assigns multi-decade sentences for drug crimes while not protecting women and girls from sexual abuse and domestic violence, a system that too often protects male perpetrators while penalizing women for self-defense.

“Incarceration rates in the U.S. are higher than any place in the world—how many people are incarcerated, what the crimes are, the racial component,” observes Strissel. “In terms of women, are their crimes related to domestic violence? 80% to 90% of women in prison are women of color—that has to be a problem.”

WPBP located is the only organization gathering and mailing books to incarcerated women across the country. Every Sunday at noon, volunteers assemble mailings of donated books at their Arise! Bookstore office in Uptown Minneapolis.

V-Day started as a Valentine’s Day event, but it has now expanded to four days that include International Women’s Day—a perfect time to re-examine the state of women’s freedom locally and globally. V-Day shatters silence with throaty laughter, the balm of tears, and women’s voices defiantly telling our own truths.

Lydia Howell (lhowell@visi.com), a winner of the 2007 Premack Award for Public Interest Journalism, is a Minneapolis independent journalist writing for various newspapers and online journals. She produces and hosts Catalyst: politics & culture on KFAI Radio on Fridays at 11 a.m.

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