In 21st century Nigeria, how do men still view women? As objects to be traded and toyed with, beings with second-class status to be looked down upon, or human beings with equal power, esteem and value? How do men and women alike perceive women? This is not a subject for passionate feminists only; it should concern the entirety of society as overall development is hinged on it.
It forms the subject of feminist advocate and writer Joy Isi Bewaji’s first outing in a theatrical representation as perhaps a larger platform to pass her massage to as many people as possible. Her play, Story of My Vagina, comes across as controversial, as explosive and as topical as it can be. What story has the female organ, the vagina, got to tell? Bewaji employs the female private part as a talking point and a metaphor for the issues women struggle against in society that sometimes stifle their aspirations. The vagina is a taboo; no one mentions it by its rightful name in conversation about it. Ironically, it is the source of all sorts of demonising a woman receives at the hands of her father, mother, brothers, boyfriends, husbands, and society that pride the male specie higher in value than her.
This is Bewaji’s message dramatised on stage and performed last Tuesday by the Segun Adefila-led Crown Troupe of Africa at Theatre Republic, Lekki, Lagos. A restaging is planned for Valentine’s Day at Freedom Park, Lagos Island. Bewaji demands an open conversation about the vagina, and by extension, issues in which women are at the receiving end.
And so, two schoolgirls are curious about their vagina after their biology class on reproduction. Just like older women, though intrigued, they had not dared to look in that region to see how the vagina really looks. They both decide to educate themselves on what that vital bodily part looks like, as most women are largely ignorant of its shape, size and colour. When they venture to look, they are stunned at the beauty between their legs. The playwright stresses the importance of sex education for young girls; the more they know about their body, the less they become victims of rape and other molestations.
The opening scene sees an optimistic female character, aspiring to be an engineer, a medical doctor or a pilot, the sort of ambition her brothers take for granted. She reaffirms that despite being a woman, nothing can stop her from achieving her dreams until she discovers her menstrual circle, blood-spattered underpants, and the beginning of womanhood. Other women boo her for aspiring beyond her station in life as a woman; she sees her blood stains as a weakness, when in actual fact, it is her strength, her rite of passage into the kind of being she can aspire to be.
The playwright draws attention to some challenges the girl-child faces. Like some sick fathers, who defile their daughters; colleagues, who harass female colleagues; men, who believe a woman has no right to sexual enjoyment. She must be a wooden object solely for his manly pleasures, fit only to bear his children. After a stepfather rapes his daughter, she cries out, asking, ‘I’ve been broken. I’ve been reduced. Should I say I’ve lost my pride? Is being a woman a crime?’
Society, however, provides her with answers: ‘you’ve been broken; you’ve been reduced. Surely, you have lost your pride.’The playwright also portrays some of the things women do to get a man to love them, which tend to consume them to the extent that they resort to fetish for help. This often blows in her face, as ‘the devil does not give anything for free’.
A group of men are discussing how and why men get away with rape. They point out that women are afraid of the resulting stigmatisation from parents and society and how fellow women don’t show support for such victims. Instead, women refer to the victim as a prostitute.
What about a woman, whose vagina refuses to produce a baby? How do family members, especially the women, and society treat her? A pariah; she is scorned at, abused and, in some cases, she is driven out of the home.
Another area of focus is domestic violence against women. Can a woman get justice from the law? A woman, who is being battered by her husband, seeks protection from the police, but becomes the criminal instead and is thrown into cell. She is told to count herself lucky for having a husband who beats her.
In the office, bosses sexually harass women. They are looked down upon as the weaker sex and sometimes sidelined.
An advocacy play, Bewaji’s Story of My Vagina is challenging social structures and urging the need for a change. Women are human beings, too; they deserve to be better treated. Society must make room for women’s aspirations; men must recognise the potential of women. Importantly, women must give other women a chance; they need not stand in their way as they often do out of spite.
There is no way a country can be truly developed if the question of gender discrimination still subsists and old beliefs remain unchanged about the value placed on women and the girl-child.
After the performance, Bewaji gave a pep talk about her motivation for the play. She said she wrote the story because women have refused to evolve beyond the traditional stereotypes society has imposed on them.
According to her, “This is why we have to keep gathering to talk about the basic issues involving women; we are so distracted by these elementary issues that even a nine-year old would have answers to – issues like, when do you leave an abusive partner? We are not part of politics, science or technology; we are so busy talking about these issues that our children are going to grow and continue from where we stopped. When a woman attacks this ideology, they sometimes call her a hater of men.
“I have a vagina. I am a woman. I am not weak, not because I have super powers of my own, but because I have been able to embrace who I am and what I am. I don’t believe in the ‘Stockholm syndrome’. Society is not stopping you, neither is religion. You can be exactly what you want to be; it is all in your hands!”
The play attempts to correct stereotypes against women. As the title implies, it reflects some challenges women face: how men abuse women in cases of rape, domestic violence and second class status women are made to endure in a hierarchical society like Nigeria’s.
Bewaji, who is always at the forefront of encouraging women to speak out and get justice, uses the metaphor of the vagina to catalogue the woes women suffer for owning that otherwise precious body part that is regarded as taboo and is rarely called by its rightful name in social intercourse, but it is perhaps the most violated and abused part of the female body. The play also plays up how society perceives the girl-child as being less than equal to their male counterpart and how society treats victims of rape among others.
Bewaji’s treatment of issues around women is spot on. It follows on the heels of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues years ago that seeks to open up conversations around that tabooed subject. For Bewaji, let the conversation continue so stereotypes about women can be smashed for all time. Her concern is principally the theme of ‘slut-shaming’ so prevalent in society, saying, “I actually just want people to review their mindset on their portrayal of women and their sexual organ.”