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"Othering" of Non-Western Women in "The Vagina Monologues"

one-dimentional portrayal perpetuates imperialism

Forum: QueerDisability list
Date: 03/10/2003

On 3/9/03 12:55 AM, "Leah Gardner" wrote:

The play was constructed of hundreds of interviews of women from diverse backgrounds, ethnic groups, age groups and social and economic experiences. This was one of the most inclusive gatherings of varied perspective I have ever seen.

Not so fast. The "Oklahoma Interlude" problem (which I discussed in another post) aside, the play suffers from the same problem that Audre Lorde famously pointed out in Mary Daly's "Gyn/Ecology" when it came out: the "othering" of women of colour and "third world" women, which depicts non-white, non-Western women as nothing but victims of evil non-white, non-Western men.

The only "monologues" about women from non-Western cultures-- "My Vagina Was My Village" (Bosnian women) and "Under the Burqa" (Afghan women), as well as the play's discussion of the treament of African women within their traditional communities, reproduce the same exact pattern of Western feminists "othering" women of colour and non-Western women as one-dimentional victims, while often vilifying men of colour and non-Western men as well as non-Western cultures.

It's one thing if it were simply a play that is flawed. However, it's more than that: it's a centerpiece for V-Day, an international organisation designed to confront violence against girls and women--and the lack of analysis exhibited in the play seriously damages the ability of the organisation to address violence against women of colour and non-Western women. This casts Western women and governments as the rescuers of non-Western women, which often is used to justify Western imperialism and aggression against non-Western cultures and nations (remember Laura Bush's plea to support a war on Afghanistan to "help" Afghan women?).

For example:

V-Day is putting a "spotlight on Native American and First Nations women" this year and has launched "indian Country Project," but it does not seem to put the violence against Native women in the context of massive imperial violence against their people. The Indian County Project web site states:

Violence against women and girls in Indian Country is at epidemic proportions. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the rate of rape and sexual assault of Native American women is 3.5 times higher than for any other race in the United States. The rate continues to rise while Indian women and girls remain invisible as an at risk population. URL:

Of course, this "Bureau of Justice Statistics" is part of the same U.S. Department of Justice, which is now using "protection of Native American women battered by their husbands" as an excuse to illegally (that is, in violation of tribal treaties) expand federal government's authority into the sovereign tribal lands, further perpetuating the imperial violence against Native peoples.

As V-Day expands its focus to include Afghanistan, Palestine, and now Iraq (for its credit, V-Day publicly opposes the war on Iraq), an awareness about the multiple layers of violence and oppressions, especially the violence of Western imperialisms and neoimperialisms becomes crucially important.

So anyway, I'm not saying that "The Vagina Monologues" or V-DAY is all bad. For one thing, it raises a huge amount of money for local, national and international anti-violence groups that accomplish concrete things, which is more than what we can say about the most brilliantly written books about critical race theory or postcolonialism. I'm just saying that it has many flaws, and that we need to be aware of beyond just saying "why doesn't the play include women like me?"

Emi K.

-- * Putting the Emi back in Feminism since 1975.