Amid vocal protests [ru] from the Kyrgyz Ministry of Culture, a local activist group, Bishkek Feminist Collective SQ, performed the play ‘The Vagina Monologues‘ in the capital of Kyrgyzstan in March and April. The play by American playwright and feminist Eve Ensler about female sexuality and experiences earned mixed reactions from the Bishkek audience.
Politically, Kyrgyzstan is often seen as being more liberal than its Central Asian neighbors. So far it is the only country in Central Asia to have had a female president. It was also the first country in the region to stage ‘The Vagina Monologues’ in 2009. However, Kyrgyzstan is also the only country in the region where bride kidnapping is still widely practiced, a predominantly conservative society and for a long time part of the Soviet Union, a country where the catchphrase “there is no sex in the USSR” [ru] became a union-wide meme (here a blogger explains the story behind the catchphrase). Thus, despite being staged in Bishkek for the third time, it is perhaps unsurprising that ‘The Vagina Monologues’ raised controversy.
‘Corrosion’ of morals?
In early April, the Ministry of Culture recommended [ru] that the organizers discontinue staging the “controversial play” in Bishkek based on the concern that ‘The Vagina Monologues’ “features episodes that contribute to the corrosion of moral and ethical standards and national traditions of the peoples of Kyrgyzstan.”
The ministry’s statement provoked both negative and positive comments in social media.
Bektour Iskender, Kyrgyz journalist, commented [ru] on kloop.kg's Facebook plugin:
Я, честно говоря, не хочу больше на свои налоги содержать это глупое министерство культуры.
Honestly, I don’t want my taxes to be used for funding this stupid ministry of culture.
The opposite opinion was expressed [ru] by another Facebook user, Nazgul Nuranova:
Прошу госорганы полностью запретить эту пьесу!
I request that the authorities ban the play completely!
What's in the name?
Aikanysh Jeenbaeva, a co-founder of the Bishkek Feminist Collective SQ and one of the organizers of ‘The Vagina Monologues’ in the country, suspects that the ministry drew conclusions about the play based on its title. “I think none of them have actually seen the play and they’re just judging it by its name,” she said in a recent interview.
Stuart Kahn, director of Freedom House in Kyrgyzstan, also suspects that the ministry drew conclusions about the play based on its title:
[A]pparently just the title of The Vagina Monologues announcement, an episodic play about the feminine experience, has evoked negative and threatening response from Kyrgyzstan’s Ministry of Culture… [The monologues] are on topics such as love, violence and anatomy but is primarily about female empowerment and individuality.
Kahn also emphasized the scope of domestic violence in Kyrgyzstan:
Over 85% of households in Kyrgyzstan experience domestic violence and bride kidnapping and rape are increasingly being documented. Until recently, punishment for stealing a cow was greater than for stealing a woman, although prosecution is still more likely just in cases of cows. Only through an open discussion on problems confronting any society can changes be made.
But the play has been criticized for what some people believe is the lack of relevance to the experience of Kyrgyz women. In a detailed review of the performance, blogger Georgii Mamedov writes [ru]:
Фактически, зритель, посетивший спектакль, осведомляется о фетишистских представлениях о своем влагалище белых американок среднего класса. Одна из них мечтает, что ее вагина будет носить бриллианты от Тиффани, другой на консультации у семейного психотерапевта рекомендуют брить вагину, чтобы удержать мужа, другая, бывшая успешная адвокатша, становится элитной проституткой, обслуживающей женщин. В своего рода кульминационном монологе – «Вагина в гневе» — героиня возмущается бумажными халатами и холодными инструментами гинекологических кабинетов. Интересно, какой процент кыргызстанских женщин вообще не охвачен гинекологическим медицинским обеспечением?
Having attended the performance, the audience becomes aware of the fetishist attitudes of white middle-class American females. One of them dreams that her vagina would wear Tiffany diamonds; another one, during a visit to a family psychotherapist, is recommended to shave her vagina in order to keep her husband; the third woman, a former successful lawyer, becomes an elite prostitute for women. In what in many ways is the climax of the monologues – ‘My Angry Vagina’ – the speaker resents paper gowns and cold medical tools in the gynecologist’s office. I wonder what percentage of women in Kyrgyzstan have access to gynecological medical support at all.
‘The road to hell…’
The performance has also drawn harsh criticism from the infamously conservative member of the parliament Tursunbai Bakir uulu. Questioning the justification for the staging of the play in the country, the MP tweeted [ru] on April 9:
@bakiruulu: […]Благими намерениями дорога в Ад вымощена!
@bakiruulu: […]The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
(NB: Bakir uulu’s initiatives, radical in their own way, have provided Global Voices Online with plenty of material since the current Kyrgyz parliament was formed in October 2012. See here, here, here, and here.)
Responding to the MP's tweet, Altynai Amati wrote [ru] on April 9:
@Altynai_Amati: @bakiruulu Вы бы пришли, послушали, а потом говорили про дорогу в ад;)
@Altynai_Amati: @bakiruulu You should come to the play, listen [to what is being discussed], and then only talk about the road to hell;)
But the pious deputy declined [ru] the invitation:
@bakiruulu: @Altynai_Amati Да хранит Аллах всех нас от святотатства и грешных дел! Аамин!
@bakiruulu: @Altynai_Amati: May Allah save us all from sacrilege and sin! Amen!
A satire blog on the local news outlet Akipress pokes fun [ru] at those who demand that the play be banned:
В [Кыргызстане] хотят запретить показывать еще один раз спектакль «Болтливая вагина». Взамен предлагают крутить дома сколько хочешь ХХХ -видео «Упрямый пенис», которое можно купить в любом ларьке за углом. Хулители спектакля объяснили, что вагина не для того создана, чтобы ею говорить о насилии, а для того, чтобы это насилие в ней осуществлять.
In Kyrgyzstan, they want to ban the performance ‘Chatty Vagina’. Instead, they recommend watching over and over ‘Stubborn Penis’, an XXX video that can be bought on any street corner and played at home. Critics of the play explain that vagina was not created with the goal of talking about violence; the goal was to have violence inflicted on the vagina.
All funds raised by staging ‘The Vagina Monologues’ went to benefit a crisis center that works with female victims of domestic and sexual violence and provides a shelter for them.