After learning from the agents who control the rights to “The Vagina Monologues” that the play had been closed down in 12 countries in the past year and a half, the group of women staging the play in Phnom Penh almost refused any interviews.
The play, written by Eve Ensler and performed in around 76 countries worldwide since its 1997 premier, was scheduled to debut in Cambodia Friday night at the FCC.
Though its title alone seems to stir anxiety, the play’s focus is on women’s empowerment, not objectification, the play’s director Lea Dooley said.
“Because people don’t understand it, the title might be shocking. But the play is really about women’s life experiences,” she said.
“The play shows the variety of experiences that women have, and that they are as similar as they are different.”
Dooley said she was inspired to stage the play by her mother, who launched the first women’s shelter in the US region of New England in the 1970s.
“The Vagina Monologues” can only be performed as a fundraiser for anti-domestic violence programs.
The performances scheduled for Friday and Saturday nights are benefits for shelters run by the Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center in Phnom Penh, Banteay Meanchey and Siem Reap provinces.
“We want to give focus to gender-based violence,” Dooley said.
“Violence against women is pretty high here, and there is no massive campaign against domestic violence.”
The cast of the show are mostly NGO workers, hailing from Britain, the US and Iran—all exaptriates who came together in recent months to stage the play, which is produced with assistance from the Phnom Penh Players.
Like the characters in the play—which is based on women of all ages and social backgrounds—the actors who sigh, moan, weep and shout their way through the play each came with a unique perspective.
Maryam Bigdeli brought with her a long history of acting and political activism, as well as an understanding of how taboo such topics can be in conservative nations.
Growing up in Iran during the revolution and the war there, she was forced to wear a veil at school.
She became so used to being covered that she found it difficult to re-adjust when she left the country.
She said that experience sensitized her to women’s conditions, their ability to make their own choices about not only wearing the veil, but also having sex or bearing children.
Among her monologues is the story of a Muslim woman who suffers a rape. “It is a very sad story and a difficult story to tell,” she said. “But it is also a difficult story to tell if a woman has been raped…. Rape is a very secret thing.
“Some women are privileged to be able to talk freely about sex, childbirth, all sorts of things related to their gender—and not many women have this privilege,” Bigdeli said. “That’s why this play is important: It shares this privilege with other women.”