In a 20th anniversary edition of The Vagina Monologues, Eve Ensler reflected on how seldom the “v-word” was said aloud in 1996, when she staged her groundbreaking show.
The play, based on more than 200 accounts, dramatised women speaking about – and sometimes to – their vaginas, and such was Ensler’s fear of backlash that she thought she might get shot.
The lexical evasion that Ensler spoke of, arising out of centuries of cultural shame, fear and secrecy, still takes place. The original title of Nimko Ali’s book was the bolder Rude: There Is No Such Thing as Oversharing (the proof copy had a strikingly suggestive cover design).
But Ali was apparently worried that this might suggest the book’s contents were shocking or indecent. The book’s packaging now makes almost no mention of vaginas (there is just one reference at the back of the dust-jacket in a quote from another author).
It is, in fact, a rich collection of intimate and uncensored stories. Ali’s book follows in the footsteps of Lynn Enright’s impressive Vagina: A Re-education, published in March, which combines Enright’s own experiences with a range of statistical research, historical background and expert opinion on everything from the hymen and clitoris to periods, pregnancy and labiaplasty.
To add to the momentum, Bella Heesom’s play Rejoicing at Her Wondrous Vulva the Young Woman Applauded Herself brought comic dialogue about female genitalia to the London stage in May and is now set to be adapted for television by the production company behind Killing Eve.
Ali is a Somali activist who has campaigned against FGM; she was awarded an OBE for this work in June. More recently, she drew attention by speaking of Boris Johnson as a “real champion of women’s rights”. For that reason, she said, “he is one of my feminist heroes”.
Like Ensler’s play, her book is comprised of many women’s voices; these are 42 accounts from 14 countries. The testimonies speak of periods, orgasms and menopause.
The women are young and old, Christian and Muslim, some battered by poverty and others buoyed by the wealth of the developed world.
We hear them in their own words, without sentences being smoothed over or smartened up by Ali, and this unrefined directness means that while the prose lacks the poetry and formal artfulness of Ensler’s play, it has a visceral drama.
Ali delivers the physicality of the women’s experiences with all the leaking, faecal, bloody mess of the body laid bare: the changing texture and colour of periods (brown at the start for many women); the vomiting fits brought on by hyperemesis (a condition the Duchess of Cambridge has had in pregnancy).
There is much more gore and discharge as women take us intimately through the first time they had sex or the vaginal splitting and ripping in childbirth, and it all reminds us how silenced this pain normally remains – often unspoken beyond whispering, all-female circles and little documented in literature.
A woman named Faz gives birth in a refugee camp. Zay, an 11-year-old Syrian refugee, starts her period while making the voyage to safety and speaks of the lack of sanitary products (“The boat was the scariest thing until the day I woke up covered in blood”). There are those who live with the legacy of FGM and those who are married in exchange for chattels (40 cows and homemade beer in one instance).
But it is not always the stories from faraway places that shock the most: Becky, a homeless woman in London, tells a dismaying story of having periods on the street and going into the local Burger King to staunch the blood with tissues. She has learned how to make sanitary pads out of cardboard, plastic bags and paper.
Ali includes the sex talk between Somali women she grew up around, and cites Qur’anic instruction for husbands to please their wives in bed. Many Muslims speak of their love of sex, their dominant role in bed, and seeking divorce when their husbands can no longer fulfil their sexual needs (“I wanted to exercise that God-given right”). Such welcome accounts sit alongside more familiar stories of control and coercion.
Ali’s own voice is uplifting, even if the corny puns – “fannying around” and “deep dives” – wear thin. But while the narratives build a powerful chorus of lived experience, deeper reflection is lacking. And while they are culturally diverse, all her speakers appear to be heterosexual, cis women. They talk candidly of pleasure or lack of it in heterosexual sex, but no lesbian experience is documented. And there are only passing references to women who feel no tug towards motherhood.
Enright, in her book, has a richer awareness of these aspects. She acknowledges gay sex (86% of lesbians report reaching orgasm in sex compared with 65% of straight women, she tells us) and speaks of non-binary experiences: “Not all girls and women have a vagina and … not everyone who has a vagina is a girl or a woman.” Later, she writes: “When a teenager who does not identify as female begins to menstruate, it can be particularly upsetting and discombobulating.”
The data she collects, by her own admission and apology, is focused largely on the west and her book does not have the emotional punch of Ali’s but it has its own moving moments, and is knowledgeable and discursive, citing Simone de Beauvoir, Lena Dunham, Hilary Mantel (the latter two on living with endometriosis). It is in some ways an ideal accompaniment to Ali’s distillation of personal experience. Together, they paint a vivid picture of contemporary female embodiment.
Enright tells us, in one of her many illuminating facts, that a 2015 UK study found two-thirds of women were still “embarrassed about saying the word ‘vagina’”. Full demystification is far off. Yet a new truthfulness is surely emerging around the female body, post #MeToo, and there are signs of creeping progress.