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In South Africa, the Importance of Telling Our Own Stories


The actresses in the play
In South Africa, female students at the University of Western Cape perform in a production exploring feminism, including “reclaiming” the Afrikaans word for vagina. 

CAPE TOWN — As the curtains go up and bright lights dramatically illuminate the room, the only thing the audience can see is a bare stage with three chairs. A stark setting indeed, and yet it’s the perfect backdrop for a performance that combines music, dance, laughter and heart-rending stories of feminine courage and spirited action amid persistent physical and emotional violence.

The cast of young university women brings the stage to life with their impassioned narrations; the viewers hang on to their every word and feeling.

Even though it’s been nine years since the feminist play, “Reclaiming the P . .  . Word” was first staged at the University of Western Cape in South Africa here, its message and effect have remained constant. This self-scripted drama, which fights against the cultures that enable sexual violence on campus as well as in South African society generally, never fails to enlighten and empower.

Mary Hames, director of the university’s Gender Equity Unit, which produced the play, talks about how the idea to write and direct “Reclaiming the P . . . Word” took shape. “We had to come up with a title that was provocative and truthful,” she said. “The P stands for poes — the Afrikaans term for vagina. The term has a very specific context and connotation in South Africa, especially among Afrikaans-speaking communities, and is often used in a derogatory sense. The premise of the play [and the use of the term] was to examine such social ideas of embodiment and to provoke debate and raise consciousness about the female body.”

“This play specifically raises awareness about the objectification and sexualization of black women’s bodies,” she said. “It was the outcome of several workshops and discussions held campuswide in which the staff, students and women from the larger community were encouraged to speak about or write down their own experiences related to bodily integrity and dignity.”

This process took about four months and led to the writing of a “flexible script that had multiple elements: feminist education and teaching, the evocation of empathy with the experiences of the cast and characters, the raising of awareness and shock about the statistics on violence,” she said. “The play aimed to provide humor and laughter, to present audiences with the reality of life for black South African women in a truthful manner and to capture and hold the attention of an audience for approximately one hour.”

Three weeks before the play opened, the scripts started to roll in; staff and students wrote their own pieces. Eventually, eight monologues, one dialogue, one poem and one song were selected. The first performance was an overwhelming success and it was decided to stage another two performances as part of the 16 Days of Activism Against Violence Against Women that year. The first two verses of the song, written by a cast member, Johanna Booysen, in 2006, epitomizes the message of the play:

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I’m a woman

My spirit is free

And the person that I love

The most in the world is me

I own my body

I love what I see

I love every body. . . .

But most of all

I love me

Over the years, the fundamentals of “Reclaiming the P . . . Word” haven’t changed. Ayabonga Pasiya, 22, who is in her final year of obtaining a bachelor’s degree in medical science and the play’s current director, said: “Till today, each portion of the play is intimately connected with the other and sensitively traces the outcome of physical and emotional violence on women’s bodies. After the show, several women in the audience usually come forward and express how they could relate to each piece. The performance allows them to connect and, at the same time, challenges them to reflect.”

Significantly, the play includes stories of incest and domestic violence, and comments on the violence women are subjected to  the public sphere. “In the process, it conveys the importance of reclaiming the self,” Pasiya said. “Personal and local experiences are related in a language understood by both the educated and semi-educated. In fact, non-South African women, too, can immediately relate to it as it has a universal message.”

Chizoba Mkhwanazi, 18, a member of the cast, believes that their play is the perfect platform to tell personal stories in an artistic manner. “It is one of the best examples of activism through performance,” she said. “I love the way we use the stage. Physically, it’s bare but it transforms into a space of empowerment and freedom, where women are encouraged to find their voice.”

Dressed in black, the girls convey how even though women are all the same — or rather come from the same source — they are still unique in their own right. As “finding the voice” is central to the production, it’s remarkable how they talk about “rewriting histories” and “voicing their present.”

The narrative, made up of several monologues punctuated with dancing, singing and drama, comes together as one, forcing everyone to pay attention to the violence and injustice around them. Only when people are confronted can they no longer turn away and pretend that they do not hear or see the prejudice or unfairness meted out to girls and women in general.

The revelations are not confined to the audience. The girls associated with the production have their own learning curves. Vuyolwethu Tunguntwana, 19, a cast member for two years, feels that she now knows “the importance of telling our own stories — because if you don’t do it, no one else will.”

Simnikiwe Sawula, 21, a second-year student, finds that being part of the play is a learning and healing experience. “Like most black people, I have also felt the pain of segregation, isolation and silence,” she said. “With this play, I get to create my very own safe space, where I am honest and do not feel intimidated or belittled. It allows me to share my story as a black woman with other black women and not worry about being censored.”

Mkhwanazi said that there was a “whole range of subjects that we touch on — about owning our blackness or being black, feminism and how it’s become taboo. We talk about rape in a family and what it does to young women who have no idea how to tell their families that they have been violated by one of their own.”

© Women’s Feature Service      

(This article is part of  UN Women‘s Empowering Women — Empowering Humanity: Picture It! campaign in the lead-up to Beijing+20.)



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