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Theater

Egypt’s Vagina Monologues

A Cairo theater group is breaking taboos with a daring series of sketches that tackle dating, sex, and sexual harassment in Egypt today.

A naked mannequin stands center stage. Clothing is strewn across black plastic crates that lay haphazardly on the floor. Two actresses are the only variables in the simply-staged bedroom.

One woman stands with a strip of bright red tape across her shoulders, with another strip just above her knees. She announces that “This is the space that is off-limits” to her boyfriend. As she moves through her monologue, the two strips move as well—one migrates across her breasts, while the other slides to her mid-thigh. Continuously they move closer together, until they overlap, and the space disappears completely.

“How can we be expected to like sex when we’re taught our whole lives that it’s something vulgar and disrespected?” the actress asks.

A tennis match of monologues ensues between the two actresses as they discuss the challenges women face in regards to relationships, reputation, and marriage. The fact that parents and teachers are too embarrassed to discuss sex; that they feel pressure from boyfriends to engage in sexual relationships; and that if they do, they risk their virginal “marriageability” —an expectation they are constantly reminded that needs to be fulfilled.

The monologues are the centerpiece of “Stories from Women of Egypt” —the latest edition from the local theater group Bussy—which premiered on December 4th in an independent theater in downtown Cairo. The show is a collage of anecdotes from different women, performed by Sondos Shayabek and Mona El Shimi. Staged as if they are having a dialogue, the actresses perform separate monologues that are woven around one another, forming mini-testimonies about body image and society’s perception of women in Egypt.

Bussy was conceived as a project at the American University of Cairo in 2006, lead by two students who decided to direct a program of monologues concerning the experiences of women living Egypt. In its inception, Bussy largely consisted of stories generated by the student body. The following year, it expanded its scope and transitioned from being a campus-centric project to one that would reach a broader range of spectators. Wanting the project to be more than just Egypt’s version of the “Vagina Monologues,” the directors strived to make the project “personal and local.”

They made an open call for stories from women—cutting across the economic and social lines that are deeply engraved in Egyptian society—to accurately portray the diversity of ‘womanhood’ experienced in Egypt today. Indeed, one of Bussy’s aims to “ let people write for themselves, instead of being written for.” In other performances by the troupe, storytellers have the option of performing their own pieces, or of having an actor relay their anecdote to the crowd.

Bussy’s shows have featured monologues and short skits on pre-marital sex, the pressure of getting married, female circumcision, divorce, body image, sexual harassment, and abortion. The project uses the stage as a public sphere to raise the conversation on controversial topics that often remain muted in Egyptian society. As with most taboo-breakers, Bussy has had its detractors, with some viewers purportedly telling the directors that they “can’t talk about these things”. But for the most part, the shows have been commended by audiences for broaching prohibited topics and for speaking honestly about women’s experiences, specifically concerning sexuality and harassment. In a country deemed as the worst Arab country in which to be a woman, the discussion surely merits being raised.

Bussy’s shows have featured monologues and short skits on pre-marital sex, the pressure of getting married, female circumcision, divorce, body image, sexual harassment, and abortion.

In another scene from “Stories of Women”, Sondos examines herself in a mirror and then begins to layer on baggy clothes—hoping aloud that the men who look at her will “seem lost because they won’t be able to see anything.” The two actresses proceed to rattle off the common cat-calls and profanities directed at women in public spaces. “I want to be beautiful!” one shouts. “Cover up!” the other retorts—illustrating the internal dichotomy of wanting to be lovely and simultaneously wanting “to hide,” out of shame over their bodies and to thwart the leers of men.

For many in the audience, the skits were highly relatable. Hend, a recent university graduate, commented that, “The play is extremely realistic and very brave.” She highlighted the fact that not only was the content of the play accurate, but by employing the vulgarities actually heard on the streets rather than toning down the explicit expressions, the performance mirrored the daily reality women face. And despite its local focus, the commonalities of women’s experiences have resonated with  audiences beyond Egypt. The troupe has performed in France, Lebanon, Jordan, and a filmed performance was screened in England.

According to Shayabek, who is also one of the directors of Bussy, the project strives to “have the audience walk away with a story.” If there is any message she wants to transmit to the audience, it would be “to influence how people think about harassment—how it affects women and men.” Many viewers, particularly women, are touched by the stories they hear. However, male spectators have also commented to Shayabek, telling her that they “never saw harassment this way.”

Shayabek emphasizes the importance in including men in changing societal norms for women. In an effort to incorporate men into the dialogue on gender-based violence and challenges, Bussy began featuring anecdotes from male perspectives. In a previous show, there was a monologue from a harasser, and another from a man whose girlfriend had been harassed. However gradual it may seem, Shayabek’s efforts have been impactful.

Standing outside of the theater before “Stories from Women,” Ayman, one of founders of the Anti-Sexual Harassment Campaign in Egypt, explained the personal effect the show had on him: “There was a story from a show in 2012, where a girl stood with her back to the audience and recounted the sexual abuse she experienced as child from her uncle... That story was one of the major reasons I was moved to participate in fighting against harassment."

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