The Muteli Monologues: feminism and activism converge in Georgian theatre

The first complete Georgian-language production of Eve Ensler's feminist performance piece <em>The Vagina Monologues</em> caused substantial controversy. Tara Isabella Burton meets two of the women behind it.

Lika Barabadze and Sonya Tamazovna do not look like revolutionaries. They are petite, soft-spoken, dressed in tank tops and jeans. Throughout our hour-long interview, they giggle about inside jokes; they spar back and forth, jokingly correcting one another's memories. When they talk about the men who tried to “beat us up”, who “were coming at us”, who “wanted to kill us,” they do so with awkward laughs, exasperated eye-rolls. From the casual tone of their voices, they might well be complaining about a difficult colleague, an intractable boss.

But when Lika and Sonya, along with around twenty volunteer actresses, performed the first complete Georgian-language production of Eve Ensler's feminist performance piece The Vagina Monologues at Tbilisi's Shota Rustaveli Film and Theatre University on 26 June, the controversy they attracted was anything but prosaic. Admission to the play, organised by LGBT rights organisation Identoba, was by invitation only – a necessary security measure in a country where feminist and LGBT rights activists are routinely subjected to violence (even the play's director refused to make her identity public out of fear for her safety). Yet a few male students from the Theatre University found their way in.

They began by laughing, Lika and Sonya recall, giggling at words like “clitoris” and “orgasm”. But after one particularly incendiary monologue – in which audience members are encouraged to shout a particularly taboo word for the female anatomy – the hecklers grew angry. “They called us rude, dirty,” Sonya recalls, demanding to know, “how dare [we] say such filthy words on a stage where actors regularly portray Georgian saints.” They were escorted out of the theatre, but not before the lighting technician had left “in protest”: over the play's frank discussion of sex.

“The day before, [in rehearsals], he was fine,” Lika sighs. “But when he heard that people didn't like it, he left. It's a classic case of conformity.”

The show continued, but the atmosphere was tense. “Some of my friends were so scared,” Lika recalls, “They were all thinking – what if these three guys go and come back with a crowd to beat us up?” Such a situation was far from unlikely; one month earlier, on 17 May, 50 non-violent anti-homophobia protesters on Tbilisi's Rustaveli Avenue – Lika and Sonya included – attracted a counter-rally of 20,000 self-identified Georgian conservatives, led in large part by Tbilisi's Orthodox priests. “You never know if someone's going to come after you and say, “I saw your picture in an article [about the protest] and beat you up,” Sonya says. The play was originally scheduled for May, but was postponed to avoid inciting additional violence.

The hecklers did not corral their friends, but they did return, accosting one older actress and demanding to know if she'd received the patriarch's blessing to perform such “filth”, accusing her of being a Jehovah's Witness, and therefore in league with Satan (in Georgia, Lika explains, Jehovah's Witnesses are popularly associated with the Anti-Christ). “They were aggressively going towards her...they wanted to hit her,” Sonya remembers. Eventually, the actresses had to barricade themselves inside the dressing room to fend off the hecklers, who insisted that such “shameless” women had no right to preserve their modesty out of sight of men. “They wouldn't let us out.” The police were eventually called.

Yet, in spite of – or even because of – the commotion it caused, Lika and Sonya alike argue that the performance represented a vital method of protest in a society all too often dominated by misogyny and homophobia: twinned and often indiscriminate prejudices that have in turn led to a firm alliance between Georgian feminists, the gay community and their allies. The Vagina Monologues is, Lika notes, about “straight women, gay women, any kind of woman”, yet, in the eyes of many Georgians, it was seen as promoting wantonness, homosexuality, and a whole host of sins against the Georgian national identity. “LGBT member, feminist, activist, supporter, human-rights activist – [Many Georgians] don't care. They don't know the difference. They think [we're]  all just as bad,” says Lika.

Yet, Lika feels, the performance's greatest success was in demonstrating to an ardent, if small, group of Georgian feminists and LGBT rights supporters, that they were not alone.  “[Yes,] we are preaching to the choir, but those people were really encouraged to see someone doing that. Yes, they're [already] feminists, but they need support too. They're tired of fighting and yelling and demonstrating all the time. Sometimes they want to see something that confirms their beliefs, and feel that they are not alone – those five or ten girls in the world – that something is being done in Georgia that they can believe in, [which] gives them some hope.”

Such hope, Sonya and Lika agree, is more necessary than ever after the violence of the 17 May riots, which stands out in their memory as a watershed moment in the history of Georgian activism. Police were simultaneously ordered to “make sure nobody [got harmed]” and to ensure that “the rally didn't take place” - as Lika puts it, “to avoid upsetting the international community [while] avoiding making all of Georgia angry.” What resulted was a mass mob attack that resulted in no deaths, but which effectively ended any possibility of civilized discourse about homophobia in Georgia.

As Sonya and Lika remember 17 May, their tone grows darker. “I was under the impression that [the situation] was getting better before 17 May,” says Lika. “Then all my illusions were shattered.” She'd hoped that Georgia had been undergoing a gradual change in recent years, as the country as a whole sought to cast itself as Europe's eastern frontier: “In the beginning you have to fight for survival, for recognition of your right to be alive. Many people in Georgia have accepted that. I think we're on the second stage, where people are fighting not for their existence but for their happiness. Our demands are now – you should let me live a full life, rather than 'you should not stone me.' But after 17 May, I think we've regressed.”

Yet, Sonya suggests, the controversy caused by the 17 May riots and by the The Vagina Monologues forces a discussion about homosexuality and its relationship to concepts of “Georgianness” that all too often goes unspoken in Georgian society. “[At least] people saw that there is a community, that it's not a made-up fact,” Sonya says. “[People] usually say that “there are no gay Georgians”, that these gay people are imported from foreign countries (“Western countries,” Lika clarifies), “or are under foreign influence. Now they have to face the fact that they really do exist.”

Lika agrees. “I know that many people have a very hard time with reconciling their national identity with their sexual identity after 17 May. If you're gay, [it seems] you're not Georgian. Several of my gay friends complained – I don't know who I am anymore.”

It is for this reason, Lika says, that the act of translating The Vagina Monologues into Georgian felt particularly transgressive. Several of the actors, who worked together to translate their monologues, found it unsettling to translate particular words into Georgian; one monologue, dealing with orgasms, initially found no willing takers. “It's different when you hear it in Georgian,” says Lika. Educated in America, she is perfectly comfortably swearing liberally in English – she reels off a laundry list of colloquial terms for female genitalia – but found that to speak about similar topics in Georgian was to encounter a “mental block”. “I associated it with swearing,” Lika says, “with men in the street who swear by their mothers' vaginas. After performing, I finally felt comfortable saying the word vagina [in Georgian] in public. It was one thing to break taboos in English; it was quite another to practice transgression in her native tongue: to reconcile her Georgian identity with her identity as a heterosexual ally to the LGBT movement.

Valuable, too, Lika notes, was the degree to which performing in the all-female Vagina Monologues allowed the actresses involved to challenge Georgian conceptions of patriarchy and female visibility. While many Georgian conservatives equate feminism and homosexuality as products of insiduous, so-called Western, influence – threats to Georgian nationalism – Lika argues that all too often misogynistic attitudes find their way into the country's LGBT politics. On both the pro- and anti-gay-rights sides, she says, the discussion constantly focuses on gay men: because women are rarely seen as sexual agents (and, indeed, are expected to be virgins before marriage), they are almost invisible in the discussion. Such invisibility can be useful – says Lika,  “it's easier for a girl to hide her sexual preferences, because less is expected of her.” – but it comes at a cost: the issues of gay and straight women alike become subordinate to those of gay men.

After the 17 May protests, Lika says, several male Identoba members used Georgia's nineteenth-century kinto culture among Tbilisi tradesmen, in which homosexuality was perceived as common enough for Russians to refer to it as the “Caucasian sickness"1 to argue for the possibility of reconciling Georgian identity and homosexual orientation. The best case for tolerance of homosexuality, it seemed, was to argue for its fundamental, historic, Georgianness. “My lesbian friends got so mad,” Lika says, “like – we don't exist anywhere on the map? Not in the nineteenth century? Not even now?”

The Vagina Monologues, it seems, allowed for a twofold breaking of taboos, an attack on the “double discrimination” that faces LGBT-allied women in Georgia – at once challenging conservative Georgian ideas about the “foreignness” of feminism and homosexuality alike, and addressing the more insidious problem of female silence still prevalent within the Georgian LGBT-community.

As we wrap up our interview, I ask Lika and Sonia about the Georgian word that so incensed the hecklers. They laugh, half-embarrassed, before teaching me the word muteli. “Don't call your article that,” Lika says. “You'll get a lot of angry emails from Georgians.”

The Vagina Monologues was performed for a second time at the State Medical University on 23 July 2013. The performance went off without incident.

_______________________

cf. Paul Manning and Zaza Shatirishvili, “The Exoticism and Eroticism of the City: the “Kinto and His City”, in Urban Spaces After Social: Ethnographies of public Places in Eurasian Cities, ed. Sypylma Darieva et al, Campus Verlag 2011

 

Sonya Tamazovna, Lika Barabadze and another member of the company.

Tara Isabella Burton's work has appeared in The Spectator, Guernica Daily, Lady Adventurer, and more. In 2012 she won The Spectator's Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize. She is represented by the Philip G. Spitzer Literary Agency; her first novel is currently on submission.

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Robert Harris: Some of our great political leaders have crossed the floor. But it takes courage

Jeremy Corbyn is the very opposite of the man the times call for – so progressive politicians need to find new ways to take the fight to the Tories.

The big picture in recent years has been the collapse of the left-wing project across the world. But in Britain, in particular, there are institutional reasons. I can’t quite understand how the members of the Parliamentary Labour Party can sit there day after day, month after month, year after year, knowing that they’re simply heading towards a kind of mincing machine at the next election. It’s like waiting in a prison room, waiting to be taken out and shot one by one, when there are enough of you to overpower the guards.

If you look back over British political history, some of the great political leaders have crossed the floor: Gladstone, Joseph Chamberlain, Churchill – and Jenkins, Owen, Rodgers and Williams in 1981. Whether these people turn out to be right or wrong – and mostly they turn out to be right – there’s a certain courage in the action they took. There seems to be no one with the big vision to do anything comparable in the Labour Party.

It’s not fashionable on the left to say this, but individuals are hugely important. I think if there had been a canny and effective leader in place of Jeremy Corbyn we may well not have had Brexit. But as it is, Labour has provided no rallying point for the nearly half the nation that doesn’t want the course the country is set on, and that is such a colossal failure of leadership that I think history will judge the PLP extremely harshly.

The New Labour project was based on a kind of Crossmanite view that through economic growth you would fund ever-improving social services for the entire country. That worked very well until we had the crash, when the engine broke down. Suddenly there was a wilderness in the leadership of the Labour Party. At the same time, the Liberal Democrats had imploded with their alliance with the Tories. There was no opposition.

Our familiar view of the Labour Party is over. That is not coming back. Scotland is not going to be recaptured. So there can never be a Labour government of the sort we’ve seen in the past. One just has to adjust to that. What I would have liked to have seen is some grouping within Labour in parliament, whether around the Co-operative Party or whatever, that would have been able to take the fight to the Tories. But who would lead such a group? We don’t have a Jenkins or an Owen. There doesn’t seem to be anyone of comparable stature.

We all thought that Europe would smash the Tories but actually Europe has smashed Labour. There has obviously been some sort of fracture between the white-collar workers and intellectuals – that Webb, LSE, New Statesman tradition – and a large section of the working class, particularly in the Midlands, the north and Scotland. It’s an alliance that may be very hard to put back together.

Corbyn is the very opposite of the man the times call for. They call for a politician who can master a brief who is also nimble on his feet: but that is the sort of figure the Corbynites revile. You simply can’t have a leader who doesn’t notice when the Tories abandon a manifesto pledge on tax and can’t ask a couple of questions with a quarter of an hour’s notice. The Tories haven’t really gone to town on him but once they get back on to the IRA support and the views expressed in the past, Labour could easily drop to about 150 seats and we could be looking at a 1931-style wipeout.

The fact is that the extra-parliamentary route is a myth. Brexit is being pushed through in parliament; the battle is there and in the courts, not with rallies. You can have a million people at a rally: it’s not going to alter anything at all. It seems as if there has been a coup d’état and a minority view has suddenly taken control, and, in alliance with the right-wing press, is denouncing anyone who opposes it as an enemy of democracy. It requires a really articulate leadership to fight this and that’s what we’ve not got.

The only possibility is a progressive alliance. These are not great days for the progressives, but even still, they make up a good third of the electorate, with the rest to play for. 

If there was an election tomorrow I’d vote for the Liberal Democrats, and I think an awful lot of Labour people would do the same. The Lib Dems offer a simple, unequivocal slogan. You would have thought the one thing John McDonnell and co would have learned from Trotsky and Lenin – with his “Peace, land, bread” – is that you offer a simple slogan. Who knows what Labour’s position is? It’s just a sort of agonised twist in the wind. 

Robert Harris’s latest novel is “Conclave” (Arrow)
As told to Tom Gatti

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition