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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Bold frogs, helpful dogs and teen spies: the best children's books for the summer

From toddlers to discerning teenagers, there’s something out there for everyone.

Like soft fruit, summer books can be rich and juicy – or dull and disappointing. Why pick from the glut of American teen romances, stories about running away to join the circus, or books by the ubiquitous David Walliams when you could enjoy something with more flavour?

For toddlers, Once Upon a Jungle (Words & Pictures, £12.99), with its vivid animals moving through brilliantly coloured flowers, is stunning; its dreamlike shapes for children aged two and above are inspired by Rousseau. Nikki Dyson’s Flip Flap Dogs (Nosy Crow, £8.99) is beautifully original, taking the idea of mix and match to describe crosses in dog breeding and temperament that would appal Crufts. Lively fun for dog lovers of three-plus.

The Giant Jumperee (Ladybird, £12.99) brings together two titans of children’s books, Julia Donaldson and Helen Oxenbury, in a tale of animals being tricked by their own fears – and by a bold little frog. It’s perfect comedy for reading aloud to children of three-plus, and an instant classic. The sublime Emily Gravett is less gentle despite her exquisitely imaginative illustrations, and any child that’s ever had a hint of bullying will appreciate Old Hat (Two Hoots, £11.99). Harbert has a hat that other creatures deride as “old hat”, and his increasingly desperate attempts to fit in go wrong until, in a wonderful twist, he shows his inborn originality. Neon Leon by Jane Clarke and Britta Teckentrup (Nosy Crow, £11.99) concerns a chameleon who just wants to fit in, changing into a variety of colours before meeting his match. It’s joyously written and illustrated, for readers aged four and older.

Those too young for Pirates of the Caribbean will still enjoy Sunk! (HarperCollins, £12.99) by Rob Biddulph. With rhyming couplets and a rollicking story, its graphic elegance will inspire the over-fives. The Street Beneath My Feet by Charlotte Guillain and Yuval Zommer (Words & Pictures, £14.99) takes readers on a journey to the centre of the earth, layer by layer; it’s imaginatively conceived for budding geologists aged six and up. In the same age group, the late Michael Bond’s hero returns (before the second film) in Paddington’s Finest Hour (HarperCollins, £12.99). Our most endearing fictional immigrant resists a stage hypnotist, redesigns a neighbour’s chairs, and has a run-in with the police.

In Meg Rosoff’s Good Dog McTavish (Barrington Stoke, £6.99), a rescue dog saves the chaotic Peachey family from late dinners, grime and lost keys. Common sense has rarely been so charmingly conveyed to readers of seven up. An enchanting debut is Lorraine Gregory’s Mold and the Poison Plot (OUP, £6.99). Dumped in a dustbin as a baby, big-nosed, big-hearted Mold must save his adoptive mother from execution when she’s accused of poisoning the king. To succeed he’ll need the help of an unlikely friend and a working knowledge of the palace drains. I love this book, as will any sharp-witted reader aged eight or up – it reeks with talent, great jokes and characters.

Tanya Landman’s protagonist Cassia in Beyond the Wall (Walker, £7.99) is a British slave girl raised for her master’s lusts; when she maims him instead, she goes on the run with a bounty on her head and a slick Roman spy by her side. Interweaving elements of Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth, the Carnegie-winning Landman has created her best heroine yet in a historical thriller that never releases its ferocious grip. Elizabeth Wein’s heroine also travels to Scotland, for a last summer in her family’s ancestral home. A prequel to the award-winning Code Name Verity, The Pearl Thief (Bloomsbury, £7.99), set in the 1930s, is a vivid mystery from page one, when posh, fearless Julie is encouraged by her grandfather to shoot a poacher.

Reluctant teen spy Alex Rider makes a welcome return in Never Say Die (Walker, £12.99). In mourning for his housekeeper and mother-substitute Jack, Alex gets a hint she might have survived Scorpia’s vengeance. A heart-in-mouth pursuit of the rich and nasty begins. Anthony Horowitz is overdue for a gong as a writer who, like J K Rowling, has kept the nine-plus crowd reading long after lights out.

Acclaimed for her witty, topical teenage tales, Sophia Bennett has gone back to Victorian times in Following Ophelia (Stripes, £7.99). By day a scullery maid, Mary becomes after hours Persephone, the stunning red-headed muse of a handsome Pre-Raphaelite painter who takes London by storm. How long can she maintain this double life? Virtue battles vice, and sense succumbs to sensibility in a luscious story that readers aged 12 and over will devour. Keren David’s hero River is another deceiver, and The Liar’s Handbook (Barrington Stoke, £6.99) is both funny and suspenseful for 11-plus. His inventive excuses for flunking school are rooted in unhappiness about his absent father – but the truth, based on a true story, is stranger than you might guess.

My favourite young-adult novel for those aged 12-plus is by Sebastien de Castell (author of the superb Greatcoats fantasies). In Spellslinger (Hot Key, £12.99), Kellen’s dilemma is that he seems to have no magic in a world where teenage mages are required to duel. Brave, funny and vulnerable, he discovers that his true problems lie closer to home. With a talking squirrel and a fabulously hard-bitten trickster on his side, his steps into both magic and manhood are told with the conviction of Ursula Le Guin and the dash of Alexandre Dumas. It’s a peach of a summer read.

Amanda Craig’s new novel “The Lie of the Land” is published by Little, Brown

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder