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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Skellig Michael is hardly an island - but it's the one I love most

On a rock in the Atlantic, I felt the magic of place.

I am on the vaporetto from Marco Polo Airport to the Venetian island of San Giorgio Maggiore, gulls and terns drifting back and forth over the boat, cormorants on the docks, wings spread to the sun, that late August light, unique to this place, shimmering over the waters. I haven’t been here in 20 years but I remember the greys and silvers of the terns (four species are recorded here, including the black tern, Chlidonias niger, which I find particularly elegant in flight) and the miles of tantalising reed beds, where anything might be hiding – only the city, when it finally emerges from the haze, is more postcard than recollection.

It’s a mental flaw, I suppose. I remember habitation in a formal, almost abstract way, whereas light – which is always unique to place – and flora and fauna are vivid and immediate to my mind. At the same time, every approach by water, anywhere in the world, reminds me of every other, whether it’s the crossing from Staten Island to Manhattan or the ferries that run up the coast of Norway, stopping in at one tiny harbour town after another along the way. So it comes as no great surprise, as I disembark, that I find myself remembering the island landing that I love more than any other, even though I have made that passage only once.

Skellig Michael is hardly an island. A thin needle of rock soaring more than 600 feet high straight out of the Atlantic, seven miles from the Kerry coast, it was once refuge to those contemplative monks whose desire for undisturbed reflection reached such an extreme that they braved the choppy waters common in these parts in simple coracles to settle, in tiny beehive huts, at the windy summit of the Skellig. On the day I made the crossing, most of the charter skippers refused to go out, citing the stormy weather, but I finally managed to persuade one man – whose name really was Murphy – to make the voyage and, though the water was indeed rough, the approach to the island and the hours I spent ashore were nothing short of beatific.

Nobody else was there, apart from two archaeologists who kept to their billet in the one stone house by the quay and the rabbits that had run wild and multiplied after the monks left. Halfway up the needle, I turned oceanwards as a pure light cut through the clouds, illumining the sky and the water so the horizon looked like one of those mysterious sea photographs by Hiroshi Sugimoto.

All through the crossing, gannets had swarmed noisily over the boat in spite of the weather, before dropping back, disappointed, to their colony on Michael’s sister rock, Little Skellig. Up here, however, at the top of the needle, everything was calm, almost silent, and inside the first of the beehive cells it was utterly still. I have no time for gods, as such, but I know that I was touched by something in that place – something around and about me, some kind of ordering principle that, though it needed no deity to give it power, was nevertheless sublime.

Back in Venice, as I changed boats at San Zaccaria, the noise and the crowds and the now golden light on the water could not have offered a greater contrast. Yet what was common to both landings was that quality of unique to this place, the sensation of the specific that makes any location – from gilded Venice to a bare rock, or a post-industrial ruin – magical. As long as we have such places, we have no real need of outside agency: time and place and the fact of being are enough.

Place, first and foremost, is what we all share, living and dead, in our griefs and our visions and our fleeting glory. It is what we should all strive to protect from the blandishments of commerce and the appropriations of agribusiness and other polluting enterprises, not just here, or there, but wherever our ferry boat puts in.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses