When all the women in a family wear the burqa, five can share a bus pass
From Friday noon, I was imprisoned with around 30 of the UK's brightest and battiest women beneath the grand stage at the Royal Albert Hall as we prepared our scenes and (more importantly, luvvies out there) our costumes for a gala performance of The Vagina Monologues to mark V-Day 2002.
The producers of the charity show had made sure, despite the long, tedious rehearsals, that most of our needs were taken care of. So there was lots of hot tea and cakes available. Naturally, with actresses and supermodels present, there were enough salads and veggie food around to make Paul McCartney drool.
This was a girls' day out and no mistake. By 2pm, bonds had been forged, gossip swapped and even a little bit of light bitching was beginning to emerge - mostly aimed at the skinniest of our tribe. That's why Caprice and Dannii Minogue shared a lunch table; because, well, sitting opposite one of them would have made the rest of us feel like shit. There they were, teensy, tiny midriffs on display and teeny-weeny hips jutting out above low-slung trousers. I sat with Nina Wadia of Goodness Gracious Me fame, and we tutted and shook our heads, pretending we felt sorry that they were so "hijacked by their looks" that, unlike us, they couldn't binge on cheese and doughnuts all day.
Suddenly, after hours of girls' school japes, it was time for the curtain to go up. I stood waiting for Eve Ensler, the writer, to introduce me to the audience. I hopped from foot to foot, my stomach twisted in excitement. Jemma Redgrave gave me a thumbs-up and Jenny Eclair grinned impishly. Sandra Dickinson patted my shoulder and, behind me, Caprice gave a huge, bored yawn. "Gaaawd, I am soo tired," she groaned. I didn't have time to slap her peachy face because, suddenly, I was on!
One of the bravest things I have ever seen was the stand-up comedienne Shazia Mirza reading a piece she had written herself, called "The Muslim Vagina". That girl has guts and nerves of steel. She seamlessly combined jokes ("All the women in my family wear the burqa. It's brilliant. Five of us share a bus pass") with poignant observations on the optional and enforced use of the burqa and purdah in the Middle East and the UK. She stood small and still, describing the various ways in which Muslim women can be made to feel "dirty" and "unclean" because of their sex. She ended with: "I can't believe I've talked about the Muslim vagina and I haven't been shot. I'm still standing."
Another amazing lady who is "still standing" is Isabella Rossellini, who also read a monologue she had written herself. In it, she described how her beauty had been blamed for the behaviour of young men towards her, from the age of 14. "I said no to him," she sighed gently, "but he said my beauty said yes, yes." Then, when she reached 40, "I got so many flowers it was like a morgue". Hollywood producers blamed her allegedly fading beauty for the stalling of her US career. As the big roles and the make-up contracts dried up, she was warned not to complain or . . . she wouldn't get any more work. With her back ramrod straight, she announced: "But I will speak. I will not stay silent." There was a standing ovation.
Germaine Greer has criticised The Vagina Monologues for being lightweight and unimportant. Well, at the end of the show, Ensler asked any woman who had been raped or abused by a man to stand up. Rossellini stood on her own for a moment. Then dozens of women in the audience joined her. Ensler asked for "anyone who has ever known of a woman, a family member or close friend that has been abused or raped" to stand up. Only half a dozen people were left seated. There was silence, and shocked acknowledgement. V-Day is more than a "stunt". It raises our awareness of the violence faced by women everywhere. Oh yes, and the 800 performances worldwide raise hundreds of thousands of pounds for women's charities and causes. I was proud to play a very small part in it.