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Democracy Now! broadcasts from New Orleans, where thousands of women are gathering to celebrate the tenth anniversary of V-Day, the global movement to combat sexual violence against women and children. V-Day began a decade ago when playwright and activist Eve Ensler held the first benefit performance of her award-winning play, The Vagina Monologues. This weekend, Ensler is organizing a two-day celebration at the Superdome called “V to the Tenth.” Its focus is on helping the women of New Orleans and the Gulf South. We speak with activists from New Orleans, Kenya and Iraq. [includes rush transcript–partial]
Colette Pichon Battle, Gulf Coast coordinator for Oxfam America and founder of the group Moving Forward Gulf Coast. She is a native of Slidell, Louisiana, and comes from one of the oldest French Creole families in South Louisiana.
Carol Bebelle, Executive Director of Ashé Cultural Arts Center. She is a native of New Orleans and a published poet and writer.
Agnes Pareyio, coordinator of Tasaru Ntomonok Initiative in Kenya, a community-based group to save girls from female genital mutilation and early marriages. In 2002, she helped V-Day open a safe house in Narok, Kenya to create a safe haven for young girls seeking refuge from female genital mutilation (FGM) and early childhood marriage.
Yanar Mohammed, Co-founder of the Organization for Women’s Freedom in Iraq. The group vocally supports women’s rights in Iraq and shelters Iraqi women targeted in honor killings and sectarian violence. She was born in Baghdad in 1960. She left Iraq in 1993 and then returned after the US invasion.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re on the road, broadcasting today from New Orleans. Thousands of women here are gathering this weekend to celebrate the tenth anniversary of V-Day, the global movement to combat violence against women and children. V-Day began a decade ago when playwright and activist Eve Ensler held the first benefit performance of her award-winning play, The Vagina Monologues.
This weekend, Eve Ensler is organizing a two-day celebration at the Superdome called “V to the Tenth.” Its focus is on helping the women of New Orleans and the Gulf South. Today, we speak with activists from New Orleans, from Kenya and Iraq who are here for the V-Day celebrations.
But we’ll start with Eve Ensler herself, the author of The Vagina Monologues and the key organizer behind V-Day.
EVE ENSLER: Well, we went down to New Orleans right after the flood. We were invited down there by women on the ground who were, you know, at shelters and hotlines, and the whole infrastructure, of course, was gone. So we went to see what we could do, which is what we do. We don’t kind of have an interventionist politics. People invite us, or they do what they do and we support it. And we did this amazing evening of storytelling, and we kind of launched this idea of this Katrina warrior network of women, and about 900 women showed up. And it launched this community and network of women.
And we were down there at the same time trying to determine where our tenth anniversary was going to be, and we thought maybe Nairobi, maybe Paris, and then it was like, no, this needs to be at the Superdome. You know, we need to take back the Superdome. We need to reclaim and turn it into Superlove. And what was fabulous about it is, at the same time, we were launching a spotlight on conflict zones last year, and New Orleans is clearly a conflict zone. It has all the ingredients of a conflict zone, a failed state, you know, the desecration of one section of the population, loss of control in the central government. We can go on and on. And so, we began to look at it like that and began to see the impact of what happens when there is a failed state, when in this country people don’t show up and there’s that kind of profound neglect and abandonment, particularly looking at women, because women have carried New Orleans and the Gulf South since the storm.
And I know you all have spent a lot of time there and covered it in an incredible way since the flood, but, you know, I’m there almost every month in some way, and people don’t know what’s going on there. We don’t—people don’t know that we have tent cities there. People don’t know that the mental health rates and the suicide rates are out of control. People don’t know that people who lived in houses that were once $400 are now $1,200. People don’t know that people are being charged for fuel adjustment, this new term, and they don’t even have a meter, you know, the gas meter in their house. I mean, it’s a bizarre, I think really immoral and profound statement about where the US is.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And, of course, the reports recently of all the formaldehyde problems with the trailers—
EVE ENSLER: Oh, absolutely.
JUAN GONZALEZ: —and the poisoning of—
EVE ENSLER: And the poisoning and everybody becoming sick. You know, there’s a piece I just wrote for Oprah, where I call it “FEMAldehyde,” you know, which is kind of this new creation made by our own, very own failed government. But I think what we’re saying is that we need to bring women from this country and all over the world to show up for our sisters in the South.
AMY GOODMAN: And what is the special burden you feel the women of New Orleans bear?
EVE ENSLER: Well, I think if we can look at all the pieces of it, we kind of look at the whole story of what needs to change for women everywhere. But there’s the burden of racism. There’s the economic inequalities. There’s the burden of a failed education system there, so where are children going to school? And where are they—it has just been designated the murder capital of America. So we’re talking about one of the highest—the highest violence rate in America. We’re talking about communities where taxi drivers wouldn’t even bring me to go—I don’t have a car—because they were too scared to go into the community, and people are living there.
You know, we’re talking about—I think women particularly are on the frontlines, because they are dealing with children, they’re dealing with husbands who have no work, they are dealing with how to put food on the table, they are dealing with all the kind of nurturing, moving-the-community-forward aspects. And everybody’s traumatized. We’re talking about a seriously traumatized population. So you’ve got trauma.
You know, we did a brunch there recently for the women in the Gulf South, Mississippi, Alabama, grassroots activists, fabulous women who have just been working twenty-four hours a day, and we just gave them a brunch. Women were standing up and weeping, you know, talking about the fact that no one had ever given them a brunch. I thought, a brunch? This is what we’re grateful for? A brunch? And I think, so, part of it is, how do we bring people from all over the US and say we care about the women in New Orleans? We’re going to be giving free massages, free medical exams, free yoga and meditation, all free for the women. And women from all over the country are volunteering. And then we’re going to do a performance of The Vagina Monologues with performers from New Orleans. You know, Charmaine Neville is performing, and there will be gospel choirs. And it’s going to be the biggest mega-event we’ve ever done, at the New Orleans Superdome, at the arena.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain what The Vagina Monologues are, for people who don’t understand. I’m sitting with two of your books. One is The Vagina Monologues, featuring five never-before-published V-Day monologues, and the other, Insecure at Last: A Political Memoir, that you wrote.
EVE ENSLER: Well, The Vagina Monologues grew out of interviews that I did with about over 200 women, where I took little pieces and strains of their stories and created literary theater text that are really talking about the sexuality of women. The story of women is filtered through their vaginas and the story of their vaginas, and so it ranges from very orgasmic pleasure to, you know, very shattering stories, like that were based on the women in Bosnia who were raped during the war. And I think it goes from celebration to sorrow to happiness to—but looking at how—if we tell our stories through the kind of biography of our vagina, you know. And it was just amazing to me how many women needed to talk about it, and still do.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Eve Ensler interviewed in New York in February. Well, now we’re here in New Orleans, and the V-Day celebration is taking place today and tomorrow, culminating in a major event on Saturday night.
We’re joined right now by two people involved with the V-Day celebration. Colette Pichon Battle is the Gulf Coast coordinator for Oxfam America, founder of the group Moving Forward Gulf Coast. She’s a native of Slidell, Louisiana and comes from one of the oldest French Creole families in South Louisiana. Carol Bebelle is the executive director of the Ashé Cultural Arts Center, a native of New Orleans, and a published poet and writer. We welcome you both to Democracy Now!
COLETTE PICHON BATTLE: Thank you.
CAROL BEBELLE: Thank you so much.
AMY GOODMAN: Carol, talk about the significance of this event, thousands of people coming in from all over the country, though there may be a few fewer with American Airlines canceling what? More than a thousand flights?
CAROL BEBELLE: Absolutely. Absolutely, absolutely. Well, for us, I mean, I start where Eve started, which is that she was out in the world working on violence against women, and the end of August 2005 happened, and she turned around, and many of the faces that she saw in water, and many of them were girls and women. And she began to think about what was it that V-Day ought to be doing. They came to do humanitarian work. And then, with the tenth anniversary coming up, she said she thought that it was really important to come back and stand here with the women of New Orleans, because when systems stop working in society, because women are at the center of everything, they get the brunt of the problem.
And so, the institutions shut down, and women, in their physical vulnerability, being, you know, the carriers of children, being the caretakers of the family, the nurturers, etc., when those systems go away, they’re just kind of left out there on their own. And so, the violence that we see here is really—it’s more subtle. It doesn’t leave bruises. But what it does is it winds up essentially rendering women helpless inside of the place where they should be the most powerful. And so, the institutions are not there. They’re not there for the children. They’re not there for the women. And it’s kind of counterintuitive to not take care of women, with women being as important to the life of a society as they are.
AMY GOODMAN: Were you here during Hurricane Katrina?
CAROL BEBELLE: You know, this was the first time in my life that I ever evacuated. And so, I went off, and I left that Sunday and, to my obvious horror, discovered what happened after my exit.
AMY GOODMAN: And your community, how hard hit was it?
CAROL BEBELLE: Well, I live in the uptown area, so I’m close to the Sliver by the River, so my personal home was not—we didn’t have problems. In Central City, which is where I work and I spend most of my time, half of that community was flooded, and it’s a renting community, and so the people are not as easily able to come back home, because they don’t have land that ties them to New Orleans, and so they’re left to the devices of government, in terms of getting rental properties, helping to get rental properties up, and landlords, you know, in terms of the rents and how expensive they are.
AMY GOODMAN: Colette, housing is certainly an issue that you have worked on. Talk about the situation today here in New Orleans.
COLETTE PICHON BATTLE: Yeah. Well, Moving Forward Gulf Coast is bringing 1,200 women back to the region for V-Day. And one of the things we discovered as we’ve been reaching out to women in at least eight different cities, diaspora cities, is that a lot of the women want to come back, but, as Ms. Carol just said, many are part of the rental population, and there just is no way for them to come back right now. So we are proud and sad that what we’re able to provide for this one weekend is actually what most of these women need in a more long-term way.
AMY GOODMAN: And where are they based?
COLETTE PICHON BATTLE: These women are based out of Houston, Atlanta, Dallas, Little Rock, Memphis, Jackson, Baton Rouge.
AMY GOODMAN: But they come from New Orleans?
COLETTE PICHON BATTLE: Many come from New Orleans. They include rural Louisiana, which is often not talked about but took a hard hit of the storm, some from Slidell on the North Shore, all the way out in Pass Christian in Mississippi, Biloxi and Mobile.
AMY GOODMAN: What’s happened in rural Mississippi?
COLETTE PICHON BATTLE: In rural Mississippi, there’s an interesting fight between the politicos, and the federal money that has come down for housing in Mississippi was actually not given to people who had wind damage. And so, you have a significant portion of the population in Mississippi who have gotten absolutely no help, and therefore they’ve got no ability to return to the place where they even had houses, not just renters, but they had houses there, and they had no insurance or not enough insurance to return. So Rural Mississippi is one of the—it’s a story that’s often forgotten when people talk about Barbour’s successes in Mississippi.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Colette Pichon Battle and Carol Bebelle, we’re going to break, but we’ll come back. This is Democracy Now! We’re broadcasting from New Orleans.
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