Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.

Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad/Roughing It

One of the best things about having a vaguely itinerant lifestyle is the fact that you get to meet so many extraordinary people from all over the world. Last night I had dinner with three lovely friends, one of whom was from New Zealand, one from Ireland and the other from the US. Our lovely English friend was up to her neck in work and wasn’t able to join us, but if she’d been there we would have represented five English-speaking nations. And the fact that we were all English-speaking made ours quite an unusual gathering for Geneva, where international organisations attract people from every possible ethnic background.

Last night our Irish friend reminded me of a story that I’d told her once before. In 2001 I’d been living abroad for about ten years and decided that it was time to make up my mind, once and for all, where I wanted to live on a permanent basis. I put my stuff in storage in London and landed on the doorstep of my fantastically obliging little sister in Perth, Western Australia, and stayed with her for an amazing six months.

There are many things that I could write about that time (and I’m sure one day I will) but my point for this piece is that for the six months that I was there, I only met one person who spoke with an accent that wasn’t Australian. I don’t remember this Belgian girl’s name or very much else about her now, but what I do remember is that I absolutely adored her. And all she had to do to earn this adoration was speak with a foreign accent, so starved were my ears of a variety that had become familiar after years of living in London. Of course there were “foreigners” living in Australia, but for some reason they weren’t in my circle of acquaintance during that time, and I missed them.

I was very young when I left Australia and I think it was probably my youth, while I was there, that made me feel disconnected from problems in other parts of the world. The distance was also a factor, of course, but I think it was mostly the fact that I find it much easier to identify with other places when I’ve been on their shores and/or met their people. It’s much more difficult to have an “I’m all right, Jack” attitude when the people of whose suffering you read are people with whom you’ve eaten and talked and travelled.

That’s why it was so important for me to be involved in The Vagina Monologues and by association with One Billion Rising. I had the random good fortune of being born into a society where my very existence wasn’t threatened because I was a woman. But I’ve met people who didn’t have that same chance. I have no more right to life, freedom, self-determination and dignity than they do. There are some rights that should be inalienable.

Perhaps this three-minute video will give you a better understand of what trying to say. Be warned that it’s not for the faint of heart. And be aware that it concerns issues that everyone in the world should know about.


Alone on a bridge, unmolested

(A spoken word recording of this post can be found here.)

My vagina’s furious and it needs to talk.

Eve Ensler

10142Grey Line with Black Blue and Yellow by Georgia O’Keeffe
(Thank you to for this image)

So there I was, a woman alone on a railway bridge in Geneva on a cold winter’s night. A man walked past, said “Bonsoir” and walked on. Then there was a family out walking their wee dog, chatting. They smiled at me. Then another man walked by, oblivious. There was nothing noteworthy in the fact that there was a woman standing alone on a railway bridge on a cold winter’s night. I pulled my hat down over my ears and contemplated the series of events that had brought me here.

I’ve never harboured any ambitions to act. I have so much respect for what actors do and I envy their ability, but I know that the performance gene is missing in me (as much as I might try to will it into existence for experiences like having simulated sex with Johnnie Depp!). But last week, when I learned from a lovely friend that auditions were taking place for a staging of The Vagina Monologues in Geneva, I knew that I had to have a go. I wrote to the producers, secured a place in the auditions, and spent all day Wednesday standing in front of the mirror rehearsing lines like, “I asked her if shaving my vagina would stop him from screwing around.”

My audition was at 8:30 on Wednesday night and I was characteristically early; it was still only 7:45 when I located the audition room and saw, through the glass walls, another woman’s audition in progress. It was cold outside and the black and red skirt and red top that I’d chosen for the audition weren’t great insulation, so I walked away in search of a short-term refuge. I found it in the form of a Thai restaurant. I explained that I was in a bit of a hurry, so they found the lone woman a table, worked with remarkable haste and friendliness to furnish her with a green curry and a glass of red wine, and had waved her on her way by 8:15.

So that’s why I was standing alone on a railway bridge, watching the world go by. The building that hosted the auditions was glass on both sides and looked out onto the railway lines, so from where I stood I could see the auditions in progress. I could see three young women sitting at a desk, all facing the same way and with pens in hand, while another young woman stood before them, reciting lines like, “I asked her if shaving my vagina would stop him from screwing around.”

I thought about how privileged we all were to be able to do this. The three young women had made individual decisions to get involved in V-Day and had started to work together to make it happen. I had decided, all alone and without anyone else’s permission, to find a way to participate, and no one had stood in my way. I’d even driven myself to the audition. By pure coincidence I’d bumped into my man in the street when I was on my way to the audition and he’d given me a kiss and wished me luck.

I thought about how in our society, we, as women, don’t consider the ability to make these sorts of decisions and undertake these sorts of activities a privilege. And neither should we have to. Everyone should be able to make decisions for themselves. Everyone should be able to drive, to vote, to work, to learn, to go about their daily business unmolested.

But not everybody can. While I was standing alone on that bridge there were women in the world being brutalised. Some were being groped as they caught public transport, just trying to get from one place to another. Some were being raped by strangers. Some were being molested by people they knew. Some were being beaten because their boyfriends had had a bad day. Some were receiving online death threats because they’d campaigned for women’s rights. Some were walking to school with their heads hung low because they were too young to know how to respond to the wolf whistles and catcalls coming from the men on the nearby building site. Some were having their genitals mutilated while their parents held them down and explained that it was just a cultural ritual. Some were being forced to abort their babies because it had been discovered that they were only girls. Some were being raped because violence against women is used in their countries as a systematic weapon of war. Some were being forced to stay home and clean the house while their brothers went out to school. Some were being murdered by members of their family because they’d fallen in love with the wrong boy.

Thinking about all this as I stood on the bridge unmolested fuelled my desire to be involved in The Vagina Monologues and V-Day and One Billion Rising. I hope my passion for the cause came across in my audition.

But even if it didn’t, and even if the producers decide that a 43-year-old woman in a black and red skirt with an absent performance gene is not what they’re looking for for the event, I shall still find a way to campaign to put an end to violence against women, to rise for justice and to promote gender equality.

The One Billion Rising campaign has its critics – doesn’t everything? – but it’s a start. I want for every woman to be able to have what I have. I want to do something to make it possible for every woman in the world to stand on a bridge, alone and unmolested.