Cairo’s Version of The Vagina Monologues Addresses Egypt’s Gender Issues
by Daphne Auza
An independent theater group in Cairo, Egypt has created a play similar to the controversial “Vagina Monologues” by Eve Ensler. Some might see it as the Egyptian response to the American play, but organizers of the troupe have worked to establish the distinctness and cultural relevance of their monologues.
The project, called BuSSy, addresses the complexity of gender issues prevalent in Egyptian society. Although the selection of monologues varies from year to year, it tackles taboo topics such as dating, sexual harassment, body image, marriage and female circumcision among others.
Like Ensler’s play, BuSSy’s monologues utilize few props, directing the viewers’ attention away from the aesthetics of stage production and focusing on the narratives being told. Their most recent edition, “Stories of the Women of Egypt”, is performed as a dialogue by actresses and BuSSy organizers Sondos Shabayek and Mona El Shimi
BuSSy was conceived by two students at the American University of Cairo in 2006 and since then has grown into a full-fledged theater troupe. Originally they harvested inspiration for the monologues from the student body, but realized a myriad of women’s experiences remained untold in the surrounding community. They made an open call for stories with the hopes of diversifying their content and reaching out to more spectators. According to their blog, the group has collected more than 500 submissions in the past seven years.
The directors of the project aim to make BuSSy as personal and local as possible. The performers themselves are not all professionally trained actors and actresses, simply volunteers passionate about an authentic portrayal of gender issues often muted in Egyptian society. On their website, the performers explain how they saw potential for social change in the art of theater: “Why theater? Because we felt that this would be the best way to reach a large body of people while providing the storytellers — women and men — with a direct opportunity to publicly reclaim the truth as they experienced it.”
The group performs in both classical and colloquial Arabic — sometimes even mixing the two — and occasionally in English. As a result, the monologues explore not only social boundaries but linguistic ones as well. It also makes the project more relatable, distancing the content from its academic roots.
Similarly to the reception of “Vagina Monologues” in the United States, BuSSy has provoked a wide range of reactions from Egyptian audiences, including negative backlash from detractors. In previous years, widespread censorship has resulted in obstacles for the progressive theater troupe. During one performance in July 2010, censors attended a performance to ensure that the play adhered to their guidelines. Determined to get their stories across, the actors and actresses continued the show by miming deleted lines and scenes.
It was clear that going public had its consequences, but BuSSy channeled this government censorship of creative expression into another version of the monologues. At the Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival in Cairo, the group performed a set called “Don’t Tell Your Story”, reciting all of the pieces that had been forcibly removed from the July 2010 performance.
In its inception, the monologues primarily focused on experiences of womanhood but, has expanded to incorporate the voices of men as well. The group desires to represent the complexity of gender identities rather than a simplified narrative of women’s oppression. BuSSy’s success has allowed them to take their performances outside of Egypt by traveling to countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and France.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Based in Los Angeles, Daphne Auza is a current student at Occidental College pursuing a major in English and Comparative Literary Studies. Her interests lie in travel, poems, and the intersection between the arts and social justice, but her curiosity extends far beyond those realms as well. She likes to think that many of her passions are founded on her seemingly insatiable restlessness. You can check out her daily musings and other writings at candidkandu.tumblr.com.
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