These last few months I have been on the road traveling with V-Day, the global movement to end violence against women and girls. I have visited colleges, safe houses, after school programs, and orphanages. I have been in war zones, cities and in the fields. The whole time, I have been listening to girls.
In Mumbai I meet Priya, eighteen, who stands up and asks out loud in a college hall full of men and women, Why are boys heroes when they have sex with different girls and girls who do the same thing considered sluts? Her bravery and outspokenness allows other girls to speak out and a fiery discourse that unleashes secrets, anger and desire for liberation follows.
I meet J.D., fifteen, on the lower east side in New York City, who was raped when she was eleven and has been cutting herself, and who decides, through the course of a rehearsal for a play, that words might be a better way to direct her sorrow and rage; suddenly she is writing poems that fly off the page.
In Rawalpindi, there is Abaaz, who was forced to marry at thirteen, had a baby when she was fourteen. After her husband abused her for several years he took another wife and kicked her out into the streets. To survive, she decided to live as a man, changing her clothes, deepening her voice and opening a vegetable stand. She is now able to support herself and her child. When I meet her, she and her son are wearing matching gray suits. She tells she longs one day to wear her beloved scarf and live as a woman.
There is Helene who is seventeen, raped by the militias in Bukavu, after they killed her six brothers and sisters and raped her mother. She gave birth to a little girl who is a daily reminder of that rape. But she defies that story by the love and kindness she pours into her daughter, who is now smart as a whip and in spite of their difficult circumstances, beaming with happiness.
Each of these girls lives in a culture or a family that has robbed her of choice, control over her body and power. Each girl has been humiliated or shamed or defiled. Each girl has been made to feel less and alone. And each girl has dug into herself and found her resilience, her inventiveness, her brilliance, her bravery and kindness.
For over a decade, I have had the good fortune to travel around the world. Everywhere I have met teenage girls, circles of girls, packs of girls, arm in arm, laughing, giggling, screaming. Electric girls, defying the odds. These girls are what inspired me to write I Am an Emotional Creature: The Secret Life of Girls Around the World. I have seen how girls’ lives get hijacked, how their opinions and desires get denied and undone. I see, too, how this later comes to determine so much of our lives as adults. So many of the women I have met through The Vagina Monologues and V-Day are still trying to overcome what was muted or undone in them when they were young. They are struggling late into their lives to know their desires, to find their power and their way.
So the call to girls is to question rather than to please. To provoke, to challenge, to dare, to satisfy their own imagination and appetite. To know themselves truly. To take responsibility for who they are, to engage. It’s a call to their original girl-self, to their emotional-creature-self, to move at their own speed, to walk with their step, to wear their color. It is an invitation to heed their instinct to resist war, or draw snakes, or to speak to the stars.
In Tim Burton’s recent film Alice in Wonderland, I think it is the Mad Hatter who tells Alice that when she was younger she had more of her “muchness.” I think whatever country or town or village girls physically live in they inhabit a similar emotional landscape. They all come from girl-land. There, they get born with this “muchness” or awakeness, this open hearted-have-to-eat-it- taste-it-know-it-defy-it. Then the “grown ups” come with their rules, their directions. They convince girls that they are too much - too intense, too emotional, too dramatic, too alive, too, too too. They teach girls how to make themselves less so everyone feels more comfortable. They get girls to obey and behave.
Here’s what I’m telling you (from the Manifesta To Young Women and Girls in I Am an Emotional Creature: The Secret Life of Girls Around the World):
Everyone’s making everything up
There is no one in charge except for those
Who pretend to be
No one is coming
No one is going to
Mind read your needs
Know your body better than you
Always fight back
Ask for it
Say you want it
Cherish your solitude
Take trains by yourself to places
You have never been
Sleep out alone under the stars
Learn how to drive a stick shift
Go so far away that you stop being afraid of
Not coming back
Say no when you don’t want to do something
Say yes if your instincts are strong
Even if everyone around you disagrees
Decide whether you want to be liked or admired
Decide if fitting in is more important than finding out
What you’re doing here
Believe in kissing.
Eve Ensler, a playwright and activist, is the founder of V-Day, a global movement to end violence against women and girls. Her newest work I AM AN EMOTIONAL CREATURE: The Secret Life of Girls Around the World was just published by Random House in the U.S. For V-Day events near you, see www.vday.org.