On Tuesday, June 25, a women’s rights activist group called Bangkok Rising will perform Even Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues in a closed performance for United Nations staff at the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP). The group is performing to honor the UN’s “Orange Day,” a day chosen by the UN Secretary General to raise awareness about violence against women.
The show is set to begin at 5:30 PM.
At the show, Bangkok Rising will accept donations to send to Rohingya women currently living in the Cox Bazaar refugee camp in Bangladesh, many of whom have experienced sexual violence.
I interviewed Dariya, Lise, and Tanadya, three actors from the show, about the significance of The Vagina Monologues to them as Thai women. Darya, 33, is from Nakhon Panom. Lise, 33, is half Thai and half American, and grew up in California, though she now lives in Bangkok. Tanadya, 36, is from Bangkok.
Vaginas: A Cultural Taboo
When I asked about the significance of The Vagina Monologues in Thai society today, Dariya said that when the word “vagina” is mentioned [among Thai people], even for medical or educational purposes, people “make faces and secretly writhe.”
Lise is performing in a monologue titled, “The Vagina Workshop,” about female orgasms and pleasure. She said that female masturbation, and masturbation in general, is quite a taboo and embarrassing subject, but particularly for Thai society.
Lise noted that sex toys are illegal in Thailand, and Thailand’s cultural ministry has stated that “….those who have urges should instead meditate, visit a local temple, or participate in sports.”
“Thai culture is so conservative that you’ll find even in locker rooms at the gym most Thai women are unwilling to undress in front of each other, opting to use changing or bathroom stalls” Lise said.
Tanadya mentioned that domestic violence is another cultural taboo for Thailand.
These taboos surrounding sexual pleasure, bodies, and domestic violence in Thai culture might be appears to be prominent among many Thai citizens. A 2016 UNICEF Review of Comprehensive Sexuality Education in Thailand surveyed 8,837 students and 692 teachers from 373 secondary schools across Thailand about sex education curricula in their schools, as well as their attitudes to different sexual issues.
One case study of one school in Northern Thailand found that most teachers, directors, and parents in this school community believed that sexuality education was important because of its role in discouraging sexual relations between students and preventing teenage pregnancy. Only a few teachers, the study said, “invited students to analyze both the positive and negative possibilities of sex.”
The emphasis on the negative aspects of sex may be a factor in the attitudes that Dariya spoke of, attitudes that cause Thais to make faces when they hear the word “vagina.” It’s possible that negative attitudes toward sex might lead to a negative attitude toward bodies as well, which would explain the reluctance of Thai women to even change in front of one another, which Lise spoke of.
The taboo of domestic violence that Tanadya mentioned might be deeply rooted in Thai society. The UNICEF review found that 35.9 percent of students believed that it was acceptable for a man to hit his wife if she was unfaithful. If violence like this is this widely accepted, people may be less likely to discuss it critically, making it more of a taboo subject.
Each of the women involved in the show who I spoke with said that they believed The Vagina Monologues was important for starting a conversation about the taboos surrounding sex and sexual violence in Thai society.
Tanadya said, “The Vagina Monologues is very important to me personally, as a Thai woman, because I’m proud to be one of the representatives of all women out there who speak out to the world.”
Dariya said, “So, to me, The Vagina Monologues represents issues that have big impacts on women around the world, including women in Thailand, but most people are reluctant to talk about. This is a great opportunity to shed some light on what is deemed as forbidden and make people get familiar with it.”
Lise said, “All of the issues discussed in the play should be brought to light in Thai society.”
Tara is a journalist and campaigner based in San Francisco, US