The Congo Stigmata: A Response to the Cultural Appropriation of Eve Ensler


Eve Ensler is a writer whose best-known contribution to the world of literature is The Vagina Monologues. At the time of publication it caused controversy, for its frankness and openness about the vagina. The vagina has an air of mystique about it and it is something we very rarely talk about in public space.

In this book excerpt however Ensler talks about her experience in the Democratic Republic of Congo with raped women. The excerpt though is highly problematic. I will not be drawn into a line by line analysis of the piece because it would be very long and boring for you to read.

However, I will point out the main problem areas and the folly in Ensler’s approach to this issue.

Dealing first with the title, The Congo Stigmata I believe it is highly offensive. Firstly, stigmata have their origins in the Christian faith. Stigmata describe bodily marks or pain sensations in the same locations of the crucifixion wounds of Jesus Christ. The phenomena of stigmata is primarily associated with the Roman Catholic faith and notable figures with stigmata include St Francis of Assisi and the apostle Paul.

However what Eve Ensler does is not only offensive it is inappropriate. She brands the whole Democratic Republic of Congo as suffering from stigma, which affects her vicariously as much as the women of the Congo. She aligns herself with them, as one of them, rather than looking in from the outside and respecting their own trauma. To brand a whole country as having  stigmata is grossly offensive.

The subject matter of the article is of course rape. Whilst there are commonalities of experience amongst rape victims, the individuality of everyone’s experiences must be respected.

Eve Ensler though appropriates the experiences of other victims though, and claims them as her own in a highly narcissistic and selfish way. She had a cancerous tumour inside herself between the vagina and the bowel which had in turn fistulated the rectum.

This meant that for her she had to have the same surgical intervention as many rape victims in the Congo.

By this point in the article though, my alarm bells were ringing. In a macabre way, she almost seems to delight in it, as though she is happy about it, or under some illusion that having the same surgery means they have a strong bond between them.

Cancer though is physiological, rape is not. The point is those Congolese women would not need the surgery had they not been raped, yet Ensler exhibits almost a kind of euphoria about the whole thing. It reminds me of somebody being happy about having their legs amputated so they can adopt the physical appearance of an amputee.

She also seems worryingly obsessed by the possibility of supernatural intervention in what happened to her. Doctors come across all sorts of things in careers, some familiar and some not but I think it is very unwise to frame the fistula in a spiritual context. This leads to it being viewed as some kind of spiritual gift which for the many rape victims who have also been through the pain of fistulas I am sure it is not.

She is so cold and clinical about the symptoms arising from fistulas too. There is no sense of empathy from the writer not even when it comes to the indignity of urine or faeces flowing through the resulting hole. No sense of embarrassment or contrition. Instead, I am left with the impression that the writer is completely indifferent to the trauma suffered by these women, and is instead more interested in the biology of fistulae.

Ensler then  described how she needed to see a fistula. Most of us want to see a famous landmark, or meet an idol, or to see a beautiful sunset. But no Eve Ensler wanted to see a fistula. By this point the article feels highly abnormal and disturbs me as I read. Not only is she being insensitive, and culturally appropriative, but also highly voyeuristic. Doctors of course need to be present in operating theatres as part of medical training, and those who have had surgical procedures can now in the Internet age perhaps look them up on YouTube. But there is no reason for Ensler to see somebody else’s operation. This feels intrusive, wrong and highly unethical. The ethics of it disturb me the most. Did the woman give consent to Ensler watching her operation? Was she aware that Ensler was watching the operation, and intending to recount it in a book?

For us on the sidelines, these are rhetorical questions, but I find them disturbing nonetheless highly so. When I wrote about FGM in a recent blog entry I did so with the utmost sensitivity. If you have your writing chops that is what you do. It is common sense.

But instead Ensler chooses to write about the operation in highly flowery dramatic prose. It is highly appropriate if you are writing a work of fiction and want to keep your readers on the edge of their seats. However it is not appropriate to transform a traumatic operation into dramatic exaggerated prose for your own selfish benefit.

She de-centres the person having the surgery completely, and bearing the hallmarks of a true narcissist, she appropriates the experience that this woman on the operating table has had and makes it all about herself, compelling her readers to shift their focus away from her subject on the operating table and back  on to her. I hope however that most readers worth their salt would be to see through this and feel sympathy for the woman anyway.

Semantically, just look at how many I and me sentences there are, given that is supposed to be an extract about raped women in the Congo. I could feel myself falling, except that what happened to the woman on the operating table was not Ensler’s fall to have. I can appreciate that witnessing the operation may have reawakened personal memories for Ensler. However I think it is wrong and disrespectful to conflate the two together for the sole purpose of literary exaggeration and dramaturgy.

The whole way through this piece I felt like I was reading a novel, rather than a realistic account of rape in the Congo. Eve Ensler is a writer. She is not Congolese. Therefore she should not be appropriating Congolese female experience for her own writerly gain. Yes, she may have had the same surgery due to a horrid diagnosis, and I am sorry for that. But that is where my sympathy for Eve Ensler ends.

I have never read many pieces which are as offensive as this, so appropriative, so disrespectful of the experience of these Congolese women, using their lives as a crude plot device. I hope I never do again. Eve Ensler has certainly not contributed to ending the stigma of rape by writing this.


One thought on “The Congo Stigmata: A Response to the Cultural Appropriation of Eve Ensler

  1. Hi! Great post!

    I wanted to point out that at times you use the word stigma, when you meant stigmata. (Feel free to edit this part of my comment out once you make the change.)

    You’re right, it is strange to conflate the two experiences (cancer and rape) and exploitative what she does. I also think it’s problematic to use the idea of stigmata for the physical wounds of the rape victims. There is a whole theology not just behind the stigmata but also about the role of suffering and sacrifice that does not seem to apply to the experience of rape.

    If Eve Ensler is saying that her surgery is essentially her stigmata (ie, she wants so badly to identify with the rape victim and her suffering that she wants to bear the physical wounds on her body) then she is almost implying that rape itself is a holy and spiritual act, or at least, an act that brings forth grace. Not a great move.

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