Eve Ensler was in town for the Lahore Literary Festival. She is most famous for writing a play, the name of which I won’t mention here because I know I have some squeamish readers, but they are monologues that revolve around women’s bodies. She has most recently written a memoir called ‘In the Body of the World’ in which she chronicles her encounter with Stage 4 cancer. I use the word ‘encounter’ deliberately, because she seems to not have viewed it as a battle as much as an experience that she was able to turn into catharsis, albeit an intensely difficult one. The basic premise of her book is that people, particularly women, are disconnected from their bodies all the time. Most often this disconnect is the result of violence, and women’s bodies are always the site of masculine aggression. The only way one can cope is to remove oneself from the site of the violation, and the only way to survive is to live elsewhere, anywhere but within one’s skin.

It’s a notion that sounds a bit absurd. How can you not exist in your body? Wouldn’t you be dead? In a way, yes, you would be. You are. You are indeed dead to real emotion, to real feeling, to sexuality, perpetually distanced from the workings of your bones and flesh because of the constant shame and scandal that is woven around the female form. Patriarchies guard women’s bodies, policing them perpetually. You can’t leave the house, you must cover up, you must never show interest in the physical. Girls aren’t even encouraged to run, let alone bicycle or play sports or walk alone down streets. Rare are the girls who can run at full speed and not feel self-conscious about what their body is doing and how it may look to others. So women spend their life looking at themselves through other people’s eyes, and always feeling inadequate because that is how patriarchies and capitalism gains power over us.

Ensler, like many French feminists, writes about returning to her body during her illness. She writes about her own troubled, violent childhood—she was abused in all possible ways by her father, for example—and how she spiralled into her own kind of ennui, floating farther away from her body. Survivors of violence, male and female, do this frequently: the source of one’s pain, the centre of it, is in one’s body, so you turn away. You vacate it. You create a barrier between your consciousness and your physical presence so you don’t feel the pain as badly. During the cancer treatment, she says she “was all body”, riddled with tubes and scars , organs removed and reattached. Coming back to her body, that cautious re-entering of the emotional self into the physical self, changed her world view completely. During her talk with the indomitable Nadia Jamil at the LLF, Ensler talked about how her relationships changed, and the way she viewed them. One particularly important thing was how she began to view love.

We are told that Love will find us, that it will come in search of us and somehow, drastically and irrevocably, change us forever. If that grand love doesn’t happen then we are somehow less, and should feel like something has passed us by. Returning to her body made Ensler realize that love is everywhere. That we choose to love every day and are loved in return, and that needn’t look at all like the grand love we are told to expect. It sounded like a sufiistic kind of realization to me, the idea of love being both within and without, and everywhere if only you choose to see it.

The importance of being in one’s body, of accepting it and being proud of what it can do and reveling in the life force one embodies is perhaps something that comes easier to men. I can only surmise—the world is geared to support men, and few of them consider their place in the world as conditional. Women do not have the same confidence. Ensler is also an activist for women’s and girl’s rights, and her work has taken her frequently to Congo, where the violence is horrific and perpetual and unimaginable. Women are being raped, their babies cut out of them and boiled before their eyes. The horror is unspeakable. The violence is unparalleled. Millions of women and girls have been tortured, maimed, hacked to pieces, raped, locked up in cages—the list is endless—by militias that protect the mining companies that are extracting the minerals Congo is rich in. Metals that make our phones and computers, metals that we use and never think twice about.

We don’t think about it because it would be overwhelming, so we also seek refuge in our disconnect and that is how violence and injustice and cruelty is only increasing in our world, all over. We are not fully present inside ourselves, and so our connection with nature, with other people, with animals, is all atrophying. We are turning ourselves into automatons by turning our bodies into sites of shame. Jamil, towards the end of her talk, pointed out with her characteristic verve about how our curse words are all representative of that shame—how most swearwords are all to do with the female anatomy. Which is ridiculous, because we are all born of women, and there is no shame in that. It is ridiculous because a body is a body, and how unfair and how idiotic to use biology as an insult. Even if you want to tell someone to be brave and grow a spine you tell them to “man up”. Weakness is automatically associated with “being a girl”. If anything, one learns courage from women. One learns fortitude, grit, strength. I do not know a single woman who hasn’t braved pain and fear, but pushed on anyway. May we all live in the body of the world. May we all be brave enough to come back to our real, terrestrial selves, and have the courage to love, and change the world.