by Huma Munshi
Trigger Warning: rape, child rape, domestic violence
Last week something quite special happened. Though only witnessed in real time on twitter, it has since filtered through to the mainstream media. It was an important moment in the fight-back against rape culture led by a survivor who asked women to tweet stories of their rape and, simply, what they were wearing. The response was overwhelming. It hit home yet again that it does not matter what a woman wears: from sweatpants, to a girl in a school uniform, to someone in a bathing suit, a rapist will rape. Victim blaming is dangerous, ignorant and simply adds to rape culture.
I watched a play recently, ‘Nirbhaya‘, at the Purcell Room, London, and was struck again by the all-pervading impact of rape culture as it is played out through all cultures and ethnicities.
Nirbhaya, meaning “fearless”, was the name given by the Indian press to Jyoti Singh Pandey who was brutally gang raped and murdered on a Delhi bus in December 2012. The vicious nature of the crime galvanised Indian society and women (and some men) rose up demanding greater protection on the streets and reforms towards gender equality.
Nirbhaya is a powerful, beautiful and disturbing piece of performance theatre. It pieces together the events of that night in Delhi alongside a number of stories told by Indian women of being survivors of abuse and rape.
The director and writer, Yael Farber, was contacted by Poorna Jagannathan, an actress in Mumbai. She had remained silent about the sexual violence she had faced in her life. The murder of Jyoti made her realise that silence upheld and normalised rape culture and she had nothing to feel ashamed in speaking out. She worked with Yael Farber to bring to life her story along with that of other survivors. The play lays bare how the murder of Jyoti opened the door for survivors to talk openly of their abuse and smash any perceived societal shame and stigma that comes with being a victim.
Two of the tales in Nirbhaya were of child abuse and rape. In one scene a young women holds up a child’s yellow dress to illustrate the child that was raped. It is the detail that is particularly disturbing. Another story is spoken by a “dowry bride”. The survivor is covered with burns on her face and arms. She speaks through a translator to tell her story of being doused in cooking oil and then set alight by her husband because her dowry was not deemed sufficient by her in-laws. It is a testament to these women that they are able to relay these painful stories repeatedly as this play is toured globally.
It is interesting that the final story is of an American Indian woman who is gang raped by a group of white American men. As an audience member, it felt that the director wanted to demonstrate that gender-based violence and oppression is not simply something that happens on foreign shores perpetuated by those brown, savage, uncontrollable men. Sexual violence and brutality against women is a human rights issue which impacts all countries.
Following soon after the Delhi rape case, was the Steubenville rape case where two college footballers in America shared pictures and videos of raping and abusing a young woman. It was clear they saw nothing wrong with their actions that night. Indeed, they had dehumanised their victim, she had no moral agency; she was simply there for their pleasure and merriment. No culture is immune from the misogyny and barbarism that makes the abuse of women a daily occurrence. Indeed it is rape culture when such brutality is normalised.
What such a play does do is smash the stigma for survivors, because there is no damn shame in surviving. Surviving is heroic in the face of such inhumane behaviour. If there is any shame it is with the adult that sees fit to rob a child of her innocence, to sexualise and manipulate her before she has even encountered the words “sex” and “violence” The shame is with the man that seeks to burn alive his bride because her family’s dowry is not enough. The shame rests on the shoulders of those men that gang rape and brutalise women in India, America and elsewhere. The shame lies with those men that simply see women for the orifices they can ejaculate into.
The final scenes in the play include the ritual bathing of Jyoti’s corpse by the women who have shared their stories. I saw these scenes as a symbol of healing where Jyoti is cared for, and carried forth, by survivors. It is horribly unfair to quantify the extent to which the murder of a young woman will lead to greater change because nothing will ever make what happened that night in Delhi acceptable. In fact there have been ongoing reports of rape in India. Challenging gender based oppression and rape culture requires fundamental root-and-branch reform. I hope this play reflects the mobilisation of women in India as they shout from the rooftops: enough is enough.
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Huma Munshi started the #fuckhonour hashtag to express her anger at the oppression women have experienced. She is a writer, poet, blogger and trade unionist. She is a regular contributor to Media Diversified, F-Word and Time to Change. She has written widely on honour based violence, mental health, film and intersectionality. Her weekly column will reflect her passion for activism, a feminism that reflects her own experiences as an Asian Muslim woman, film reviews and current affairs. Read more of her articles here
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- After Abuse: The Noise of the Unsaid (mediadiversified.org)
- In fear of dishonour – when the perpetrators are family (mediadiversified.org)
- Challenging Mistaken Assumptions about Honour-Based Violence (mediadiversified.org)