May 25 2015
The play, ‘Nirbhaya’, is an intense experience and in this personal piece our writer looks at how the themes it raises connects to her own experience of working in India as a young British Asian woman…
By Priya Shah
POWERFUL, emotional and passionate – just some of the words I would use to describe what I watched on Saturday evening.
Five women, five stories – all different and personal to themselves, yet all share similar traits and raise many deeper issues on gender-based violence.
From sex-selective abortion to rape in marriage, honour crimes to keeping stories untold to preserve one’s honour, each one hit a nerve amongst the audience.
The blackened theatre room could hide the tears, but the silence could not block out the sniffling.
As I took in the minimalist set up, the makeshift bus, the windows, and the hustle and bustle of Delhi life, my mind slightly wandered to my own time as a young woman working in India.
I was 20 years old and spent six weeks of my summer vacation in 2013 in the vibrant city of Mumbai, working for a women’s fashion and lifestyle magazine.
It had barely been a year since Jyoti, the Delhi rape victim was brutally murdered and naturally, my family and friends were concerned about my safety in Mumbai.
I was more optimistic, convinced that the rape incident had begun the catalyst for change in ‘India’s rape capital’ and beyond – that the once shy women would speak up against the wrong that was happening around them and that the Indian government had prioritised the issue of sexual violence, which was so prevalent in the country.
How naïve I was. The reality of sexual violence in India is horrible.
Despite laws against rape being passed and more women filing cases against men who sexually assaulted them, attitudes to women and societal practices change at a much slower rate.
Of the 706 rape cases filed in New Delhi in 2012, only one, the most famous, ended in conviction. This shows how the government is not prioritising an issue that is clearly widespread in the country.
Such an attitude was also embedded amongst members of the population.
Whilst working in India, a photojournalist was raped at Lower Parel station in Mumbai and this scared me because my commute to work was through this station.
However, when I expressed this horror to people around me, their reaction was rather surprising – “she should not have been out alone” and – “well, everyday four or five women get raped”, were comments that received.
Regardless of whether such statements are correct or not, it does not fill any woman with confidence and undermines the real seriousness of the crime.
Furthermore, this incident did not receive even half the attention that the Delhi rape one did; it was almost as if people had lost momentum to take action. A few protests here and there, with snippets of coverage by the national newspapers meant that the Mumbai rape incident soon became just another statistic.
Moreover, several men did not make travelling or simply walking in the streets a pleasant experience for myself and other women.
They looked, they stared, they gawped and they licked their lips like a predator enjoying its prey. Two young men even stopped their motorcycle in front of me and mockingly said: “Jump on, we’re not going to rape you!” As if that wasn’t going to scare me.
Of course, not every man is an uncontrollable animal, but an attitude of “the streets are unsafe for women” has been firmly embedded into Indian society, making it hard to change such perceptions.
My own experiences in Mumbai made me realise that whilst they were unpleasant, I was definitely one of the more fortunate women who was left untouched and unharmed. The five women in Nirbhaya who shared their stories are incredibly brave and inspiring.
I ask whether the Delhi rape incident was the “spark that lit the fire” and I believe it was.
Perhaps rape convictions have been piecemeal, but the numbers of women coming out and sharing their stories on what is described as ‘taboo’ topic has increased.
Women and men of all ages have taken to the streets to protests against the deep-rooted misogyny of a society where men are valued more than than women.
Words are powerful, they have an impact and it’s so important that these stories reach as many women and men as possible.
- Priya Shah saw Nirbhaya on Saturday, May 23 at the Southbank Centre in London as part of the Alchemy Festival.
The play goes on national tour: Black Country tour until May 30 and then Oldham Coliseum Theatre, June 1-2, then June 4-6 at Cast, Doncaster. See more for information/booking http://www.southbankcentre.co.uk/whatson/festivals-series/touring-at-southbank-centre
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Nirbhaya review (22.05.15) – We will be silent no more
Article/interview tackling sexual violence
Audio Suman Bhuchar Theatre Voices interview with Yael Farber