“Nirbhaya”: A must see performance that explores sexual violence

nirbhaya_4The most common form of violence experienced by women is rape and yet, it remains one of the most controversial issues for the general population. We often hear: did it actually happen? How was she dressed? Was she drunk? Did she at least try and fight off her attacker? What actually constitutes “rape”? Can a husband even rape his own wife? If you’ve ever asked any of those questions, you have contributed to perpetrating the myth that women are somehow responsible for their own assault. That is a problem; it is a problem because it removes all the blame from the accused and places it on the victim. A victim, that is left full of shame and horror, for a violation that had nothing to do with her or her actions. Instead, it has everything to do with how society perceives women and their personhood.

In December of 2012, a young medical student was gang-raped by six men on a bus in Delhi, India. We all heard the news and we all know how we felt when we heard it. As the details of the violent and vicious crime were disseminated to the media, the world looked on in horror. For many women, a crime of this magnitude was worse than anything we could ever imagine. The young woman managed to survive 13 days after the attack but eventually succumbed to her extensive injuries. Because the India Penal Code prohibits the disclosure of a rape victim’s name unless the family agrees to it, the media initially dubbed the woman “Nirbhaya”, which means “Fearless one”.

The staging of “Nirbhaya” is simplistic: six bus seats, a few hanging bus windows and a large bus door make up the set. We begin with a “vision” of “Nirbhaya” entering the stage, singing a song with a sombre melody. The audience is already sad, we are waiting for the impending doom. What follows though, is more than we bargained for. Including “Nirbhaya’s” story, the audience listens in shock as 4 other women recount their true stories of rape and abuse. Each story is their own, and told in their own way.

At various points, you could hear the viewers audibly sobbing, responding to various elements of the women’s stories. By the time Sneha Jawale tells her story of an abusive husband who doused her in kerosene and lit her on fire, only to regret it and take her to the hospital, the audience is a mess. The sobs turn to disgust when she informs us that after returning home from the hospital her husband beat her so badly that it effectively ruined all the surgery she had undergone. Jawale will forever wear the visible scars of those events all over her body.

Although I had been emotional along with everyone else, Pamela Mala Sinha’s story, nearly did me in. Not necessarily the events themselves, which were beyond terrifying, but when she said “Who would I have been, if it hadn’t happened?” There is such sorrow and longing in those words that they broke me. Even thinking about it now upsets me. It can be tortuous to play the “what if” game, but in instances such as this, maybe it is a way to deal with what was stolen from you so you can move forward and reclaim parts of yourself? I don’t know.

“Nirbhaya” is an intense, jarring and emotional show. My plus one and I both commented on how, for the duration of the performance, we sat rigid and tense, almost forgetting to exhale. While I was interested in seeing this show, and think everyone should see it, I admit that it may not be for everyone. The stories are difficult to hear, I know, but they are necessary to hear. Remaining silent only contributes to the problem.

“Nirbhaya” is playing at York Theatre until November 14th. For ticket information: https://thecultch.com/events/nirbhaya/