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Nirbhaya: The Shattering of Silence on Gendered Violence

November 5th, 2015     by Naz Afsahi     Comments

Japjit Kaur. Photo by William Burdett-Coutts. Image courtesy of Nightwood Theatre.

CONTENT WARNING: This blog contains references to gendered violence.

As someone who works in the arts, I have always questioned the role ‘art’ plays in our lives. Especially as a theatre artist, I question what is the role of theatre in society? I see performance as part of our everyday lives. We perform our relationships to each other, which are based and impacted by power dynamics that already exist. Theatre, in particular, is a space in which we can gather and examine the world we live in: a space that allows us to see those power dynamics reflected back at us, and attempt to dissect and solve the problems that confront us. Unlike other art forms, there’s something unique about theatre, which asks audiences to be present amongst strangers and to really listen.

One of the biggest issues facing us today is that of violence towards women. As Amnesty International notes, “[v]iolence aimed at women and girls—including sexual violence, sexual harassment, and domestic violence—continues to affect one third of all women in Canada and around the world.”

That is unacceptable.

If the role of theatre is to reflect back to us, how do those of us in the arts speak of this issue without sensationalizing it, as often happens in mainstream media (looking at you, CSI and Criminal Minds)? We need to spark a dialogue, not present narratives that are lurid and tantalizing.

Internationally acclaimed theatre artist Yaël Farber writes, “I’ve always known… that theatre can indeed change minds, lives and the world.” And certainly, she has achieved that goal with her production of Nirbhaya, which is a catalyst for change by mobilizing people around the world in a growing movement aimed at speaking about violence against women.

Nirbhaya is inspired by the true events that occurred on the night of December 16, 2012 when 23-year-old Jyoti Singh Pandey boarded a bus with a male friend after watching a movie at a mall in New Delhi. Along the route, Pandey was beaten and severely gang-raped – she died two weeks later from her injuries. The Indian press – which was not allowed to reference her name in their coverage – used the pseudonym Nirbhaya (Hindi for “fearless”).

Written and directed by Yaël Farber based on the performers’ lived experiences, Nirbhaya is a tapestry of personal testimonies which tears away the shame that silences survivors of sexual violence. Recently named Critics’ Pick by the New York Times, Nirbhaya premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2013 (the largest arts festival in the world) and won the coveted Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award, the Scotsman Fringe First Award and the Herald Angel Award for Outstanding New Play. It is an unforgettable work that moves and inspires audiences with the sheer capacity of the human spirit to rise, bare witness, survive and turn the tide.

At first glance, you may think the show deals specifically with an issue that is unique to India. This assumption is a dangerous one. As citizens, all of us see (and at times ignore and become implicit in) gendered violence right here in Canada, from our missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, to assaults on university campuses, and the low rate of reporting and prosecution that occurs for sexual assaults.

Poorna Jagannathan, herself a survivor of sexual violence, reached out to Farber in the wake of the attack in 2012 and is a producer of Nirbhaya. As Farber recalls, Jagannathan noted: “I know that my silence is part of what made what happened on that bus possible because of the complicit tapestry of violence that we are all contributing to. And I’m ready to speak and people here are ready to speak and you have to come and help us be a part of that.”

In a performance of Nirbhaya, the artists and the audience are not only bearing witness - they are asked to actively engage in examining power relations that contribute to a reality where gendered violence continues to exist. It is here, in the darkened theatre, that Farber asks you to be courageous and to cast off the implicit shame that’s involved with sexual violence, by displacing shame from the survivor and putting it firmly where it belongs: on the perpetrator. Here, amongst the actors and other audience members, we become shameless.

I find myself coming back to Jenna MacKay’s Global Outrage, Local “Meh?”, which first appeared on the Shameless blog on February 8th, 2013. MacKay writes: “I encourage you to challenge depictions of violence that frame the issue as one that is a problem of other countries and/or cultures. We should question how Canadian society perpetuates, creates and maintains violence against women as (sic) the individual and structural level. Let us be outraged and organize about violence against women everywhere. Let us acknowledge gendered violence and hold perpetrators accountable.”

Nirbhaya is an Assembly, Riverside Studios and Poorna Jagannathan Production.

Nirbhaya, presented by The Cultch, is playing in Vancouver as part of its Canadian run from November 3 – 14, 2015. Tickets can be purchased for the Vancouver shows here.

In Toronto, Nightwood Theatre presents Nirbhaya, in association with Amnesty International’s Action Network for Women’s Human Rights. The show runs from November 18 – 29, 2015, and tickets can be purchased for the Toronto shows here.

*Disclosure: Naz Afsahi is a Metcalf General Manager Intern at Nightwood Theatre, the oldest professional women’s theatre in Canada, which is presenting the Toronto run of Nirbhaya.

Tags: arts, gender, indigenous, violence

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