- 13 Aug 14
Dublin has just been witness to a piece of revolutionary theatre that has the potential to go down in the history of modern sexual politics as a game-changer.
Nirbhaya is an award-winning play sparked by the appallingly violent gang rape and murder of 23-year-old Jyoti Singh Pandey on a Delhi bus in 2012. During its two-week run in The Pavilion in Dun Laoghaire, word spread like wildfire of standing ovations night after night. It quickly became apparent that Nirbhaya – which bears witness to the actors’ own stories of sexual abuse and violence – was generating a wave of healing for the sexual wounds in our own individual and collective psyches.
Jyoti’s death (her name, symbolically, means ‘light’) ignited a fire in India. Gang rapes are common in Delhi, as they are in many parts of the world, but with the brutalisation and murder of Jyoti, a tipping point was reached. For the first time on a mass scale in India, men and women took to the streets in protest at the sexual abuse inflicted on half of the country’s children, and the daily sexual terror systematically inflicted on the country’s women. In the aftermath of Jyoti’s death, the culture of silence that underpins the regime of sexual oppression there was smashed – hopefully for good.
It was that same silence – instilled by the combination of fear, shame and blame of the victim – which facilitated decades of systematic abuse of women and children in Ireland.
The four women who greet us in the car park beside the upper lake at Glendalough, Co Wicklow, are breathtakingly striking: not just in their beautiful looks but also in the spirit that they radiate. After a frolic in the lake, we start our mini pilgrimage through the forest, past the small lake, towards the ‘monastic city’ and our final destination, the little-known Church of the Women, situated well beyond the main buildings – an ancient, sacred and secret place overlooked by most visitors.
Actor Priyanka Bose tells me she didn’t sleep well. She’d been shaken by the after-show talk in The Pavilion, in which she and other cast members joined Irish sexual abuse survivors and activists for a discussion on stage. Colm O’Gorman, founder of One In Four – the Irish charity for survivors of sexual abuse and/or violence – had been one of the speakers.
On the night, O’Gorman spoke about how love lies within the heartbreak. It’s a similar sentiment to that expressed by a line quoted in the play by the Indian poet, Rumi: “The wound is the place where the Light enters you.” As a newcomer to abuse-survivor activism, Priyanka – who was sexually abused by multiple men throughout her childhood and called a whore because of it – was deeply moved by meeting a veteran like O’Gorman.
“It was incredible to meet somebody who understands me so, someone who’s had a life like me, so far away from where I am from. And a man! ‘Don’t be OK with what has happened to you, because it’s not going to be OK ever. But just be – and that’s OK’. That’s what he told me. It was so profound.
“He’s helped himself, through his work, and that is what I aspire to do,” states Priyanka. “And it’s just incredible to know that there is life in that heartbreak, and there is love. I’m not ashamed to be devastated. I’m not ashamed to be ashamed.
“I find it very poetic that I’m drawing in people like Colm, who are inspired by owning their own truth, and are returning to their true selves and understanding what your true being is. It is a life of adventure. So as well as devastating, it is beautiful.”
The skin on Sneha Jawale’s face is striated and shimmering. She is one of the multitude of women in India who are victims of acid and paraffin attacks. A dowry bride, Sneha’s husband tried to kill her through burning, and stole her son eleven years ago when he was five years old. She hasn’t seen her boy since.
Sneha’s beauty and strength shine through her scars. She cries real tears on stage every time she recounts her tale.
“I want to create awareness,” says Sneha. “I don’t want to see any more cases like mine, or like Jyoti’s or the other women’s stories. And I want compassion for the survivors of acid attacks. Because after a burn, we lose our identity. We lose our faces. But we are still human beings. We are not monstrous or dangerous, but people often treat us cruelly and rudely. It hurts.
“In India, you have to look beautiful to have a job. According to those criteria, I’m not beautiful, so I lost my job. They said they need a normal person, and I look abnormal. So in that regard we need awareness too – give acid-burn survivors jobs. How else can they and their families survive?”
Nirbhaya has been performed in only two Indian cities to date, but it played to massive audiences who were electrified by it. Perhaps Sneha’s involvement in Nirbhaya will re-connect her with her son. “I will meet him in 2016,” she assures me, laughing with joy at the prospect. A well-known tarot card reader, numerologist and astrologer, Sneha moves in divinatory circles. She knows.
Like Sneha, Sapna Bhavnani is not a professional actor. Since she was 13, Sapna has been an activist and a revolutionary, eschewing the ‘obedient Indian girl’ look with tattoos and punky hair-cuts. It is no exaggeration to compare Sapna – she appeared on the Indian equivalent of Big Brother – to a modern-day feminist Gandhi. Amongst her many campaigns, Sapna recently adopted a village of 5,000 people, and has already delivered the funds to rebuild the village’s schools and empower the women towards financial independence with sewing machines, as Gandhi did with spinning wheels.
Now 43, at the age of 24 Sapna was a victim of gang-rape in Chicago. She never told anyone until after Jyoti’s death, when she agreed to become a cast member of Nirbhaya. Now, supported by her new-found path of yoga, she re-enacts the trauma on stage, to help smash the silence and shame around rape.
“People have remarked that I seem so calm when I’m talking about what happened to me,” she observes. “But to me, if you see this play and you leave with anger against the rapist instead of love for the survivor, there’s something wrong. That’s what I’m fighting for in India, because after Jyoti there’s so much importance given to rapists and where they come from and let’s research them…
“And it’s not just India. I’m not really interested in the rapists, because it’s naïve to think once you research them, they’re going to go away. I’m more interested in what are we doing for the survivors? What are we doing to incorporate them back into their normal lives? What are we doing to accept them with arms wide open? What are we doing to give them therapy? What do they need? My goal is more taking care of them.”
The Church of the Women is well off the beaten track and involves climbing over gates and trudging across private land. When we get there we are well rewarded: the sun streams down through blue skies into the small roofless 10th century church, built on an even older structure, itself built upon a pagan site dedicated to the goddess. The Nirbhaya women bathe in the divine feminine energy of this special place.
We sit in a circle on the ground inside the church and bask in the rays. Here, I get a sense of how much Japjit Kaur – the young woman who plays Jyoti in the play – supports the rest of the cast. It isn’t just her own sensitive nature; she channels the spirit of Jyoti, who is a real presence in Nirbhaya, giving the women the magical power to tell their own stories. The other women refer to Japjit/Jyoti as ‘the magnet, the mothership’. Her strength is one of the key factors that enable the women to undertake their painful performances.
“Also we support each other,” says Japjit. “Otherwise we couldn’t go on. It would be impossible to do it on your own. I’m finding it really hard emotionally – but the biggest thing that keeps me going is that, after the shows, so many people come up to us and break their own silences. There is nothing more rewarding than that.”
The women tell me about the conversations with people in the foyer of the theatre at the end of each performance. Elderly Irish women who were forced to marry their rapists, and have never told anyone before of the horror they’ve lived with all of their lives; middle-aged men who were abused as children; circles of people spontaneously gathering around the actors, all discussing their own traumatic experiences, often for the first time. These people open up to the Nirbhaya cast, to claim their truths – and so begin the journey of reclaiming their lost selves.
It is a virtuous circle of healing. Long may it continue.