How do you change society without changing the subparts of how society constructs its social perspective? Whenever there is a case of severe violence against a woman we hear the chants of “No More.” No more rape, no more domestic violence, no more dishonor killings, no more slavery, no more unequal pay, no more. Subsequently, we speak about tougher penalties. We talk about hanging rapists. We talk about tougher prosecutions in courts. We talk about an end to police corruption. We talk about building toilets, making acid illegal, creating all-women modes of transportation. Name any one of the aforementioned that has brought a dead woman back to life. Name one of the aforementioned that has unraped a woman. Name one of the aforementioned that has rejuvenated the skin scarred by acid. Name one of the aforementioned that has recognized the inherent dignity and potential of a woman.
Beyond the problems of everyday society, you have the dialectical social theorizing of violence and equality by academics. There are “western” solutions, or “eastern solutions.” We have these imaginary lines in our arguments—east and west.
Then of course we must invoke nationalism. “End rape in India.” “End rape in South Africa.” “End rape in the United States.”
After all of this posturing, there is our current reality.
Right now, as I write this, students are being brutalized at Jadavpur University as they seek justice for a student raped with impunity. At Columbia University, the so-called pinnacle of academia in the United States, a young woman is dragging her mattress—symbolic of the mattress she was raped on—across campus, from class to class to protest the administrators’ impunity of her rape. Do we want justice for these women? Yes and we want it now. We want assailants and those who covered up their crimes, fired, arrested, and brought to trial. But will firing them, arresting them, and bringing them into a courtroom end violence against women? No. Will it even end it at Columbia University or Jadavpur University? No. How do we exert the social message that men have power over women, and that women’s point and purpose in life is singular—to serve and fulfill men—and then expect change? Misogyny is the social, ritualistic tool of patriarchy. So we must first examine the social rituals that engender patriarchy and limit women. Equality is freedom and without freedom there can never be peace.
I am the artistic director of the global grassroots theatre company, Price of Silence. We strive to bring courage to women to stand up and shout out for real change. On stage we bring to life the violence that women face all over the world for our audience to live and breathe activism in action.
Our most recent show, Blurred Lines of Justice (a spinoff of Robin Thicke’s sexist anthem Blurred Lines) brought to life the concurrent stories of three rapes on three continents to illuminate universal injustice against women, which occurs without borders and beyond all cultural boundaries; this is a cause for unity among women, not division.
The stories of these three rapes were acted out in an interwoven narrative to give life on stage to those who lost their lives in the misogynistic world we face today. Daisy Coleman, drugged and gang-raped at a party, her body left in sub-zero freezing cold, had a positive-identifying rape kit, yet her rapists never served a day in jail. Her house was burned down, leaving her remaining family to flee Marysville, Missouri in the United States. A teenage girl dubbed Liz by the press was gang-raped and brutally beaten; she is now mute and bound in her wheelchair. Liz’s assailants were sentenced to community service—cutting grass in front of the courthouse—and then freed. A young girl in Kolkata was gang-raped twice, and later set on fire, from which she passed from this world. We dubbed this young girl Lahara, and her attackers were never found.
We knew little about the character we called Lahara, because her young life never extended beyond being a minor. Given the little we knew, we decided to match the spirit in which the Kolkata girl struggled for her life within the narrative of Lahara’s fight, and countless other young girls who challenge the norms that disintegrate their spirit day after day. The monologue below is adapted from a poem Lahara wrote within the show after doing chores. She runs out into the street to greet a friend who really wants to go with the social flow aligned with her expectations as a girl; the friend sees marriage as her only way of upward social mobility. Lahara rips into the idea of marriage by connecting the social aesthetics for beauty, consumption, and materialism, with the objectification of women. Lahara compares being a wife in a loveless marriage to that of being a hand bag. She shows how every investment made in her as a person is one that helps elevate her in the marriageability ladder:
Handbag wife. Magazine cut-out wife. Luxury car wife. They send you to school to get married. Can’t afford school? No worries, you can still get married. Your only prerequisite is you must pass the virginity test. They ask you: Why do you color your hair? They tell you: Cover your hair. Whiten your face. Cover your face. Close your mouth. Do not speak up. You are a gift for him to unwrap. When you learn to dance, it is only for him to see: “Look how she moves, and bends, and hangs,” and he thinks, “Oh, in bed I bet she…” You learn to play the violin and he thinks, “Oh look parents what she has mastered, she’s refined.” A Gucci bag, a luxury car, a BMW Lady he can drive. You looks good in pics, his friends will be impressed, the neighbors will say that Ashvin did fine for himself. You’re a fine Fendi bag, but when no one looking, he’ll throw you in the corner. You will be stuffed, stretched—you’re just a bag. He doesn’t mind hitting you, because you’re just a bag. You serve one purpose: carrying his things. You carry his food to the fire, his laundry to the water, and if you forget something, he can throw you away. You’re a fucking bag. A useless, bag.
The monologue, which was brought to life by the talents of actress Nandanie Devi, encapsulates the heavy social pressure weighted upon girls. As a man, I couldn’t even begin to comprehend the intelligence, grace, and courage with which women negotiate this world while constantly being under such sociocultural scrutiny. We force women to see themselves as the subtotal of their cosmetic appearance. By promoting this perspective, we are promoting the ideals of subservience. Subservience is a mechanism of dehumanization, and dehumanization is an instrument of violent social coercion. Cultures are not meant to be stagnant. If how we organize socially and culturally is not appraised and changed, in the face of everyday stories of depraved violence, then we are all guilty in being accomplices in the largest human rights crisis in history, that of violence against women. Progress is a beautiful word, but progress only comes by way of change and change has enemies, because change shifts power structures. Change is uncomfortable for those enjoying power and those who benefit from power, whether that power is economically, socially, or culturally. Still, I would rather my power as a male be diminished than have to listen to another story, from any continent, of any girl, of any religion or ethnicity being bludgeoned by any weapon in the arsenal of gender terrorism. We must define the culture of the 21st Century into a vision of action. This action must illuminate the realities too often silenced. You don’t get progress following the values of fifty years ago, you get progress by setting the rules for today. The children who grow up fifty years from now, grow up in the light of our actions.