Nirbhaya, the Play, Sparks Attention to Rape Culture in India and Around the World

The start of Nirbhaya, Poorna Jagannathan visited our high school feminism class (middle, front row). I am sitting next to her to the right. (photo credit: Lexie Clinton)
The start of Nirbhaya, Poorna Jagannathan visited our high school feminism class (middle, front row). I am sitting next to her to the right. (photo credit: Lexie Clinton)

I can still remember how I felt during the first International Day of the Girl assembly I attended at my high school LREI in the fall of 2011.

I remember the silence that pervaded the room as we began to watch the Girl Effect video that showed how girls as young as the age of twelve are forced into marriage, pregnant by fifteen, and sometimes their only means of survival is prostitution.

I remember the tears that fell from my eyes as I watched that video and thinking, “if only I could somehow shoulder the pain of those girls…if only.”

I felt something growing within me, a desire to help all my sisters in the world who could not get an education; who were sexually assaulted and raped; and who had gone through a traumatic experience based on the sole fact that she was a girl. However, I could not go out into the world completely ignorant, I had to further educate myself before I could truly do anything to support my sisters out there. I vowed to myself in that moment that I had to take the feminism course at my school taught by Ileana Jiménez, once I was old enough.

Two years have passed since that moment. I am older now and finally able to take the feminism course I have dreamed about. I’ve already learned so much that many cannot learn in a lifetime. But I have faced a big dilemma. Two years later, I forgot why I wanted to be in this class so badly, as I was no longer in touch with that emotion I felt two years ago. I was lost and disconnected. Everyday in class I would wonder, “Why don’t I feel passionately about any of this? Why do I feel so passive?”

Gradually I became more reserved and internally distressed.

It wasn’t until Poorna Jagannathan, producer and initiator of the play Nirbhaya, came to our feminism class and talked about the play and her experience being sexually abused that I was able to reconnect with that burning passion I felt only two years ago. Our high school feminism class was the first and only school in the world to read this play in a classroom setting.

Poorna Jagannathan talking to our feminism class. Photo Credit: Ileana Jiménez
Poorna Jagannathan talking to our feminism class.
(Photo Credit: Ileana Jiménez)

Nirbhaya, which means “fearless,” is the nickname given to the woman who was gang raped and eventually died from injuries after her rape in New Delhi in 2012. Jyoti Singh Pandey, more commonly known as Nirbhaya, went to go watch a movie with her male friend. After the movie they boarded a bus believing everything was normal. The other six males on the bus, including the bus driver, separated the two friends and all hell broke loose. Some of the men beat Jyoti’s friend senseless as he tried to get back to her side in order to protect her, while the other men ¨tore off [her] clothes and then took turns to rape [her],” Jyoti said in her testimony.

Her rapists even penetrated her with a rod and pulled out some of her intestines. She only had five percent of her intestines remaining inside of her after she was hospitalized and underwent a number of surgeries. While she was on the bus she fought back ¨…’by beating and biting them. She thrashed them and kicked them too.¨Even after she was hospitalized, she testified against her rapists, describing her gruesome experience in detail before she passed away.

This case provided thousands of men and women across India with the courage and need to share their stories of sexual assault and abuse.

“Maybe it was the sheer brutality of this case that led people to protest. This case was a turning point you know. Things just kept building up, and this case just made everything explode. People weren’t having it anymore, so they had to protest, we had to speak out,” said Poorna when she visited my feminism class.

When Poorna said this, I was hit with the realization that while it was natural that people would protest after such a terrible crime was committed. I realized there have been so many other cases of rape that are also very cruel and gruesome that have gone unnoticed or swept under the rug, such as the recent gang rape and murder of the Dalit sisters.

However, that wasn’t all I realized.

I understood how difficult it was for many to come out and openly share their stories of sexual abuse and domestic violence in a country where rape is usually ignored, over-looked, and or is seen as shameful for both the victim and the victim’s family.

I cannot even begin to fathom the demons that the cast of Nirbhaya had to face by constantly re-enacting their past traumas. I remember Poorna’s voice trembling with teary eyes as she said, “I think I cry every time I share this story. It’s just so sad.”

It is sad and disappointing to not only think about the individual experiences people have gone through. But it is miserable to look at the broad picture and see a system that not only allows men to justify rape but for the victims to keep quiet and constantly believe they’ve become very shameful.

I consider myself unbelievably lucky to have been able to hear Poorna Jagannathan talk about the things she did on the day my feminism class and I led an assembly in honor of the third International Day of the Girl. Hearing Poorna talk about violence against women, victim-blaming, and rape culture added an entirely new layer of solemnity to the skits and dances, personal stories, and videos my peers and I shared that day.

Me (left) and Mirwat (right) doing our dance on domestic violence during the IDG assembly. (photo cedit: Lexie Clinton)
My friend Mirwat (right) and I (left) choreographed a dance about domestic violence for our school’s annual International Day of the Girl assembly. (photo credit: Lexie Clinton)

More specifically there was this new sense of gravity within both my friend and I as we performed an original dance depicting domestic violence in Indian marriages and many marriages in general. By listening to Jagannathan, a victim of sexual abuse and violence herself, made me feel as if I would be letting down victims and survivors of domestic and sexual abuse if I did not put one hundred percent of my effort and attention to that dance.

I am, of course, not trying to imply that violence against women and rape culture is only an Indian issue, not at all. Nirbhaya, the play, makes sure to get it across that rape is not just an “Indian issue,” with the closing scene that shares the story of a woman getting gang raped in the US. So no, these issues of rape and violence are not just Indian, they are global in nature.

Though some aspects of rape, violence, and politics may vary depending on the country and region, the broader picture remains the same; we continue to live in a misogynist and patriarchal society. I believe that if we looked through the lens of global feminism, we will not only see the connection between  violence against women in the U.S. and globally but also unite and support each other and the larger feminist movement in a much more powerful way.

Brother and sisters of the world unite.

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