Nirbhaya: How One Play Exposed Sexual Violence and Made an Impact on a High School Student

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

One of the greatest honors that happened as part of taking a high school feminism class was meeting Poorna Jagannathan.

She was one of the actresses in the play Nirbhaya, which is about the gang rape that happened in 2012 in New Delhi, India.

The press named the victim “Nirbhaya,” which means “fearless.” Nirbhaya had gotten on a bus with her male friend, where he was beaten and knocked unconscious and she was beaten and raped. Afterwards, they were thrown out of the bus and the driver even tried to run Nirbhaya over, but her friend pulled her aside in time.

The crime was horrific; one of the accused men confessed that he saw the other men pulling out her intestines. Her injuries were so severe that she died 13 days later even though she was under emergency treatment in Singapore.

After the gang rape in New Delhi, many Indians went out into the street and protested, as people were fed up with the amount of sexual assault and rape that was ignored and kept quiet.

In our high school feminism class taught by Ileana Jiménez, we read the play Nirbhaya. We were the first students in the world to read this play in a classroom setting. In the play, Nirbhaya, two of the characters say, “We live this shit. Mouth is full. Swallow it every day”; these women are talking about how sexual violence and harassment are an everyday experience.

Women are expected to accept violence against women in all forms, but the play Nirbhaya and the protests in India and around the world prove that women don’t have to and don’t deserve to live this way.

Very soon after the gang rape, Poorna and the playwright Yael Farber decided to make a play about this terrible incident. They began writing and producing the play right away because as Poorna told us, “If you don’t take action during that golden time, then it passes.”

One reason the play is so successful, is because they performed it while the New Delhi gang rape was still fresh and being talked about; it hadn’t lost its impact yet.

The play was first performed in London at the WOW Festival (Women of the World), which my teacher Ileana was able to see; it was there that she met Poorna and invited her to our classroom in New York.

Many people spoke up at the end of the play during the panel that was held after the production. Audience members told their own stories, which they had never shared before; this play unleashed the silence around violence against women.

Poorna told us how “intensely transformative” the play was because it inspired so many people to speak up. The play can be very emotional for the audience. Poorna told us that some people have left midway through and one person even fainted because it was so intense.

During the course of the play, Poorna and the other actresses tell their own stories about sexual violence. Throughout the performance, the audience realizes that they are sharing their own stories, which makes the play extra personal and emotional and gives the audience the motivation to speak up afterwards.

Poorna Jagannathan and our feminism class at the end of our discussion. Photo Credit: Vinay
Poorna Jagannathan and our feminism class at the end of our discussion.
(photo credit: Vinay Chowdhry)

Hearing Poorna go into detail about the Delhi gang rape and her own experiences was extremely emotional, intense, and heartbreaking because she was so deeply connected to it.

A lot of my classmates and I had tears in our eyes. What she told us wasn’t shocking to me because I already knew about sexual assault, but hearing all of this from someone who experienced sexual violence firsthand made it all feel much more real and made me feel much more angry.

An important point that was brought up in our discussion was about sexual violence being a global issue and how the play explores this theme. It was crucial that Sapna, one of the actresses, shared her story of being raped because it took place in Chicago.

Having a story take place in the U.S. shows that rape is a global problem; it’s not just an issue in India. If the play had just told stories about sexual violence in India, the audience would think it’s only an issue in India.

Each country in the world ignores the fact that rape happens in their own country, while pointing their fingers at others. If we can’t face the reality and the truth, we will not move forward. The play Nirbhaya is breaking the silence and exposing sexual violence around the world for what it is.

Poorna said that she didn’t know how long the play could last because the actors and actresses have had such an intense experience together. They have shared their personal stories, which makes everyone feel vulnerable.

One play can influence many, but there’s so much more that needs to be done. It’s crucial that we all step up to the plate to change our culture, whether it’s through the arts, politics, science, etc.

The fight to liberate women applies to everyone: men, women, and children need to participate in order to change society’s beliefs. The first step is to get everyone to start admitting to the fact that men dominate and treat women like property in our culture.

We can achieve this by performing plays like Nirbhaya or spreading the message through the media.

For example, just days before we met with Poorna, the global human rights organization Breakthrough, whose goal is to make gender based violence “unacceptable,” also met with our high school feminism class.

Below is their public service announcement that was shown at NASCAR races telling men to speak up when they see men harassing other women.

Hearing Poorna talk about using an art form to spread awareness and bring change to the world for the greater good was extremely inspiring. One of my passions is dance and I would love to choreograph a piece that shows the audience that rape and sexual assault is everywhere. It has to be talked about and must be stopped. I know that I will never forget her powerful words and the way this groundbreaking play made an impact on me.

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