Activists take theatre to public buses to spread rape and harassment awareness in New Delhi
It has been exactly two years since a young woman died after she was gang-raped on a moving bus in New Delhi. Last month, as the anniversary approached, Pramod Singh, the state president of the Democratic Youth Federation of India, which campaigns on social issues, decided it was important to mark the occasion but couldn’t decide on how to do it.
“We wanted to do something powerful, so we thought of staging a performance on a moving bus,” says Singh.
“We wanted to see if people’s attitudes toward sexual harassment had changed and, if they hadn’t, to try to spread awareness about women’s right to be safe on public transport.”
Singh approached the theatre director N K Sharma for help.
“I had the intriguing brief to come up with a mini-play that could be performed in the journey between bus stops,” says Sharma, who went on to create Are You Listening?, a seven-minute skit that has been performed on more than 54 buses across New Delhi in the past few weeks. It is meant to force commuters to think about women’s safety – an issue that has become a hot topic again after a finance executive was allegedly raped by an Uber driver on December 5.
Singh trained eight DYFI activists – six men and two women. One day last week, I joined them as they boarded a crowded bus at 11.30am outside the city’s top government hospital on Ring Road.
The actors stood in the aisle for a minute. Then, one of the women swung around and accused the man behind her of groping her.
He answered back aggressively, yelling that if she didn’t want to be hassled, she should stay at home or at least “wear less revealing clothes”.
“The way you are dressed, you should expect to be groped,” he shouted.
She slapped him hard. “What’s wrong with my clothes? What kind of clothes will make me safe?” she screamed back at him.
As more actors joined the fracas, they waited to see if any of the passengers would intervene to challenge the assailant or intervene on behalf of the victim.
“The reactions have been dismaying,” says Suman, one of the actors. “Most people don’t react at all, they leave me to fend for myself. And a lot of men just watch as though it’s some kind of entertainment.”
On the day I was there, the majority of men, mostly in their 20s, watched the ugly scene [the acting was excellent] without backing the woman. Only one middle-aged man and a smartly dressed young woman spoke out, the former trying to calm the assailant and the latter to shout: “Who are you to tell women what to wear? We’ll decide what to wear ourselves.”
Two sisters, Kushi and Uma Khan, who were seated right beside the group, did nothing. However, when it was all over and the group started handing out leaflets to explain why people must speak out when women are being harassed, the sisters applauded the effort.
“It’s important to get people to think differently. Men’s behaviour won’t change until they realise they won’t get away with it,” says Kushi, who confesses to not speaking out for fear of getting hurt.
One of the actors, Sanjay Kumar Singh, says the most disappointing responses come from female passengers.
“Invariably, they blame the woman, calling her immodest, out of control and responsible for ‘arousing’ men. One woman told Suman she should dress decently but Suman was wearing a modest Indian outfit,” he says.
After the gang rape of 2012, India plunged into self-lacerating criticism and revulsion over the average Indian male’s conduct towards women, but not much has changed. Commenting on the Uber taxi case, Rajnath Singh, India’s minister of home affairs, said that 25,000 rapes were recorded in the country this year and called it a “national shame”. A few days ago, the Indian model and actress Shenaz Treasurywala posted an online letter to “India’s most powerful and influential men” – including the prime minister Narendra Modi and the Bollywood stars Amitabh Bachchan and Aamir Khan – in which she asks them to campaign against rape and sexual violence in India.
And while the DYFI’s skits on the local Delhi buses are a step in the right direction, attitudes remain resolutely patriarchal and biased. Only a handful stepped in to help: one man steered the woman away from the assailant; a few senior citizens took her side but failed to confront the assailants; and an elderly woman grabbed the assailant by the collar and told him to behave.
Sharma says the response confirms the pressing need for more campaigns to change people’s perceptions about women’s rights.
“I wanted, through this piece of street theatre, to get people to realise that by watching silently, they are allowing violence against women to happen and they are responsible,” says Sharma.
On the bus, Sanjay Kumar Singh talks of the women who have no sympathy for the victim. As though to prove his point, just as the skit finishes, a middle-aged woman dressed in a sari makes an angry remark at Singh before getting off the bus.
“What did she say?” I ask.
Singh shrugs and makes a wry face. “She said it’s all this exposing of skin by women that’s responsible – but her sari revealed her midriff while Suman was totally covered.”
Published: December 15, 2014 04:00 AM