November 17, 2015


Last Saturday night we went to the final Vancouver presentation of Nirbhaya at the York Theatre. The play, by the South African playwright and director, Yaël Farber, is extraordinary.

Nirbhaya weaves the story of the Delhi bus rape that shocked the world, with the personal stories of the five women on the stage, all survivors of sexual abuse and violence.

On the night of December 16, 2012, a young woman and her male friend were returning home after seeing the film, Life of Pi. They boarded an off-duty charter bus. There were only six men on the bus, including the driver. Soon after boarding, the male friend was beaten, gagged and knocked unconscious. The woman, was beaten with an iron rod, tortured and raped repeatedly by the six men.

According to the police, the young woman tried to fight off her assailants. After the rapes and beatings ended, the attackers threw both victims from the moving bus. Sixteen days later, Jyoti Singh Pandey died. She was 23 years old.

During the last days of her life, Jyoti was given the name Nirbhaya by the Indian media. Nirbhaya means fearless, and the five women who tell their stories in this play are also fearless. One of them, Pamela Mala Sinha, is a Canadian actress and writer, tells of how she was raped in Toronto twenty years ago by a stranger. Her story reminds us that this play is about women and not about India.

The men who raped and killed Jyoti Pandey were arrested, charged and convicted. As a result of her murder, and in the wake of mass demonstrations across the nation, the Indian government developed a policy of zero tolerance for violence against women. They promised to strengthen the justice system in cases involving crimes against women. However, all the men who raped and abused the women in the play remain at large.

Nirbhaya is not an easy play to watch. The stories are raw, harrowing and without happy endings. On this last night of the Vancouver run, the audience was often incredibly silent, save sniffs, sobs and tears.

Nirbhaya ends with each of the women standing up, saying her name and raising a hand in the air. They did not look like victims, instead strong, defiant and fearless.

The play forces us to look. We are called to bear witness. We cannot turn away. And silence is not an option.

Nirbhaya was presented in association with Amnesty International and its Action Network for Women's Human Rights.

Copyright 2015 by Jim Murray.

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