A group of Manipuri performing artists, supported by Zubaan, performed a 3-act play called An Act of Remembrance: Short Performance on Sexual Violence and Impunity in the Mass Communication Department of Manipur University on 10th October, 2019, as a part of their artivism of using art as an instrument to provoke the political context and struggles around sexual violence. The performance narrated some episodes of sexual violence from the past that involved predatory men and Indian army.
The first act was a solo performance about a woman who defied the societal norm of painting and reducing her to being a rape victim. Instead, she claimed to be a survivor, reclaiming her identity of being a human, a woman, a mother, and a daughter with a family. It was an act of denying to give in and showing her children that she did not succumb to the fear and disgust of the society. The second solo act was about a man living and struggling with the trauma of sexual abuse by his uncle at a very young age. It was a story of years of holding back, questioning himself and trying to understand what led to what had happened. Recounting the indifference and disbelief that his friends and family showed, he narrated the series of events, finally, with a lump in his throat. The final act was a short narration of the multiple events of rape and sexual abuse committed by the Indian army in the conflict zones, like Kashmir, Manipur, Nagaland, Assam. It recounted the cases of sexual violence on anyone from 13-year old child to 65-year old woman in Kashmir, rape and murder of Thangjam Manorama, and gang rape of Miss Rose among many by Indian army. The play concluded by distributing and playing an audio of the letter written by Miss Rose before committing suicide.
The forum was then opened to the audience for discussion and the conversation was initiated addressing the issues highlighted in the play: social stigma around women who had been raped, uprising of many women who denied to be victimized by rape and stood up to the society as survivors, cultural masculine norms taught to men from an early age, negligence of sexual violence towards boys and young men in the society, and Indian army exercising the power granted by the Indian state and sexually exploiting thousands of women and children in the conflict zones.
Many women also spoke of various unwanted sexual advances and abuses that women face during festivals, in market places, while travelling, etc. Both men and women in the audience brought up topics of uncomfortable “friendly” gestures even in the close knit circles. Insights on the importance of educating boys from an early age on the family aspects, sensitivity and the harms of toxic masculinity were also discussed. Some of major touch points around toxic masculinity were the toxic narratives of “not manly”, “boys don’t cry”, “man up”, etc.
Another important aspect of the event was impunity. It focused on how, most of the times, the blame for rape was put on women for dressing a certain way or for staying out late or for drinking. The state of victim blaming that came from medical experts and police personnel, resulting in mental and emotional harassment, was also put forth in the forum. In addition to this, discussion around men exempted from holding accountable of the crimes and how Indian army enjoyed impunity because of its state machinery also happened. One major area of focus on Indian army enjoying impunity was draconian acts like AFSPA granted by the Indian state which allowed the Indian armies to abuse their power and protected the Indian armies. Since the Indian state required their armies in the conflict zones to control and monitor the people, rape allegations against them were not addressed by their authorities most of the time or swept under the rug. Further, the forum also recounted names of many women who were sexually violated and who lost their lives in the hands of Indian army. Another case in point was that people had to revolt and go on the streets to raise voices and fight for justice against such sexually violent acts by Indian armies.
In the course of the whole discussion, another interesting topic close to home that came up was the topic of ‘nupi chenba’ and its roots in patriarchy and sexual purity of women. The idea of ‘ahing yareppa’, which had an underlying meaning of having sexual intercourse, associated with “nupi chenba’ was introduced to the room. For the society, having spent a night with a man meant that the woman had sex on that night, whether she had it or not. This would come with a lot of stigma and shaming if she did not get married, even if the ‘chenba’ was against her will. In case of ‘chenba’ without consent, the discussion pointed out that the act of sexual intercourse, if happened, would be rape and the ‘chenba’ would be an act of kidnapping. Various cases wherein women were forced, physically or mentally, into submission to elope, especially in the interiors, were also discussed.
To this, a couple of men argued that ‘Chenba’ was not wrong in its true sense, instead it was a privilege that allowed both men and women to have their own choice. However, some women countered it by saying that the said choice should not be a privilege to begin with and ‘chenba’ should not be the deciding factor for someone to get married. They pointed out the harmful consequences of forced elopement and the idea of revoking consent at any point of time. Another argument for the legitimacy of ‘Chenba’ was it being an age-old tradition, which was nothing but an appeal to tradition fallacy.
At the end of the day, the short 3-act play brought about a discussion around the topic of sexual violence and impunity as a result of what the performance intended: to provoke.