Mar. 14, 2017
A theater artist is questioning what it means to be careful in India, where sexual violence has left a generation of women in fear.
People in the South Asian country are trying to deal with an issue that has long plagued the country: violence against women. Over the past decade, the number of sexual crimes reported has doubled, and now stands at about 40,000 cases a year.
The issue took on a new sense of urgency in 2012 following the gang-rape of a young woman who later died. There have since been moves to toughen the penalties against sexual violence but many victims are still being blamed for bringing it on themselves.
Mallika Taneja, a New Delhi-based artist, has put this issue on stage. She was recently in Japan, where she presented her one-woman play, "Be Careful," at the Performing Arts Meeting in Yokohama.
The play tells the story of a woman deciding how much to wear before she goes out. She puts on layer upon layer of clothing to cover her skin. It's a satirical, one-person play, in which a woman in India takes steps to try and protect herself from sexual assault, and from being blamed for it.
"Excess of everything is bad. Of course you have freedom, of course you have freedom, of course you have freedom. Everything and then -- but do you know one thing has to happen? Freedom also comes with limitation because excess on everything is bad, you see," Taneja says in the play.
The title, "Be Careful," is a phrase Taneja has heard repeatedly since her childhood. Taneja was born in 1984 and grew up in New Delhi. She says whenever she went out, whether to go to school or out to play, her parents always warned her to "be careful."
I asked Taneja what those words meant to her.
"You live in absolute and complete fear. It’s fear psychosis. If I keep telling you be careful, be careful, be careful, then you look at the world around you differently won’t you, you search for what you need to be careful of," Taneja says. "Not just my father I think all parents say this to their children -- all of them, because there’s very real fear of harm."
She was driven to write the play following a brutal attack that occurred in New Delhi, her hometown, in 2012. A 23-year-old woman was gang-raped by a group of men on a bus and left by the side of the road. She later died.
The attack brought the issue of violence against women to the forefront. People around the country took to the streets to demand stronger action against sexual assault. They also pushed for improvements in the social status of women.
Taneja began to think deeply about the mindset of a society that had overlooked such crime.
"I think what that incident did was not just anger people and make you feel unsafe and, you know, bring to surface everything we were anyway feeling, but I think what it did is it made issues of women become pretty much a drawing-room conversation. This was a huge shift," Taneja says. "I think as a young woman in Delhi, I really engaged very heavily with all these conversations."
So as a performer, she created "Be Careful."
"Why was she there? What time was it? What was she wearing? Did she ask for it? And it was really disturbing to see why are we not asking these questions of the men? Why don't we ask the questions of the person who was actually causing the problem? And I think I found an expression to a whole lot of anger and frustration one has been feeling for a very long time," Taneja says.
In January, as large crowds gathered to celebrate the New Year, many women were molested, and this again infuriated the public. But still, some politicians blame the victims.
"Most like Westerners, they try to copy the Westerners not only the mindsets but even the dressing. So, you know, some disturbance, some girls are harassed, you know these kinds of things do happen," said G. Parameshwara, the home minister if Karnataka State.
"If somebody says, you know, you shouldn't have worn the mini skirt and then you believe it. And you said, 'yeah, maybe I shouldn't have, maybe if I wore a full pant, then yeah, they wouldn't have touched me because now I just feel gross that they touched me. I feel violated and I don't like this feeling inside me,'" Taneja says. "So much of this is about self-blame, and how much of this we just imbibe."
Toward the end of the play, the woman still feels insecure about not wearing enough, so she continues to add layer over layer.
"At the end of the day, when something does happen to you, at least you can say it wasn’t my fault," Taneja says in the final moments of the performance.
The play ends with the character bundled in clothes.
Since first performing “Be Careful” in New Delhi in 2013, Taneja has taken the play to venues around India. Often after the performance, she makes time for a discussion with the audience. She says she wants everyone to treat the problem as their own.
She also hopes that her play will help lead to change.
"I hope I have been able to contribute, even if it is just one morning after watching my play, one woman just puts on something and says, 'should I or should I not cover this more than I need to?' That's enough. It's all I can hope for," Taneja says.
"As an individual, I do not contain power to change the society. Okay, fine. Once we accept this, we still want to say something. We still want to do something about all these things that we are feeling, so what are we going to do? Let’s try and start having a small conversation. Let’s just start there. Conversations are magical things, you know? They really have the ability to shift how we think," she says. "And my job as an artist is to make this proposal with the utmost honesty that I can.”
Global estimates published by the World Health Organization indicate that about 1 in 3 women worldwide have experienced sexual violence in their lifetime. That's why Taneja also performs on the international stage. She currently has shows scheduled for Melbourne and Paris.