Yael Farber: South African's play about Delhi gang rape

Indian students shout slogans as they hold placards demanding stringent punishment to rapists during a protest in New Delhi, India, Tuesday, April, 23, 2013
Image caption There was widespread outrage about the Delhi gang rape incident

Last December's fatal gang rape of a student on a bus in Delhi sparked widespread outrage and prompted the Indian government to alter laws relating to rape. The South African playwright Yael Farber has adapted the story for the stage. She spoke to the BBC's Soutik Biswas.

What prompted you to write the play?

Like the rest of the world, I was deeply affected by the incident and the victim's courageous fight for life and her subsequent death.

It's hard to say what it was precisely about this case that broke through the defence systems of numbness and indifference towards the staggering figures and brutal nature of sexual violence around the world.

Who knows why this woman's fate touched so many lives?

What matters is that it broke the barrier of indifference, and an appropriate level of righteous rage suddenly manifested on the streets of her nation and caught the attention of the world.

The national response to the incident in India made it clear that the time for change had come. All over the world, there was a global response to that event.

As a playwright, I am attuned to the tides of what affects us as communities and societies. I believe in what I consider to be theatre's true, original intention: to show us to ourselves in our true raw form in order to be a healthier society.

Is the play entirely based on the gang rape? Or does it work differently?

This production is called Nirbhaya (Fearless) and can broadly be described as a testimonial work.

With the rape and death of the victim as the central "inciting incident", this is a voyage into the realm of personal testimonies culled from the performers who have survived various forms of sexual violence themselves.

This production weaves the true narratives of its performers around that terrible night, as a way to continue the courage people found in those days after her death to shatter the shame-based silence that has for so long prevented sexual violence, despite staggering statistics, from entering public discourse.

This production is an unflinching gaze at how we have all allowed sexual violence to continue unabated in our different cultures.

I am interested neither in sanitising nor sensationalising what was an event of unthinkable brutality.

But I also want to portray the incredible and enduring power of women and men who survive, who rise. We hope this work moves, inspires and can speak for enduring change.

Why do you think it triggered international outrage?

Every country deals with these issues and horrific events. The brutality of the attack was one factor that brought it to world attention. But there are many factors that create a tipping point.

I am from South Africa. My native country has been called the rape capital of the world. It is among the highest statistically for child and baby rapes.

India's sexual violence statistics are shameful. So are America's. And many European countries. Acid attacks are on the rise in Italy against women.

South African crimes of sexual violence are utterly horrifying. The case of Anene Booysen, in a small town in South Africa, broke around the time of the Delhi gang rape incident.

She was a teenager. She was gang-raped, had every finger and both legs broken, and was disembowelled. She died hours later in the hospital.

The extraordinary thing was that at the time I felt a strange envy of India as the streets rose in protest around the victim.

Where was such a response in South Africa for Anene?

Would we have been able to put aside what community she came from, her skin colour, her economic demographic, and rise as one voice to protest the destruction of a 17-year-old girl?

We didn't.

I have no interest in making a piece that locates sexual violence in India alone and leaves the rest of the global community comfortable and relieved they are not dealing with the same issues.

Misogyny, sexual and gender-based violence is not an Indian or a South African crisis. It is a global crisis.

So you think the world has something to learn from the widespread outrage in India?

I have made theatre about apartheid in South Africa because I believe societies that suffer have things to teach us.

I believe India harbours the possibility for global change on sexual violence precisely because it is severe here, and because I saw the streets rise and say "enough is enough".

For this reason, this project will be quintessentially Indian.

I am the only member of this team who is not from India. But my role is to lead, facilitate, bring together what is already there and burning bright: a society ready for change.

How difficult has it been to adapt such a brutal and shocking incident for stage?

It is challenging to neither sensationalise nor sanitise.

The violence was grotesque. To be explicit can feed a dark focus on the violence itself. Sexuality in mass culture is disturbingly eroticised. This is a deeply misunderstood difference between sex and rape.

To do justice to what occurred on that bus, while respecting the parameters of what re-enactment can offer, is a fine balance.

What did you think of the media coverage of the incident?

There is always a sensationalist aspect to the way sexual violence is covered in the media.

So while media coverage is responsible in many ways for the sensationalising of brutal gender-based violence in a way that will sell papers, which is deeply problematic, the media were also instrumental in the Delhi attack and death gaining the focus it did.

The media are always both foe and friend in the pursuit of change.

Do you believe rape, and violence against women, is more common in societies that are patriarchal and therefore, many say, are misogynist?

Patriarchy endures in even the most so-called enlightened cultures.

When these societies are referred to as "post-feminist" I am bewildered by how this is possible until we are "post-patriarchal".

The brutality with which the sexual, economic and social freedoms of women are stifled manifests in ways that are culturally specific.

Most pernicious is the exploitation of ancient texts to justify the subjugation of any group. As a white South African, I vividly recall justifications from the Bible as to why 80% of my country's population was so brutally oppressed.

The complexity of misogyny cannot be dismissed as culturally specific to certain groups or ethnicities.

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