A questioning of the embodied experiences of being‘ woman’ through the use of our bodies.
At what point in our lives does a woman’s ‘ NO’ become less powerful than a man’s ‘NO’?
At what point do we, women go from saying ‘NO!’ to ‘No, please…’?
Who convinced us to ‘take disadvantage’ in society?
Were some of the questions that were explored within the wooden walls of Perdu Amsterdam on Saturday evening last week. The aim was not to ‘find answers to these questions’ but to merely encourage a questioning, of our lived realities in different bodies and how these experiences are shaped by those bodies. The chosen form of enquiry? Forum theatre.
For those who are new to this form of expression, as I was, Forum Theatre is an aesthetical representation of a real problem. The audience is invited to come on stage to intervene, suggesting alternatives in order to transform the staged reality. This is an extremely powerful way of harnessing social change, because the audience is not a mere spectator anymore, nor are they allowed to simply theorise about the issue at stake – ‘come on stage and show us how you would do it differently’ Barbara ( the artistic director) would say and you could see an audience shy at first, slowly growing in confidence to intervene, to address and to change the status quo.
The play, NO means NO, was simple in it’s delivery and that is what made it impressive. In three recognisable scenes it presented the complex process of ‘socialisation of gender‘.
Scene 1: At the playground
Two boys and two girls are playing, they get into a fight, each one screaming as loud as the other – a teacher( a symbol of society) walks onto the scene, tries to pull them apart – it doesn’t work – takes the girls aside and teaches them ‘manners’, good manners, be good girls, do not shout, do not be loud, do not say NO! but say No, please – “but the boys are still playing and shouting” complain the little girls hesitantly… oh let them go “boys will be boys”.
Scene 2: High school Party
A young woman drowning in papers, needs to study – two friends come by and invite her to a party – “No” she says – “come on!” – “No”– “Oh come on” – “No pleaseeee” – “oh don’t be a loser, come on!” – “okaaaayyy”.
At the party everyone is dancing – a guy comes in and starts rubbing up against one of the girls – “excuse me! NO!” she says – he continues – she moves away, “NO thank you!” – he continues – hearing the commotion her friends come over – her guy friend puffs his chest and tell the other guy “NO! back off” – and off he goes.
Scene 3 : Still at the party
A few minutes later – the ‘saviour’ guy friend – more drunk, a bit horny – starts making advances towards his woman friend – she pushes him away – he continues – she says “No please”- and he continues till his sexual advances turn into rape…
There she is, in the middle of the stage on her knees shouting “I said NO! I said NO!!” And he says “She didn’t say no ‘clearly’”.
The room is still and silent. I look around and see in the eyes of those around me, something that I feel in every cell of my body – anger and recognition. The scenes presented were not new, all of us sitting in that room were familiar with these experiences, some more than others. But what happened next was new – the floor was opened up for discussion, but not just talking about what we saw and how we feel but showing. This way of expressing ourselves with our bodies gave a channel to all that anger. The scenes were replayed and women and men from the audience, went onto stage to intervene and change the scenes and through that, change realities.
The results were incredible – A young Indian woman intervened at the 1st scene and tried to discuss with the teacher, to not treat girls and boys differently, a Dutch woman intervened in the first party scene and firmly told the guy to back off – when he tried to offend her by calling her ugly, she stood her ground and told him to leave. An older woman intervened in the same scene by seeking solidarity with other women in the party, asked them to surround the guy and make him uncomfortable, and a man intervened in the same scene by trying to talk to the guy to change his attitude towards women.
Heated discussions ensued from these interventions – why target only the teacher? Where does she get her understanding of gender from? Why do men use women’s appearance to offend them? Why do women care so much about their appearance? Is it right to make the guy in the party the ‘bad guy’? After all,isn’t he following gender expectations as well? Is one man helping another man to see women as more than mere objects to be possessed, a good way to bring about change? How do we make the personal political? – were some of the questions that arose in through the discussion. Some questions were answered, some others, only created more questions.
In the end I left feeling inspired and alive and hopeful – A feeling I seldom get when talking about issues so deeply embedded in the patriarchy. I was reminded that while being critical and problematizing our view of the world is important, it is also important to sometimes just intervene, to simply use our bodies, to use our voice and say NO! Nahi! Nee! Não! Nie! Nein! Non! – Because NO really means NO and it’s time we all understood that.
On the way back home in a crowded tram, I am standing with my friends and gushing about the play when a big white man comes along and nudges me to move so he can pass. I move aside, but rather than passing by he stands in the place where I was standing instead, and starts gesturing wildly and talking with his friends. At first I feel uncomfortable and small, ordinarily I would have just let it go, (after all its just a short ride). But today, fired up from my evening, I see an opportunity to say “NO! I shall not accept this” – I intervene and I tell him that I was standing there and that he must move. He looks at me like I just asked him for a kidney and sighs, but makes space for me – a small victory! I will definitely be using this word more!
This event was organised by PLEK in Amsterdam and Rotterdam. The play was created and presented by Madalena-Berlin – a female group from the Theatre of the Oppressed and collective of activists from KURINGA (Berlin), founded in 2011. With several Forum Theatre plays, the group stimulates public debates about the oppressions faced by women, and dynamizes the search for concrete alternatives to identified injustices. Madalena-Berlin is part of the Madalena International Network. PLEK is joining Kuringa as an ally to collaborate together. They promote social transformation using Theatre Of the Oppressed as their main methodology. Ana and Inke ( from PLEK) aim to form Madalena-Amsterdam and present PLEK for Women by the end of this year. If you are interested in joining this amazing platform for expression and social change, send an email to Ana Barona on firstname.lastname@example.org