As the stage lit up a figure walked sullenly out of the darkness. Her face full of anguish revealed the years of pain and suffering that she had had to endure in the hands of an abusive partner. This story could have taken place anywhere, but instead it happened in Vietnam, a country where gender-based violence is deeply rooted and still prevalent and where the man is expected to keep a tight grip on the woman. While I was aware of general inequality between both sexes, it only dawned on me that night in the theater, as I was watching a play depicting real stories of domestic violence, its devastating impact on Vietnamese society.
The women on stage were all non-professional actresses who had agreed to take part in a project whose aim was to share their experiences of abuse and to turn them into play. Observing the raw emotions that the women expressed on stage, I couldn't help but feel moved by their courage to lay bare their pain. We, the audience, were witnesses to their daily confrontations with men, who couldn't respect them, and often under the influence of alcohol, only perceived them as nothing more than punching bags.
The first part of the play consisted in a type of interpretative dance where a group of women moved around the stage, their bodies swaying to and fro as if in a trance. At one point, one woman threw her arms up in the arm and began to wail, conveying her extreme desperation. Then, one after the other, the rest of the women started replicating her movements, thus filling the entire room with cries of despair and sorrow. Almost instantly, their husbands rushed out onto the stage, holding sticks or bottles and chased after them like wild animals.
In the next scene we witnessed the men dragging the women into their houses and pretending to beat them. The experience was very intense, and for a moment I shut my eyes, too upset to watch. The ending of the first part concluded with one of the men pacing about the stage, guilt-ridden. He tried to seek forgiveness from the group of women. At first, they rejected his pleas, but then, eventually, one of them extended out her hand, thus inviting him back into the group. At the conclusion of the first part, a discussion between the audience and the director of the play about its content ensued.
I found some of the responses quite interesting: Some condemned the men's behavior and demanded that they be convicted for their actions; others disagreed with the women's decision to forgive the man, stating that by not punishing him for what he had done, they had given him free rein to continue to abuse his partner. One response, surprisingly enough, came from a woman who claimed that a Vietnamese woman doesn't need to overtly express her anger towards abusive behavior. By distancing herself from her husband, she automatically forced him to feel isolated and ignored, thus punishing him indirectly for his actions.
Coming from a culture where women are encouraged to speak out against discrimination or abuse, I could not fully comprehend this stance. In my view, regardless of one's culture or ethnic background, the right to be treated with respect, dignity, and as an equal is universal. How can we allow a human being to "grin and bare it" when she has to endure beatings on a daily basis? Relying on cultural differences as a means of excusing abuse behavior towards a member of the opposite sex can only divide rather than unite people of various cultural, religious, and ethnic backgrounds.
The second part of the play focused on specific instances of abuse which the women had experienced in real life. One scene that particularly stood out to me depicted a woman being severely beaten by her husband for not wanting to hand over her earnings to him. Each time he demanded that she give him the amount of money earned after a day's work, she refused until he took her behind the stage and abused her. When the woman reappeared, her face was covered in "blood" and she was whimpering. Her daughter witnessed everything and tried to comfort her. The play ended on a very disturbing note: The daughter was alone on the stage and was beating and insulting her dolls, thus re-enacting her father's behavior.
Nothing is more horrifying than to see a child imitating such heinous actions. Sadly, their child was brought up to believe that physical violence is the norm and should be perpetuated. I left the theater feeling numb, helpless, wondering how human beings could behave that way. It became clear to me that I wanted to do something to stop this type of gender-based violence. I wanted to be part of an organization that supported women, empowered them, and gave them a sense of hope that they are just as worthy as men are. By the same token, I felt that men also need to be included in order to create a dialog between men and women and to teach both sides about mutual respect and trust. Moreover, both sides need a space where they can openly share their feelings and truly express what their needs and expectations of the other are. Once men acknowledge women's important contributions to society, they will hopefully make more of an effort to treat them as equals. Once women perceive men as positive role models who care and respect them, they can begin to trust them more.
Take action! This post was submitted in response to Ending Gender-Based Violence 2012.