The violence of violation


Inside a darkened room at the Chhaya Centre, eight screens switch on simultaneously to depict images of sexual violence in the Subcontinent – from the India-Pakistan partition till the present day. The stories are searing in their intensity: daughters who hear their elders planning to burn them alive so rapists will not get them, of women paraded naked through a village and raped for refusing sex, of sticks and knives inserted into vaginas.

Why are women so often singled out for abuse in conflict? And why do these stories vanish after wars end? Filmmaker Amar Kanwar explores these questions through testimonies like: “Night fell, and they kept raping the women, they did not care about killing us at all.”

At first glance, it might look like a story of abuse by fighting men, but many atrocities were by local communities during the Partition. Kanwar shows us that no one community has a monopoly on atrocities, and sometimes they are perpetrated among members of the same community, as with Muslims who fought Muslims during the Bangladesh liberation war.

The statistics are numbing: 75,000 women raped during the Partition, 150,000 during the Bangladesh war – and those were just the ones counted. No matter what a war is about, it is the women who are first engulfed by cruelty.

“There is a sense of macho-ness and pride associated with conquering women of another culture,” explains Kanwar. “Victory has always been defined by the subjugation of women, and violating enemy women is a matter of pride. My work depicts this toxic masculinity.”

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Kanwar (pictured below) does not just examine the price women pay for the wars men fight, but also how the atrocities are resisted and remembered. We watch the story of a mother who weaves her murdered daughter’s courage into a shawl – the red background standing for women’s beauty and rebellion, ant-like patterns for her relentless pursuit of justice.

The body itself becomes a symbol of dignity and protest. Theatre artist Sabitri Heisnam enacts a real-life drama in which Draupadi, an indigenous woman, refuses to be clothed after being raped by police, shaming the rapists with her nudity. Heisman has been performing the play for decades, but in 2004, real life mothers in Manipur also protested naked in support of a woman murdered after rape.

Kanwar’s film is from 2007, but is relevant today as an epidemic of rape sweeps the Subcontinent and #MeToo gathers velocity on the Internet. The woman’s body continues to signify honour and humiliation, political disputes and caste wars are still settled by physically humiliating women. The film does not offer solutions, but links us to the past so we can contemplate present day violence of violation.

Women through history have been trapped between honour and shame. A look back at this history may help us understand the brutality so it is not repeated in future. This is an overwhelming installation, and the most searing in this year’s Photo Kathmandu festival.

Kanwar says he projected eight separate screens at once because it is important to see what happened in history and what is happening today at the same time. He adds: “I hope it will help us understand what women go through during any conflict.”


The Lightning Testimonies

by Amar Kanwar

Photo Kathmandu 2018

11AM – 7 PM

6th floor Chhaya Centre, Thamel

Till 12 April, 2019