Three boys sit in a row, clinking beer cans together and chatting about girls. The boy on the left, Marcus, nudges his friend Bryan. “Hey, you! Already 21 years old, and still no sex! Soooooo embarrassing!”
The conversation veers towards Agnes, a girl Bryan has had a crush on for the longest time. Bryan is uncertain, but Marcus has a plan. “All you need to do is get her drunk! I tell you, all girls are the same once you get them drunk.”
The audience watches as the scene unfolds: The girls arrive, everyone gets drunk. Agnes, intoxicated, passes out as Bryan stands over her, watching, contemplating. His hands move to this belt. He unbuckles it and crawls over her. The stage lights flick off.
It’s one of three scenes that play out scenarios of power imbalances, sexism and violence against women. As the short performance comes to a close, a facilitator comes up and leads a short discussion on the major issues. Then the play starts over again, but with a twist: This time, any member of the audience can put up his or her hand and take the place of any character in an attempt to change the outcome of the play through different actions and choices.
Forum theater is not common in activism in Singapore, but We Can — a campaign to end violence against women — is finding it to be an effective tool in raising awareness of the social norms and complexities surrounding such a sensitive and important subject.
“It allows us to pick out key points about violence against women and ask people where they got certain messages from,” said director Raksha Mahtani.
The importance of such opportunities for education should not be underestimated. One in 10 women in Singapore have experienced physical or sexual violence by a male. Six out of 10 of these victims suffer this violence repeatedly, yet many cases go unreported. Like in many other countries, patriarchy and rape culture have provided a strong disincentive for victims to speak out.
“One of the main ones [patriarchal attitudes and mindsets] is traditional gender roles in the home,” said campaign coordinator Kokila Annamalai. “It’s difficult to explain to people why seeing the man as the head of the household can be damaging.”
Yet such a mindset can be damaging. Wives are often urged to be more aware of their husbands’ feelings, or to suppress their own happiness for the sake of children. Domestic violence becomes reinterpreted as “marital problems” to be navigated by both sides.
“There is this idea of having to listen to both sides of the story,” Annamalai said. “What if she did something to aggravate him? But our stand is that there are not ‘two sides.’ The perpetrator is 100 percent responsible for the violence.”
Other assumptions and social norms come into play too. Mahtani recounts some of the experiences she has had bringing the forum theater show to different audiences. In some schools, students actually cheered when the male character rapes his intoxicated classmate; it was seen as a victory for the young man, “getting the girl” at last. The students simply assumed that the girl had given consent by being at the party, by admitting that she had a crush on the boy, by letting herself get so drunk that she lost consciousness.
“It’s horrific, but validates why we do the show,” she said.
“The facilitator we have for those sessions is really good with the kids. She calls them out without alienating them,” Annamalai added.
Rape culture does not just exist in schools. We Can sometimes finds problematic messaging coming from Singapore’s law enforcement — the very people meant to make sure that the city is a safe space for everyone.
A poster campaign by the Singapore Police Force urged women not to “get rubbed the wrong way,” firmly placing the responsibility on women. We Can volunteers — also known as ChangeMakers — have pointed out the perpetuation of victim-blaming in such campaigns. A video produced by the Jurong West Neighborhood Police Center also contained similar messaging, placing the focus on women’s behavior.
“It creates a culture of fear and not trusting each other,” Annamalai said, adding that such messaging did little to tell perpetrators not to sexually harass or assault others. Instead it reminds women that they will not be safe while exercising, taking the elevator or even walking around the neighborhood in broad daylight.
Besides the forum theater, the campaign also tries to tackle these issues through ChangeMaker workshops. “The workshop goes more in-depth. It’s more intimate and requires deeper commitment,” explained Annamalai. While the forum theater is able to cater to a larger crowd, the workshops are geared toward smaller groups. It also encourages participants to take the ChangeMaker Pledge to “embrace a violence-free life.”
“When we go to various communities we tend to do the workshops for the grassroots leaders, then the forum theater for the community. The workshop is aimed at those who will become ambassadors, while the theater just gets people to start reflecting,” Annamalai said.
About 800 people have since made the ChangeMaker pledge, an encouraging sign for a community-focused public education campaign. But there are still many challenges ahead.
“The messages you put out have to be so nuanced,” Annamalai pointed out, explaining that the perception of rapists often falls into two extremes: They are either demonized or excused. If rapists are demonized, they are seen as monsters who cannot be reasoned with, which is why we should focus on the woman’s behavior instead. If rapists are excused, they are granted immunity and anonymity by society, and we blame the woman. “Either way, the woman loses.”
We Can’s struggle is to make sure that they are able to remain flexible and adaptable to different situations and communities. “There are some people, where if you tell them that men shouldn’t be the head of the household, they get very upset,” Annamalai said. “We hope to really speak to people in a language they understand, to meet them where they are and walk them through to the next level. Part of the work we do is to make people slightly uncomfortable, but not to the point where they don’t engage.”
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