Where does shame and embarrassment about our bodies come from? Women’s bodies in particular. Do cultures and religions cause these feelings or did they create the taboos to embrace negative feelings that were already there? Certainly the male fear of the female body and its natural processes seems to be global. It has carefully been passed on to women. “Look how bad we feel about your reproductive organs!” say men, whenever these organs are not engaged in the process of exciting them sexually, “You should be ashamed of your biology! You must feel bad for making us feel bad.” Maybe the whole reason that men took control of so much religion in the world was to make them feel less freaked out by wombs and vaginas?
Whatever the history here we are in 2019 with women and girls everywhere still having to deal. This double bill of short one-woman plays from Namashkar Theatre shines light on the horrible consequences of shame and planned ignorance. Both plays pack a lot into a combined running time of less than an hour. Both are brimming with things to say, are centred on young South Asian women in Britain, and hit the spot as drama. Both are directed by the talented NATASHA KATHI-CHANDRA. Jordan P (a young man who cannot blush!) has reviewed them for my blog.
“Om Shanti F*ck”
Written by: Natasha Kathi-Chandra
Directed by: Natasha Kathi-Chandra
Performed by: Janisé Sadik
Young teenager Ambika sits in the temple at prayer. Well she’s supposed to be praying but she’s fretting so much about stains and sex and periods that she keeps getting distracted. A sanctimonious voiceover (the sound design is top notch in both plays) reminds us what she is up against. It drones on about the purpose and fate of women according to Hindu traditions. It’s outdated, ridiculous, blatantly sexist.
Ambika relives a chaotic Sex Ed lesson where she learnt sod all. Conversations with her mum and grandmother that shamed and frightened her when she was hoping for enlightenment and reassurance. Intelligent people are perpetuating weird ignorance where women and girls are concerned. How is Ambika meant to respect and understand herself at the same time as she has to navigate all this?
It’s a really angering play especially as Ambika herself doesn’t really get angry. She’s just hurt and confused. It feels like really personal stuff from the writer/director and JANISÉ SADIK performs it brilliantly. She’s full of the humour that stops the whole thing from being too bleak or from feeling like a lecture. Saying that, it should definitely be performed in high schools: when Ambika rattles through Ten Things Nobody Ever Tells You About Periods I learned a lot, and I always thought I was more clued up than most. It’s an important point put across really well, how men’s ignorance of women’s reproductive biology is encouraged by just about all cultures. I think this was made most clear by highlighting how violent films aimed at men are soaked in gallons of realistic blood, but ads for sanitary protection have to use shy blue liquid. And even then, men and boys will howl in disgust that they are on TV at all!
Hinduism is always honouring and praising women but only if they conform to the ideal of the Good Indian Woman. It’s narrow. “If it’s so great to be a woman,” sighs Ambika, “Why is it so wrong to be a woman in temple?” She ends the play in a state of unafraid defiance that suggests hope for her own future. But there is a big and man-made mountain to be climbed.
Written by: Karen Mann
Directed by: Natasha Kathi-Chandra
Performed by: Karen Mann
The second play on offer concerns a woman whose name we never learn. She is a little older than Ambika and appears to have had a similar upbringing. When we meet her first she is apologising to people we cannot see. It sets up a minor mystery about where she is, why she is there and who these unseen people are.
KAREN MANN plays this woman with great subtlety considering the pain and distress the character is obviously in. Here is a woman who has grown up guarding her feelings. Again, a history is revealed of misinformation about sex and biology. In this case the lies led to an adolescence of eating disorders and warped body image. What kind of ‘responsible’ adults would lead a young girl to believe that if she has sex, her breasts will immediately grow larger to expose her ‘shame’ to the world? And put this idea in her head just at the age when her breasts are about to start growing naturally? It throws a fierce light on what girls and women of Indian heritage are up against.
Cultural tensions are evident throughout the 25 minutes of this play. We see the dolls the woman used to play with. White dolls with sexless bodies and expressionless faces. Supposed ideals she can never reach. When she listens to the radio she flips stations again and again between current ‘Western’ voices or music and ‘traditional’ Indian sounds. It tells us so much.
By the end of the play we know exactly where she is, and why. It’s horrific because of what she has had to endure, and heartbreaking thanks to Mann’s performance of her own script. This is such a good example of how to communicate the maximum amount of information and atmosphere to an audience using the minimum number of words.
One aspect of the double bill that impressed me most was its directness. These short, fast plays are fresh. Although their themes overlap each one feels distinct. As I said, I learnt a lot from watching them. The presentation is spot on. The deceptively short running time makes the show feel like an air strike, only the force it unleashes is understanding.