(TW: discussion of domestic violence to follow after the cut.)
I always get nervous when presenters at Nyakouron theatre ask for audience participation. You’re never quite sure how many beers the audience has had; I’ve seen audience members climb onto the stage to shove money down women’s tops, set fire to aerosols, and more prosaically attack performers. So when the representative of Rhino Star got up on stage last night and asked the audience who the ” biggest enemy” was for South Sudan at the moment, I was a little bit nervous. But of course it was tribalism – followed closely by poverty, with corruption coming a close third.
What wasn’t mentioned by any of the six enthusiastic volunteers, or any of the shouts from the audience, was the topic that actually formed a theme throughout the evening’s films and theatre: gender relations.
I personally think that, despite the current hot topics of tribalism, cattle raiding, Juba crime rates and the freedom of the press, that the huge battle over gender roles, women’s rights in society, and masculinity in South Sudan is one of the most important and most pervasive issues here. Domestic violence and maternal mortality, as UN speaking points, are talked about, but in relative isolation; however, they are really only parts of a broader fight, going on for years now, about the changing relationships (at least in relatively urban areas) between men and women.
The shows and films at the festival last night all centred around relationships and gender; most of them involved portrayals of domestic violence. Although the performances were clearly denouncing domestic violence, their methods – and the response of the audience – highlighted some of the current issues with discussions of gender in Juba. There was no resolution in any of the cases of domestic violence shown; other men interceded for the women, but only to persuade the man to stop: and the abusive character in the last performance of the night got howls of laughter from the crowd when he turned, at the end, to his wife and said: “I’ll stop, I’ll stop! …but just you wait until I get you home.”
The most surreal element of one play, though, was the deus ex machina that ended domestic violence against one poor pregnant character on stage: the “UN”, turning up in suits bearing what appeared to be a scroll of the human rights act – now published in scroll form, for emphasis of importance? – and berating the protagonist about his wife’s human rights.
Other, more subtle discussions of masculinity and gender relations played out in all the offerings: the men discussing women in terms of marriage only (nothing last night passed the Bechdel test, obviously); the men ordering women around, to the amusement of the audience; the “sluts” tempting innocent businessmen. The UN failed to intercede as heavenly (and impotent) hosts in these instances.