The Engaged Scholar Journal / Confronting Sexual Violence through Dance and Theatre Pedagogy

By Dr. Doris Rajan,
Roshanak Jaberi,
Dr. Shahrzad Mojab

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By Dr. Doris Rajan,
Roshanak Jaberi,
Dr. Shahrzad Mojab


The historically-shaped violence embedded in ongoing relations of colonization and imperialism for both refugee and Indigenous women across the globe are stories mostly told in reports and statistics. The performance-based art forms of theatre and dance can enhance knowledge sharing, build relationships and assist women in a deeper understanding of their realities. In pursuit of an effective use of these art forms; however, scripted stories need to ensure that women who experience oppression, formulate the storytelling.

In addition, the enactment and representation should share women’s material histories in order to contextualize experiences in terms of specific relations to land, war, violence, displacement and dispossession. Using the two case studies of Doris Rajan’s play, A Tender Path and Roshanak Jaberi’s multidisciplinary dance project, No Woman’s Land, this article examines how community-engaged research and performance arts-based approaches can be used to challenge and provoke our ways of understanding and thinking about how to disrupt and alter oppressive relations.

Confronting Sexual Violence Through Dance and Theatre Pedagogy

Doris Rajan, Roshanak Jaberi, and Shahrzad Mojab

Refugees, Indigenous peoples, violence against women, art-based research, community-engaged scholarship

The three of us are engaged in a unique collaboration: Doris Rajan is a community organizer/educator as well as a theatre and film artist, Roshanak Jaberi a multidisciplinary dance artist, and Shahrzad Mojab, an academic, activist and educator. What has brought us together is our desire to address structural violence against women as well as our belief in the power of performance art in building awareness and challenging our ways of understanding. This article examines two case studies of performance art presentations that were inspired by real stories recounted through a community-based research process. Rajan’s A Tender Path, a theatrical play and Jaberi’s No Woman’s Land, a multidisciplinary dance production. Both cases attempt to engage audiences with the issues of oppression and violence that refugee and Indigenous women experience in their lives as they go through displacement, dispossession, and arrive at ‘resettlement’ or confront settler colonialism. This article provides some reflections on the research and creation process for both art pieces, as they relate to performance art pedagogy in pursuit of learning about structural violence against refugee and Indigenous women.

We seek the root of structural violence in the disarticulation of the relationship between patriarchy, race, class and capitalism. The prevalent conceptualization of violence against women focuses on the individual’s experience, paying less attention to how power operates and the ways in which violence is embedded in institutions and structures of society – particularly for refugee and Indigenous women. Without challenging the complex matrix of forces that (re)produce inequalities or the ways in which “penalty and privilege” (Collins, 1990) operate, antiviolence strategies will have minimal impact on restructuring institutions or reforming social policy. This limitation is related to the dynamic of interventions which often fail to get to the core of violence production in ways that can transform broader social relations and systems that reproduce and maintain violence.

Our conceptualization of violence and its perpetual reproduction of power has implications on how we have approached the research process and how each performance piece developed its own artistic narrative. For example, Rajan’s research on solidarity learning as reflected in her play A Tender Path, recognizes that each marginalized group has a different relationship with the colonial Canadian state. Further, to engage in a decolonized pedagogy, it is necessary to spend the time listening and learning about our different histories, experiences, and dreams. The play A Tender Path set out to provide the setting to learn about these different histories and current day manifestations of oppression and violence. Jaberi’s No Woman’s Land aims to share the experiences of women who live in refugee camps through movement and the use of some spoken text in ways that present women not as victims, but as survivors who face their violent and forced circumstances with strength and resilience.

We know that theatre and dance do not offer intricate strategies to dismantle complex, historically entrenched systems of oppression; however, we believe they can serve the purpose of initiating a process of learning about history, process of displacement, dispossession, and forms of resistance and learning. We have realized that storytelling is a powerful method for revealing the detail and nuances of often concealed experiences. This is what both Rajan and Jaberi have been attempting to do with their art forms, supported by the research expertise facilitated by Mojab. Rajan was specifically commissioned to write A Tender Path with the explicit purpose of sharing the experiences of refugee and Indigenous women in ways that would draw us into the issues beyond abstract engagement, towards a more visceral, emotive experience. In 2014 Rajan was approached by the Community Inclusivity Equity Council, a coalition of community workers and activists in York Region, Ontario organizing a national and international event entitled the Truth, Reconciliation, and Engagement Symposium,to develop a theatrical piece for their three-day initiative that occurred in April 2015. The Symposium focused on service provision to diverse individuals, families and communities who have experienced traumatic events. The purpose of the theatre initiative was to provide a different technique at the Symposium to explore the issues experienced by communities/individuals impacted by trauma, specifically the Chippewa First Nation of Georgina Island, the Transgender communities, and refugee communities in Canada. The play offered a new vantage point for provoking a dialogue between Indigenous, racialized, and refugee or migrant people – mostly women – and other populations who have experienced acute oppression. The developmental process for the play involved research and consultation with the target communities and the engagement of theatre professionals to bring it to the stage, i.e., a director, a dramaturge, and professional actors. 1 During the writing process, Rajan was simultaneously reading Out of the Depths (Knockwood & Thomas, 1992) in Mojab’s Memoir Pedagogy Reading Circle. The character Isabelle of this autobiographical account, steadfastly walks us through pages of detailed horror experienced by Mi’kmaw children in the residential school system. The character of Isabelle became key to the framing of the play as she spoke to and supported the pain of others, i.e., two refugee women, a woman with an intellectual disability, and a Trans woman throughout the course of the storyline.

After the performance we opened it up to questions and comments from the audience composed of disability, Indigenous, Trans, anti-racist and immigrant and refugee community members and activists. The result was that people were surprised and shocked about how little they knew about the ‘others’ experience. For example, a long-time Tamil refugee rights activist, a refugee herself having lived in Canada for over 30 years, never knew about the violence and pain of the residential school experience for Indigenous peoples. After the show she said to the audience, “I want this play to be translated into Tamil so our people can learn and understand” (P. Kanthasamy, personal communication, April 28, 2015). This was a sign of success and a crucial first step in solidarity building with these populations. We learned that: (a) by centering the work on real stories and translating those stories to live performance, previously unknown stories became known; (b) by using theatre professionals the play was successful in communicating the authenticity and realness of the diverse experiences, enhanced by the immediacy of gaining access to private moments and thoughts; (c) marginalized people were put side by side for one hour and the audience, not only saw themselves, but witnessed solidarity in action as characters supported one another in the recollection of painful memories; and (d) the stories were not individualized—that is, they were contextualized in histories of colonization and contemporary capitalist wars.

Jaberi’s interest in socially charged dance work is rooted in her 2010 project Behind the Stained Walls, which is based on the real stories of Iranian political prisoners. In 2009, she was introduced to Mojab at the University of Toronto who helped guide her research through interviews with former political prisoners who are settled in Canada, as well as prison memoirs and the testimonies of survivors. Behind the Stained Walls helped deepen Jaberi’s artistic practice and was the impetus behind her commitment to creating political art. The project also helped steer her research and formed the foundation of her creative process for No Woman’s Land, her most recent project,which explores the issue of violence against women in refugee camps. This three-year initiative looks at the lived experiences of refugee women and addresses the impact of displacement by looking at the pre-migration and post migration experiences. Jaberi uses dance as a point of entry into the creation of the work and augments the narrative with verbatim theatre, poetry and multi-media. She also draws on her personal experiences as a former refugee and survivor of war to look at the long-term impacts of trauma to both inform those who have no connection to these experiences and enable those who do.

Theatre and dance can serve to encourage those who feel powerless and instill a sense of control over one’s own world by provoking understandings of the “root causes of problems and oppression” and to “give voice and expression” to these understandings (Boon & Plastow, 2004, p.7). Performance art can support oppressed communities to reclaim their identities by the presentation of their “ignored histories” (Boon & Plastow, 2004, p. 11). Therefore, while theatre and dance may not offer intricate strategies to dismantle systems of oppression, they can serve the purpose of initiating a process of deeper understanding of self within the social and historical realities:

Empowerment is to do not with the amelioration of oppression and poverty per se, but with the liberation of the human mind and spirit, and the transformation of participants who see themselves—and are often seen by others—as subhuman, operating only at the level of seeking merely to exist, into conscious beings aware of and claiming voices and choices in how their lives will be lived. (Boon & Plastow, 2004, p. 7)

It is evident through our own practice that dance and theatre can have an impact in building relationships towards inspiring social change; however, we are trying to understand how or whythese art forms have the impact that they do. These art mediums allow us to learn through metaphors, transmitting knowledge visually and through text, which offers a more immediate connection to our emotional centres (Sealey, 2008, p.3). Theatre and dance can also assist us to visualize “situations in concrete terms” which also brings an immediacy to the happenings which we witness as spectators (Sealey, 2008, p. 119). The tangible and immediate nature of a live performance offers the viewer alternative ways of thinking that “transcends an abstract intellectual approach” (Sealey, 2008 p. 120). The physicality of being present in a theatre where live performances occur, asserts our “physical taking of space” and “inscribes the body as a powerful site of empowerment” (Boon & Plastow, 2004, p. 11). When pedagogy seeks to actuate critical thinking, it aims to assist individuals and groups to problematize their reality towards the development of capacities that pursue “both their own and society’s liberation” (Kellner & Kim, 2010, p.3).

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