"You Will Not Fight Your Battles on My Body Anymore": Voicing and Identifying Sexual Violence in the Congo and Iraq through Theatre

“But we have to pretend that all this ugliness means nothing. We wash the blood off with buckets of frigid water, and white wash our walls.”
-    Christian in Ruined (51)

Since the turn of the century, there has been a huge surge in plays about the Middle East and other conflict-ridden nations, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) (Friedman 593). Through the medium of theatre, Western playwrights are finally giving ‘voices’ to the untold millions of victims subjected to sexual violence in war zones. Sharon Friedman explains that this is an attempt “to bring attention to sexual abuse, rape, survival sex, and psychological violence toward women in countries ravaged by conquest and conflict” (600). This essay investigates two plays which fit Friedman’s description, Ruined by Lynn Nottage, and 9 Parts of Desire by Heather Raffo. Ruined, the title refers to the destruction of women’s genitals and womb, is based on Nottage’s interviews with Congolese women and tells the story of Mama Nadi and her ‘girls’ (prostitutes) who are caught in the middle of a brutal civil war. Similarly, 9 Parts of Desire by Iraqi-American author Heather Raffo, is based on conversations she had with real Iraqi women in 1993, and follows the stories of nine women both inside and outside Iraq. While there are many forms of violence portrayed in both plays, this essay will specifically focus on sexual violence and how rape is used as a strategic weapon to control and manipulate women, and indirectly, men. In patriarchal societies and cultures, the battle for domination and nation-wide control is played out on the powerless and faceless female body. However, through the medium of theatre, Nottage and Raffo attempt to give these women powerful new ‘voices’ and identities, freeing them to tell their own stories and become more than just another rape statistic.

The source of sexual violence in Ruined originates in the armed civil conflict which has ravaged the Democratic Republic of the Congo since 1998. Not only do rebel and government soldiers use physical weapons to “take a machete to a man [and] sever his neck” (50), they also psychologically torture their enemies with sexual violence. The use of rape and genital mutilation as strategic weapons in the civil war has resulted in 87% of women in the Congo suffering the physical and mental consequences of rape and sexual assault (Wang, 2011). It is unsurprising then that each of Nottage’s female characters has a disturbing story to tell about the violence which has been inflicted on her body by the ‘dominant’ sex. Sophie has been ‘taken’ with a bayonet: “Look militia did ungodly things to the child, took her with…a bayonet then left her for dead… [she] is…ruined” (10). The brutal assault has left her with bitter memories, as well as physical agony: “I’m praying the pain will be gone, but what those men did to me lives inside of my body. Every step I take I feel them in me. Punishing me. And it will be that way for the rest of my life” (23). Salima has also been raped by rebel soldiers and for five months was forced to act as their sex slave (9). Abandoned by her family, there is no safe place left for Salima to go but as a prostitute to Mama Nadi’s. Both Sophie and Salima would “rather be here [at Mama Nadi’s], any day, than back out there in their villages where they are taken without regard” (57). In a nation tormented by sexual cruelty and savagery, ironically, a whorehouse is the safest place to be.

In countries founded on patriarchal ideology, a women’s body is viewed as the property of the nation (Trenholma, Olsson, & Ahlberg 140). Since the military in the Congo is a patriarchal and misogynistic institution based on hyper-masculine ideals, rape is seen as a natural weapon to enforce subjugation and humiliation on ones enemies (Meger 121). In this way, rape not only effects a woman but exploits and destroys family and community honour, as well as masculine identity. Essentially, it is the highest form of insult as it demonstrates a man’s inability to protect his female ‘property’. A government soldier named Simon discusses this concept of ‘ownership’ with Salima’s husband Fortune, saying, “If you are angry, then be angry at the men who took her. Think about how they did you, they reached right into your pocket and stole from you” (50). Sadly, as a result, “many rape victims are ostracised from their communities, abandoned by their husbands and families, who hold the victims responsible for the sexual violence they endured” (Meger 127). In Ruined, Salima explains how the blame of sexual assault has been directly placed on her, an invisible mark of shame which will torment her for the rest of her life: “I walked into the family compound expecting wide open arms. An embrace. Five months, suffering. I suffered every second of it. And my family gave me the back of their heads. And he [Fortune], the man I loved since I was fourteen, chased me away with a green switch” (47).

Heather Raffo’s one-woman play, 9 Parts of Desire, also scrutinises the violence perpetrated on the bodies of women in patriarchal societies. The deeply intimate and moving play chronicles the stories of nine Iraqi women and the consecutive stages of Iraq’s troubled history since 1963 and up until the late 1990s. Iraq, “the land between two rivers” (10), has been marked by “years of ethnic conflicts, Saddam’s regime, and American invasions,” creating “a mosaic of shattered and shared national experience” (Romanska 212). Within this mosaic, the dialogues of Layal and Huda pointedly reference instances of rape and sexual violence committed by Saddam’s regime. As in the DRC, rape is used as a weapon to incite terror. Layal, a painter employed by the Saddam administration, tells the harrowing story of her friend being raped and killed by Uday, the son of Saddam Hussein: “I did a painting once of a woman / eaten by Saddam’s son / that’s how I describe it. / A beautiful young student from the University of Baghdad - / Uday he asked her out, and she couldn’t refuse, / he took her and beat her brutally, like is his way” (13). The tragic tale ends with Layal describing the women being stripped, covered in honey, and eaten by Uday’s Dobermans (14). Rape is also used strategically by the dictatorial government to assert coercive control over Iraqis and remind them that they are answerable to a patriarchal leader for their most intimate actions (Smiles 288). Huda, an ex-patriarch living in London, remembers that “one summer, he [Saddam] beheaded seventy women for being prostitutes, / but he made them prostitutes. / Saddam’s stooges, they’d kidnap a woman… / and taker her as a slave, sex slave” (23). Later in the play, Huda also describes how Iraqi police tortured babies and raped women so they could replay the hellish sounds of their families’ defilements to imprisoned men (50-51). In this way, the battle for control is “vested in the bodies of women” (Smiles 276); sexual violence is a means by which patriarchal regimes can assert control over the boundaries of a nation and an entire people.

Can there be any form of resolution to plays in which instances of rape, brutal violence, mutilation, and prostitution are everyday occurrences? Where a woman is safer in a whorehouse than in her own home? For Nottage, the purpose of Ruined was to give life and substance to the previously silenced victims of sexual abuse. In a recent interview, Nottage is quoted as saying: “I wanted to paint a three-dimensional portrait of the women caught in the middle of armed conflicts; I wanted to understand who they were, beyond their status as victims” (Gener 118). In Ruined, Sophie and Salima are well-developed characters; substantial beings each with desires and longings of their own which are recognisable to Western readers and audiences. Another issue Nottage appears to be seriously addressing and seeking to resolve in Ruined, is the patriarchal assumption that women’s bodies are a form of ‘property’ to be owned by men. This ideological supposition is defied by Salima in her bold stand against sexual violation and possession near the end of the play. As Mama Nadi’s is ransacked by government soldiers, in midst of the chaos, shouting and gunfire, Salima screams: “Stop! Stop it! For the love of God, stop this! Haven’t you done enough to us? Enough! Enough! You will not fight your battles on my body anymore” (63). Salima dies, but her sacrifice cannot go unnoticed. Nottage also offers a glimmer of hope by suggesting that change in Congolese society is possible. Not every man is driven by violent urges to possess and destroy. Christian embodies this new way of thinking when he says to Mama Nadi, “I may be an idiot for saying so, but I think we, and I speak as a man, can do better” (67 emphasis added). In a society where a woman’s body is a battleground, and rape and mutilation are everyday realities, there can be no simplistic resolution. However, Nottage, in her use of select moments of defiance and hope, brings to the fore the deeper issues surrounding sexual violence in the Congo and, most importantly, gives marginalised and oppressed women a voice of their own.

As in Ruined, there is no simple resolution to the harrowing brutalities inflicted upon women in a culture where a ‘policy of official rape’ exists (Smiles 286). But for Raffo, sexual violence inflicted upon a woman’s bodies can be summed up in one haunting word, the title of Layal’s painting – ‘Savagery’. Like Nottage, Raffo is careful not to create one-dimensional characters; these “daughters of Savagery” (63) are not invisible victims of an oppressive regime. So while the dead, like the beautiful student murdered by Uday or the seventy prostitutes, cannot speak, the survivors do. “These stories are living inside of me / each woman I meet her or hear about her / and I cannot separate myself from them” (14). Raffo’s nine women manage “to find the words to tell their stories, however fragmented and incomplete they are” (Pavelkova 59). However, words alone are not enough. Their stories cannot be fully captured or articulated in thought, speech or action. Operating on a more subtle level then, Raffo unites the Iraqi women in her play through the development of a shared feminine identity symbolically represented in Art. It is Layal’s painting of a nude woman, clinging to a tree, the sun framing her body with a golden light, which represents the hope of resolution. Layal describes this painting metaphorically as “my body, but her body / herself inside me,” saying of the solitary figure, “it is not me alone / it is all of us / but I am the body that takes the experience” (13). Ultimately, Art becomes the most powerful form of testimony and unification. This rebellion against objectification is a silent, yet powerful visual protest, representing the universal sorrows and desires of the “women [who] are not free” (59) in misogynistic societies.

The constant fear of becoming a victim of sexual violence or genital mutilation is not an issue of the past for millions of women living in non-Western countries. Both Ruined and 9 Parts of Desire graphically illustrate how rape is still used as a weapon of war in countries ravaged by internal conflict. As examined in this essay, the origin of such brutal violence against women is not so much a case of man’s nature turned wild in the frenzy of war, but is rather the product of patriarchal societies in which women’s bodies are regarded as property (Trenholma, et al. 140). In states such as the DRC, rape is such an effective weapon as it can destroy entire families and communities. As a result, sexual violence is a powerful means by which to enforce subjugation and intimidate and manipulate one’s enemies. In 9 Parts of Desire, rape is also used as a strategic tool by Saddam’s regime to assert control over Iraqis, and remind them that they are accountable to a patriarchal leader.  However, Nottage and Raffo never intended for readers and audiences to remember Salima and Sophie, or Layal and Huda, as victims in need of sympathy. Rather these women are to be remembered for their resilience, ambitions, desires, and ultimately, their ‘humanness’.  Both plays work in unique ways to resolve the issue of victimisation. In Ruined, Salima’s sacrificial death is a powerful statement against the patriarchal assumption that a woman’s body is a form of property to be battled over. Similarly, Layal’s painting ‘Savagery’ acts as a potent symbol, uniting Iraqi women in a shared feminine identity free from male authority. While it is impossible to ‘resolve’ the larger problems surrounding sexual violence in patriarchal societies through the medium of theatre, Nottage and Raffo successfully create awareness of these issues by giving formerly silenced women powerful new identities and voices, voices which may one-day scream in unison: “You will not fight your battles on my body anymore!”

Works Cited

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Gener, Randy. “In defense of ‘Ruined’: 5 elements that shape Lynn Nottage’s masterwork.” American Theatre 2010: 118. Literature Resource Center. Web. 22 Sept. 2014.

Meger, Sara. “Rape of the Congo: Understanding Sexual Violence in the Conflict in the Democratic

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Nottage, Lynn. Ruined. New York: Dramatists Play Service Inc., 2010. Print.

Pavelkova, Hana. “Representation of Violence and Trauma in Contemporary Monologues.” Prague Journal of English Studies 2.1 (2013): 53–63. Versita. Web. 22 Sept. 2014.

Raffo, Heather. 9 Parts of Desire. New York: Dramatists Play Service Inc., 2006. Print.

Romanska, Magda. “Trauma and Testimony: Heather Raffo’s 9 Parts of Desire.” Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics 30 (2010): 211-239. Literature Resource Center. Web. 23 Sept. 2014.

Smiles, Sarah. “On the Margins: Women, National Boundaries, and Conflict in Saddam’s Iraq.” Identities 15.3 (2008): 271-296. Taylor & Francis. Web. 22 Sept. 2014.

Trenholm, J.E., P. Olsson, and B.M. Ahlberg. “Battles on Women's Bodies: War, Rape and Traumatisation in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.” Global Public Health 6.2 (2011): 139-152. CINAHL Complete. Web. 22 Sept. 2014.

Wang, Xuan. “Genital Mutilation and Women's Rights in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.” Journalists for Human Rights. 6 April 2011. Web. 2 Oct. 2014.