Note: Counter Offence, as originally written, was set in Canada. With the playwright's permission, BAD Company's production transplants it to the United States.
Counter Offence was the first play for which I received a writing grant from the Canada Council for the Arts. It was also my first full-length play in English, a language I acquired as an adult. Counter Offence, therefore, would lay the foundation for my future plays.
I was surprised not only by the obscurity of politically relevant plays, but by the exclusion of visible minorities in the few plays produced that were political. Counter Offence had to be different. It had to be relevant; it had to be political; it had to be about minorities ignored by the mainstream; and it had to be intercultural.
Having been born and brought up in India, I felt comfortable writing about the South Asian community in particular and about minorities in general. So that was a good starting point. There was public knowledge about domestic violence within the South Asian community, but no public discussion about it. Neighbors knew about it, relatives knew about it, and they all kept silent. But there were some women who stood up against the abuse and fought a system that favored abusers. It was their courage that motivated me to write Counter Offence.
Whenever I talked to my peers about this theme, their usual comment was: “This happens a lot in your community, doesn’t it?” From what I knew, yes it did. But I was surprised that they didn’t ask the same question of themselves. According to available statistics and cultural evidence, including television programming, it was apparent that domestic violence occurred in the white community as well and perhaps as frequently as in the South Asian community. Studies suggested that gender violence cut across all races, religions and cultures. And yet, there was this widespread stereotype that domestic violence was confined to communities of colour. I was perturbed by the dichotomy that Canadians perceived domestic violence as a crime if the perpetrator was a white male, but a cultural value if he was a man of colour.
The Government approached religious leaders to consult with them about domestic violence and social issues. Self-appointed religious leaders, who had no interest in social justice or women’s equality, were courted by the authorities as community experts. This relationship between religious leaders and the authorities was endorsed by some activists who were disturbed by the racial profiling of men of colour by the police. While they argued that patriarchy used violence to suppress women, they also aggressively defended men of colour against the racist mindset that perceived them as inherently violent and barbaric. I personally knew many such activists who used race as a weapon with which to pursue their petty (and patriarchal) political careers. The character Moolchand in Counter Offence emerged from this group.
In one of my discussions about police violence against minorities, my friend and playwright David Carly narrated a story in which a certain white police officer didn’t intervene when a black woman was being beaten by her black husband. The white officer waited at the door for an officer of colour or a female officer to arrive. He feared that he would be accused of racism by the wife-beater if he arrested him in the absence of an officer of colour. While I understood the white officer’s fear, I thought he failed in his duty by not protecting a black woman because of an anticipated charge of racism. After all, such fears have not stopped the police from carrying out immigration raids or spot searches of men of colour on the roads. Nor have such fears stopped the cops from fatally shooting scores of black and Hispanic men. So, why should it stop him from arresting a black man beating a black woman? In my view, this officer’s conduct was a case of double discrimination – discrimination against a woman’s colour and discrimination against her gender. It was this very incident that gave me the premise for Counter Offence, which will separate it from all other plays on the subject of domestic violence.
It was clear to me that Counter Offence would be a complex play and that I would not use dramaturgical excuses to mellow the story in favour of simple dramatic conflicts. It was going to be a play of competing truths. What do we do when truths collide? How do we behave when the struggle to end violence against women comes into conflict with the struggle to end racism?
Prior to, and throughout the writing process, I was confronted with issues of race, multiculturalism, gender and cultural differences. I struggled with the difficult question of how far a multicultural society and its laws must tolerate cultural differences that might have coercive effects on women. I had to ask myself why women in our communities use culture to explain constraints that keep them in abusive relationships, and why men use culture to maintain power and control.
Multiculturalism is a way to tell stories that have not been told. It is therefore fitting that the characters in Counter Offence are drawn from the range of cultures seen on our streets – characters whose identities are intertwined and relational. It is due to the non-monolithic nature of multiculturalism and our society that Counter Offence includes an Iranian husband, an Indian wife, immigrant parents, a black woman activist, white police officers and an Indian activist. The play’s cultural composition complicates the issue and poses new questions.
Does culture justify violence against women? Should the fear of being accused of racism be accepted as an excuse for a white police officer who fails to do his duty? Is a policeman justified in presupposing charges of racism? If he is not racist, why should he be afraid? And who are the people who use the race card in every dispute involving ethnic communities? What credibility can the antiracist struggle have if it is used as a front for spousal abuse?
To the best of my ability, I have attempted to write Counter Offence with the directness necessary for depth, reality and objectivity in the theatre. To that end, I have opted for truth over fear and self-censorship.
- Rahul Varma