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Victim or victor?

GEETA DOCTOR in conversation with Naomi Ackerman, the Israeli performer whose one-woman show focuses on one of the strongest social taboos, domestic violence.

GEETHA DOCTOR in conversation with Naomi Acherman, the Israeli performer whose one-women show focuses on one of the strangest social taboos, domestic violence.

"IT must be my car-mah," explains Naomi Ackerman, after the performance of her one-hour show, that she has named, "Flowers Are Not Enough" at Chennai that has been sponsored by the Prakrithi Foundation. "I think it's a very Indian explanation, I did not choose the cause, the cause chose me."

Naomi's karma has taken her all over the world with her show that deals with a seemingly mundane subject — the plight of the battered wife. It's a topic that has gained headline status ever since Eve Ensler launched her hard-hitting play, "The Vagina Monologues" that details the range and extent of the assaults that are made against women and declared that the "V-Day is a global movement to end violence against women and girls".

Naomi is almost embarrassed to be asked whether she considers herself the Eve Ensler of Israel, "Oh, no, she's right up there and I'm just here," she says, stretching her arms up and down, from the ceiling to the table, "but it's true I admire her enormously and she's helped me a lot in developing my own career. She's been enormously supportive and whenever I need to make a decision on where I want to go next, I turn to her for her guidance."

There are two distinct sides to a performance by Naomi Ackerman. In the first part, she comes on to a stage and re-enacts the story of her life as a victim. There is nothing on the barren stage, but a chair, a bottle of water and a bouquet of flowers. There are three spotlights, one red for anger, the other golden yellow for hope, the central point, neutrally white, that underline the stark choices that Naomi's heroine has to make as she negotiates the course of her marriage to the man she loves.

As she moves between these three fixed points on the stage, she forces us to see her disintegration from a tender and hopeful bride, to the trembling battered wife, who becomes a willing accessory to her own humiliation, until the final assault. As she weaves back and forth between the timid, whining wife and the aggressive "manly" husband she becomes like Sylvia Plath's every woman, half in love with the patriarchal figure of the jack-booted man, who adores the kick in the pants until she can't stand it any more.

Or to quote from a poem by Plath, she is a woman who can no longer be happy standing in the background "I am no shadow/Though there is a shadow standing at my feet/ I am a wife."

In the second part Naomi Ackerman moves out of the shadow of her stage character. She tears off the bandana that has been holding back her hair in a neat fringe, shakes loose her hair, calls for the house lights to be put on in her strident American-Israeli voice, "Could I have ALL the lights please, I want to see the audience! She unbuttons the prim jacket, or sweater that she's been wearing over her brilliant red blouse and becomes her other self, a healer and a listener who brings her own brand of activism to the personal arena. What is strange to watch is that it is when she is in a position of power, that she becomes gentle. She is able to reach out in a manner that is neither strident nor judgmental. It's when she is most visible that she is able to blend into the audience and become a part of them.

"One of the nicest remarks that was made to me that evening came from a man," she recollects, "who came to me after the show and said. `You know what your show taught me is that violence is not just about physical pain. It's the threat of violence that is truly terrifying' and he remembered how he had been beaten as a child.

"And I went back and shared this thought with my husband. Of course, I was sad that he had been beaten as a child, but what I want to point out is that there is nothing alien about what I am saying. There is a sense of sharing that goes on all the time and I am learning all the time. There's nothing exclusive about it. It's not just my truth or a truth that exists only for a certain class of women, or that's coming from the West or that's happening only here, or that's exclusive to a heterosexual relationship.

"By the way, I was amazed that the first question last evening was about violence in homosexual relationships. Obviously violence is there just under the surface in every society. It's something we can all understand.

Talking about violence ... Naomi with her husband, Raphael Harrington.

"I might have chosen an upper class figure in my performance. The idea that she doesn't want the flowers that her husband thrusts upon her may be strange to an audience here, but I think it was a conscious choice that I had to make. If I had made a flower girl the victim, people might say, well that's to be expected, that's what happens to flower girls, but because my heroine is upper class I hope that the message can reach down, that violence is everywhere, there's no immunity. We must try and stop it."

In real life, Naomi bears a great resemblance to the Hollywood star, Sandra Bullock. When she laughs it's with a sound that comes right up from her belly, which she is proud to pat affectionately, as she reveals that she is six months pregnant with her first child. This does not seem to deter her one bit from her hectic schedule, meeting women's groups in the mornings, or running workshops and doing her show in the evening.

She is candid enough to admit that when she did her first show in Israel for what we would call an NGO, she did it for the money. She had no idea that it would prove to be such a success. She had found her material talking to about 10 women who were in a shelter for battered women and worked on it, though she is quick to emphasise that her own family background is so secure, that she does not remember a single time, when anyone raised a hand to her.

"But being with these women taught me what it means to be strong, before that I might have just taken my position for granted because I never had to question it."

Besides, as she points out, no one can be strong all the time. There are differences not just of gender, but also of race, colour, size, social or educational disparities that can create a feeling of smallness.

One of the strangest cases, she recalls was working with a man who was so huge that he towered even over her, "And I'm quite large but here was this man who's hands were enormous and he would strike his wife, because even though she was a small-made petite woman, her success in her career made him feel totally inadequate. She made him feel small."

"The most humbling moment I've had so far," she reveals after more than 620 performances, "is with a group of women in Pune. They were amongst the poorest sections of society. It must have been difficult for them to understand, but they managed all right and at the end of it, one of them said, `Yes, we must create safe houses amongst ourselves. We have to help each other as women.'

"I felt that here was a feminist movement that was happening right before my eyes. They had nothing, but they had so much inner strength, an acceptance of their situation, as women. There was no anger at all. I think that's a lesson that I've learnt from my visit to India this time."

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