Talaq – which means “divorce” – is a one-woman play about Nisha, a Muslim girl from India who is married off at the age of 16 to a Singaporean man twice her age. She finds out that her husband has been having an affair with another woman. When she confronts him about it, he beats her. The physical, sexual and psychological abuse worsens, but Nisha’s cries for help are drowned out by her husband’s family and relatives, and those within the community.
Talaq is based on the real-life story of Nargis Banu. Like Nisha in the play, Banu was married off at a young age to a much older man in Singapore and got divorced after suffering abuse. Her attempts to speak out about her experience were silenced by Indian Muslim community leaders. Desperate, she turned to Tamil playwright Elangovan for help to tell her story.
Elangovan, a non-Muslim Tamil, was suspicious when Banu sought him out. His social satires have got him into trouble before, and the award-winning writer wondered if he was being set up for a fall. ‘My first question,’ he says, ‘was: “Why me, a playwright with the adjective controversial attached to my name?”’ But Banu’s palpable desire to get Indian Muslim women to take control of their lives won him over. Besides, he confesses a ‘soft spot for the underdog.’Source: The Rights of Marriage by Andrea Hamilton. In Asiaweek.com (30 Nov 2000), http://cnn.it/2kCIr8v
The resulting Tamil monologue is based on the stories of Banu and 11 other women, starring Banu. Elangovan personally coached her for three months, and the work debuted on 24 December 1998 at the SPH Auditorium of the Young Musician’s Society Arts Centre. It was sponsored by women’s rights group AWARE and played to a full house. Audience members reacted favourably to the play.
‘This play empowers women,’ says [Constance Singam, president of AWARE]. She saw Talaq in 1998, and recalls how it moved the audience of mainly Indian women to tears. ‘It resonated and had meaning for them.’
However, both Elangovan and Banu received death threats after the performance.
After its debut production, the playwright-director received death threats. Nonetheless, Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, a Member of Parliament who was guest of honour, wrote a letter of commendation. The playwright subsequently secured funding from the Publishing and Translation Grant Scheme of the National Arts Council (NAC) to have the play published in English and Tamil. The play was staged once again in February 1999, this time under the aegis of the Nritalaya Arts Society and received sponsorship from the NAC and the Artsfund.Source: Interpellation, Ideology and Identity: The Case of Talaq by KK Seet in Theatre Research International Vol. 27 (2002)
In October 2000, theatre company Agni Kootthu [Theatre of Fire] – headed by Elangovan’s wife, S. Thenmoli – attempted to restage the play in in English and Malay for a wider reach. Receiving intense protest from religious groups, the NAC and the Public Entertainment Licensing Unit (PELU) requested that Agni Kootthu first stage a preview for a panel that included representatives from Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura (MUIS) and the South Indian Jamiathul Ulama (SIJU).
After the preview, PELU decided not to grant Talaq a performance license due to strong objections from the religious groups, who felt that Islam had been misportrayed:
In Islamic law, a husband cannot rape his wife as long as the marriage continues. He need not ask permission from his wife for sexual relations each time he wants to have it. Even if she is angry or not in the mood, he has the right to it. In any event, a husband can have sex with his wife without her consent and that will not be rape – Haji Ebrahim Marican, SIJU SecretarySource: No go for touchy play by Teo Pau Lin. In The Straits Times (27 Oct 2000).
Unable to stage a public performance, Agni Kootthu decided on a closed-door video documentation of the work instead on 28 October 2000. The venue – the Drama Centre at its former location at Fort Canning Park – had already been booked and paid for. In response, the NAC closed the Drama Centre:
Interpreting this as the company’s devious means of contravening and circumventing the licensing restrictions, the NAC decided to close the theatre early.Source: Interpellation, Ideology and Identity: The Case of Talaq by KK Seet in Theatre Research International Vol. 27 (2002)
When the company tried to continue with the video documentation, a stand-off ensued, and the police were called in to arrest Thenmoli for trespassing. She was released after posting bail.
The drama surrounding Talaq in 2000 was viewed in many ways. News outlets tended to frame the situation as a blow to freedom of expression in Singapore:
Singapore’s newfound commitment to artistic freedom is being tested in a battle between a Singaporean playwright and the government over the staging of a play on Muslim women and divorce. This debate over creative license and social responsibility is raging in a country whose history makes it very sensitive to issues of race and religion. The row also comes at a particularly embarrassing time for the Singapore government, which has invested millions of dollars in the last two years to portray itself as Asia’s Renaissance arts city.Source: Culture-Singapore: Controversial Play Tests Artistic Freedom by Mohan Srilal. In Inter Press Service (7 Nov 2000), http://bit.ly/2kZXgCZ
By blocking the play, officials have let through the conservatives’ message. Whisper the unpalatable truths, don’t say them out loud.Source: Silenced Cries by Santha Oorjitham. In Asiaweek.com (10 Nov 2000), http://cnn.it/2kCu181
Others saw the ban as a missed opportunity to give voice to marginalised women.
It is therefore, disturbing, that ‘Talaq’, a social commentary on the evils of domestic violence, has been silenced and thus silencing the right of the victims to speak and to be heard. We thought we had moved away from those dark days of silence. This episode serves to remind us that the struggle against violence is an on-going one and that men in power can silence women’s right to speak against oppression by any means within their power. In this case men have used race and religion to silence; the licensing and funding authorities have succumbed to their arguments and banned the play ‘Talaq’.
As a Muslim, my religion is a lifestyle, it affects every aspect of my life… We should not have all these taboo things under the table. Through the artistes’ works, people get a chance to see all these issues. – Roslan Mohd Daud, artistic director of Teater Artistik
The government, on the other hand, saw works like Talaq as a threat to racial and religious harmony:
Singapore encourages artistic expression and creativity. But artistic works must respect religious sensitivities in multi-racial and multi-religious Singapore. Artistes should be mindful of our social realities and avoid creating racial or religious tensions, as they too have a responsible role to play in helping to preserve religious and racial harmony in Singapore. – Assoc. Prof. Ho Peng Kee (Sembawang), Minister of State, Ministry of Law and Ministry of Home Affairs.Source: Transcript of the Parliamentary Debates (14 Nov 2000), http://bit.ly/2lb2nlG
While disappointed with the outcome, Elangovan certainly did not see the ban as an end to his work as a playwright:
An artiste must understand the politics of existence: learn to walk in the inferno first, get prepared to have stones thrown at you. I think of myself as walking in a minefield, with stones being thrown at me.Source: Artistic freedom vs social responsibility by Ong Sor Fern. In The Straits Times (1 Nov 2000).
The Vault: Dancing the Good, the Bad and the Ugly is the second of three presentations focusing on local dance-makers’ responses to Singapore play-text. In this edition, contemporary dance artist Lee Mum Wai responds to the themes of social injustice in three banned plays by Elangovan. Presented on 24 February 2017, 8pm at Centre 42 Black Box. Admission is give-what-you-can. Find out more about the event here.