Child-bride: Agency and Marriage in India

By: Devika Ranjan

October 30, 2015

For her final project as a Doyle Undergraduate Fellow, Devika Ranjan explored the intersection of political theater and social justice. Through a series of blogs, she engages issues of faith, women’s rights, and free speech in South Asia.


On stage right, a dance class in southern Pakistan. Young girls learn to dance classical Kathak, telling stories with their movements. They tap out rhythms with their feet, slowly learning as their TEACHER repositions.   

TEACHER: Left, right, right, left.   On stage left, a street theatre performance in the style of forum theatre. Audience members surround the scene, and jump into the performance as invited. 

The FATHER, MOTHER, and PROTAGONIST are actors.  

FATHER: I have found you a husband; he will pay a good price. That is the end of the discussion.  

MOTHER: But she is only 10!   

PROTAGONIST: What can I do?!

The PROTAGONIST snaps her fingers and freezes the scene. She asks the AUDIENCE for suggestions.   

SPECTATOR 1: Run away from home!  

SPECTATOR 2: Marry him!   

SPECTATOR 3: Try to reason with the family.   

PROTAGONIST: Okay, why don’t you step in and help me. SPECTATOR 3 steps into the action to act as the PROTAGONIST. PROTAGONIST snaps, and unfreezes the scene.   

SPECTATOR 3: But I am just a child.   

FATHER: It doesn’t matter. We need the money.   

SPECTATOR 3: I want to go to school!   

FATHER: We don’t have the money to send you to school. At least, if you get married, we can pay for food.   

MOTHER: But she is so bright. She could earn for the family if she stayed…   The scene continues. Other audience members attempt to solve the problem. Each suggestion is valid and explored.  


Over the years since Indian independence, women’s rights have been a constant battle focus from South Asian society. From dowry, domestic abuse, harassment of widows, and sexual assault, activists work to erode the patriarchy and well-established gender norms. Political theater often responds to these issues through song, dance, and dramatic performance (Bhatia 118). Often, theater organizations will use myths of goddesses to tell famous stories from the female point of view. Instead of hero-centric literature, these performances attempt to reconstruct traditional myths to engage social issues. As a result, the plays challenge audience preconceptions on society as well as the patriarchy (Rise of Women’s Theatre in India).  

In response to the Nirbhaya 2012 gang rape, director Yael Farber created a theatrical tribute to the courage and tenacity of Indian women as they fight against sexual harassment. Every actor involved in the production was a victim of sexual harassment themselves, hoping to call attention to the injustice of women’s oppression in India (Nirbhaya video). The proscenium performance received international attention, travelling worldwide and spreading awareness. However, theater in support of women’s rights is also pervades the streets of South Asia.  

Jana Natya Munch, a Delhi-based organization which rose out of the ashes of the Indian People’s Theater Association, is one of the most Indian famous political theater organizations to engage women’s rights (Bhatia 116). In 1979, the theatre group began performances of Aurat, meaning “women.” The ground-breaking play discussed violence against women—from a girl’s childhood to her marriage to her old age. It toured extensively around north India in the early 1980s and remains a landmark work women’s rights (Deshpande). 

Tehrik-e-Niswan is a Pakistani performance and dance group that literally stands for the “women’s movement.” Based in Karachi, the group aims to convey the plight of women and their suppression.  It began spreading its message through theatre and dance at a time when performance was outlawed by General Zia ul-Huq. Evading censorship of the regime, the group’s 35-year run makes it the oldest continually-running theater in Pakistan (Afzal-Khan 2). As opposed to Jana Natya Munch, Tehrik-e-Niswan focuses on a small number of communities and works on establishing continual relationships with the populations. According to the organization, this allows for more comfort in audience interaction and a larger impact. Tehrik-e-Niswan also teaches dance lessons, building confidence in women’s performance (Mundrawala, 1).


Afzal-Khan, Fawzia. A Critical Stage: The Role of Secular Alternative Theatre in Pakistan. Calcutta: Seagull, 2005. Print.
Bhatia, Nandi. Acts of Authority, Acts of Resistance: Theater and Politics in Colonial and Postcolonial India. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2004.  
Deshpande, Sudhavana. "A Play Called "Woman"." Google Cultural Institute. Google, n.d. Web. April 7, 2015.
Hasan, Mushirul. Inventing Boundaries: Gender, Politics, and the Partition of India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000. 
Mohita, Negi. "Rise of Women’s Theatre in India." Next Generation Library. N.p., n.d. Web. April 7, 2015.
Mundrawala, Asma. "Shifting Terrains: The Depoliticisation of Political Theatre in Pakistan." Diss. University of Sussex, 2010. Web.
Nirbhaya. Dir. Yael Farber. Kickstarter, 2013. 

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Child-bride: Agency and Marriage in India