Monday, July 18, 2011

From the Mouths of Youths: Quotes from the Final Evaluations

This is what the wonderful actors and students from Simorgh Film & Theatre in Herat had to say about the Theatre for Social Development Project during our final oral evaluations.

Regarding the Workshops:
"When I came to the workshop, I was really shy to even move, but now I really feel free to speak aloud and talk to audiences." – Zainab

"Playing different characters and learning body language helps me understand people around me and in the society." – Mohammad

"The families make a difference between the boys and girls so most of the time the boys have more freedom but, in the workshop, we just felt that we are equal with the boys and they are on the same level and I really enjoyed that." - Zahra M.

"The best thing for me was the stilts because its something very new in Afghanistan and it somehow just raised up our self-confidence." - Hussain

"We had many other workshops, but in this workshop everything was completely new and unique with lots of energy." – Zahra K.

"Violence against women in the family: this is something very useful to show in my society. What I learned in this workshop is that we can raise our ability and our imagination, and we could go to different villages and cities to show this educational theatre to the people who have never seen theatre and give them this message." - Hassan

Regarding the Performances:
"In the prison, we asked them what was their crime. They said they killed their husband… then they said ‘we say this because this is our sentence against us,’ but maybe the brothers of the husband said they did it. We thought they would be depressed, but they were clapping so much, even more than other places." – Sakina “Hasti”

"One of the women pulled me in and hugged me and kissed me so much and said she was really happy and the show was really great." – Marzia

"We do not expect that all of the police will benefit or change by one show, but we can just think that if at least 10 of them from 100 watch carefully and learn something, we are doing our job". – Mohammad

"What I learned by performing in so many different places was that most of the women have no good relationship with others and with society. They are fighting with each other! If we stand up together, we can solve this problem. This is the most important and useful thing for myself." - Rahela

"Theatre is a good way to transform all kinds of information – we can show different kinds of conflict in the families and in society. The most important thing is that we could just make them laugh and happy while giving them a message – they get the message while they are laughing." - Sakina

Tuesday, July 12, 2011


To view photos from our project in Herat, please click below:

The girls perform at the Women's Shelter

Report by Anna: 
The very first performance that our girls' troupe undertakes (outside of the try-out for family and friends) is a show at a women’s shelter in Herat. The shelter is run by Voice of Women, an organization based in Herat led by Soraya Pakzad who has worked tirelessly since Taliban time to fight for women’s rights, and who started Afghanistan's first shelter in 2003.

There are about 40 women and girls at the shelter ranging in age from 15 to 25, and mostly under 20. They are escaping abusive marriages, and in most cases forced marriages. Some were about to be married off and ran away beforehand. They are lucky to have ended up here in the shelter, and not in jail or worse. If they are caught by the police they risk getting raped and put in prison, and if sent back home they may be killed.

Parwana, who works at VOW and is coordinating our visit, talks to me about the situation the women are in and decries the inhumanity of it all. She exclaims, “they feel…!,” and searching for the words she utters something about “not human!” I think she is saying the girls feel they are not treated as humans, but then I realize she is talking about the husbands, that they are not human the way they act. And she tells me about one girl who came to the center. The husband had cut off her fingers and slashed her face across the cheek from mouth to ear. What kind of man would do such a thing? And why? (Beyond its senseless cruelty, it even seems senseless out of practicality -- now the husband has to look at her disfigured face, and how is she going to be able to do his cooking and laundry with her fingers cut off? How does that serve him? But he doesn't think about this, he doesn't think at all.) Both are true – the girls are not treated as human beings and the men are not acting as humans. What we think of as human – humane – humanity… separating us from the beasts.

Unfortunately, this girl’s situation is all too common. Beatings and barrages of mental abuse are an everyday occurrence for young wives in Afghanistan, perpetrated by the husband and any or all of his relatives. Across Afghanistan, girls are forced into marriage and essentially condemned to life as a household slave. Often the girl is young and the man much older. It is not uncommon for a 12-year old to be married off to a 60-year old man! Many of these girls are driven to such despair that they set themselves on fire and burn themselves to death. It is difficult to fathom. In the Herat area there have been 100 such self-immolations in the past year. That’s two girls every week setting themselves on fire.

I look at the women, at the younger girls, and wonder about each one’s circumstances. But I don’t want to ask as it’s such a sensitive matter and I respect their privacy. And it's time to start the show.

The women laugh a lot, and they applaud at the end of each scene! The play is not necessarily meant to be that funny (although we have definitely incorporated some comic bits)... After all, we’re dealing with a serious subject matter that we want to earnestly bring awareness to: the abuse that mothers-in-law so often perpetuate, and how it destroys families. If women treat each other horribly, how can they make men treat them any better? We want to make sure people take it to heart and are moved to make a change. In this case, however, the laughter is good and it doesn’t mean they aren’t taking the play seriously or its message. Presented and received as a comedy, it is easier to take in the play and what it addresses. These women have lived through this, they don’t need to see it presented to them in a heavy and serious way. This is how comedy can be cathartic, getting to laugh about something that is painful. The women gain some vindication in seeing their reality acknowledged.

But this is not enough. In the Q&A afterward, one woman speaks up to tell us that we must show this play to the men, to the families, out in the community -- "they are the ones who need to see it, not us in here, we already know!" She is adamant and angry – and we assure her that this is indeed our intent. As we leave, the woman thanks us for our visit and asks us when we will come again. They rarely have any visitors, and hardly ever leave the shelter. But this confinement is a blessing compared to the hell they were living before.


The play's the thing!

Report by Anna -- finally adding some further posts about our performances, end of April and beginning May in Afghanistan!
*     *     *
The girls’ show is about a mother-in-law who abuses her daughter-in-law with constant put-downs and beatings. This is actually a big problem in Afghanistan. It is a pattern that gets repeated time and again. Often a young girl is married off to an older man who abuses her along with his grown sons and all other relatives around. Or a girl gets married to a boy -- both of them too young – with the boy trying to establish his manhood and beating his wife at the behest of his mother. A man might get a young wife just to be a slave to his mother. The mother was herself a young bride once who was mistreated by her mother-in-law. And so she perpetuates a behavior that has become ingrained. It is difficult to understand why women would stand against other women rather than stand together in this patriarchally oppressive society, or why a mother would discard her daughter, but it has to do with economics for one thing. A daughter brings no economic benefit, since women do not work, so she has no value (but to be a household slave).

In our story, the mother in law suffers from the bad memories of her own life as a young bride terribly abused, all the while lashing out at her young daughter-in-law, purposely getting her in trouble with her son, the husband, and beating her. One day, a friend comes to visit, catching her in the act of mistreating her daughter-in-law, and the friend berates her for it, telling the mother-in-law of her own misery having done the same. The friend’s daughter-in-law set herself on fire and killed herself as a result of all the abuse (this is a common occurrence in Afghanistan, I’m aghast to say!), now her son left her and she is all alone. The friend reminds the mother-in-law that she once was a young bride too. Slowly the mother-in-law realizes she is doing the very same that was done to her, and after some struggle, she decides she must and can make a change. In the end there is a reconciliation with the daughter-in-law. They realize standing strong together and supporting each other is a better way of living, and as a result, the son/husband also has a transformation.

To develop the show, we start our young actors off with a simple scenario and let them improvise around it, playing with character and action. They make our job easy as directors, because they are so creative! Of course, they have a lot to learn yet about theatrical presentation and how to make strong, physical choices on stage, but they are impressively adept already. Such clever dialogue, improvised on the spot! And funny little character quirks. In less than two weeks, we have a half-hour play fully developed and ready to go – and it’s amazing how much our work and our actors have grown. Madiya and Hasti who play the two narrators have become a knock-out clown duo. They bring the audience along the journey and provide some comic relief. And they’re really funny! Marzia has really found solid strength in her portrayal of a man. And Rohela is truly an amazing actor – intensely expressive as the mother-in-law, showing both nasty cruelty and vulnerability. Her transformation in the moment of reconciliation with the daughter-in-law is full of so many emotions. It is a very touching scene. (I just can’t believe this young actor is only thirteen years old!)

I am amazed at the talent, skill and dedication of these young performers, most of whom are only 12, 13, 14 years old! There are two girls who are 17 and 19, and then the boys are 16-21. During the course of our work, I forget how young they are, because they are so good, so dedicated and so professional! And they are tackling serious subject matters of family conflict and domestic violence, acting out beatings and abuse. But they are wise beyond their years and fully aware of the problems of their society. And, sad to say, many of the wives for whom this is a reality are only 14 years old (or younger)! Innocence of childhood is shattered early in this country.

I hope Rohela can continue doing theater, and the other girls, too. But the risk is that in a few years they will be married (off) and that will be the end of it. To encourage their families and the community to accept theater as something good, indeed, to show that it is something that can bring income to the family, we are paying the girls (and boys, too) a fee for participating in the workshops and for their work as performers. See, theater brings economic as well as social benefit to the community!

For the first performance, we invite the performer's families and friends as well as all the workshop students. We present the girls' and boys' shows and then we have a certificate ceremony for everyone involved in the workshops. It is great to see the smiles on the parents' faces!