Tuesday, July 12, 2011

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.


No comments: