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Theatre Against Violence Against Women

American Theatre magazine, December 10, 2014

Patricia Ariza and Joanna Sherman lead companies in war zones where female bodies and liberty are among the worst casualties.

A performance of "Rahela's Bride" by Simorgh Theatre at Mehri High School in Herat, Afghanistan. (Photo by Anna Zastrow)


It is Aug. 27, 2009. The women, hundreds of them, gather in the Plaza Bolívar in Bogotá, Colombia, carrying signs with images of husbands and fathers, sons and daughters, who have disappeared during years of civil strife and are most likely dead.

Dónde están? Where are they?

The demonstrators chant, while another group of women—dancers clad in flowing, persimmon-colored dresses—swirl in front of them, asking the forbidden question, confronting power through theatre.

“Where are they? Living Memory. Women in the Public Square”—an event involving Colombian women who are performers and more than 300 women who are simply Colombian citizens—was created by Patricia Ariza, actor and director, playwright and poet, standard-bearer of the women’s movement for peace in Colombia. Far from the safe proscenium stages of Broadway, Ariza takes performers and nonperformers into the streets and squares of her country, engaging them to bear witness and be fearless in the face of oppression and violence against women.

Such violence is surging throughout the world. And countries with the highest incidence of anti-female violence—whether military, sexual, economic or all of the above—are often those countries where women have the least recourse to legal or social protection.

“Violence comes from everywhere,” says Ariza, speaking in her low, husky voice during an interview in New York City last October. “But in a war situation, it’s a lot worse, because women’s bodies end up being a war prize—the precious thing you’re going to win.”

In response, intrepid theatre artists—often members of women’s or women-led groups—have come to the fore to help victims regain their personal and political power through collective performance or the dramatizing of private experience. Ariza is one such theatre artist. Joanna Sherman, who heads the New York City–based Bond Street Theatre, which brings theatre to communities around the world, is another.

“Violence,” Ariza adds, “takes away the subjective character of women—their identities. So when women fight against that, they are capable of turning pain into strength.”

“Pain into strength” could be Ariza’s watchwords. Born in the late 1940s in a farming area of Colombia, Ariza soon fled with her family to Bogotá to escape the countryside’s civil strife. During the 1960s she joined a Communist youth organization. Then, having studied art at university, and believing firmly that the stage is a platform from which one could tell truth and change people’s perceptions, she helped in 1996 to co-found Colombia’s first alternative theatre, the ensemble Teatro La Candelaria. She remains one of the company’s most visible artists today.

Conflicts between left-wing guerrillas and right-wing paramilitary groups escalated in the 1990s, and Ariza occasionally made theatre while wearing a bulletproof vest. She helped form and now manages the Corporación Colombiana de Teatro (CCT), a nonprofit that stages performances about and with the women and young people whom the country’s internal conflicts have displaced and damaged. CCT annually produces the celebrated Festival de Mujeres en Escena por la Paz (Women on Stage Festival for Peace), and, in April, as a result of Ariza’s years of work for this cause, Bogotá will be the site of a three-day international summit focusing on theatre and peace.

“Our purpose,” says Ariza, “is to influence the peace process in Colombia from the cultural point of view—because if peace doesn’t get built into the imaginations of people, it’s going to be very difficult to achieve. That is the key.”

Ariza’s style of theatre art—what she calls “collective creation”—is also a journey from pain into strength. “When I started doing theatre,” she says, “Brecht was a huge influence. But like all influences, they evolve and change.” Her process today, she explains, “includes auto-referencing—starting with the inner truth that can be transformed. Using your body and your personal history as work material. Writing with the body. Because theatre is an exercise of freedom that combines the most intimate things about people and converts that material to a public action.”

Indeed, the 2009 collective creation in Plaza Bolívar was transformative for some spectators, including Diana Taylor, the founding director of the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics, a supporter of the daylong event. “You got the sense,” said Taylor during a conversation last fall, “that there was an awareness of a reality being made visible right there. We were witnesses and also participants. Some of the performers carried silhouettes, which is a common strategy in Latin America to conjure up the disappeared. But that day they took the silhouette out and left the emptiness, and lots of us walked through that cutout. Occupying the emptiness became a political act: ‘I am here for those who are not here.’”

For “Dónde Están?” as for all the performances Ariza stages in Colombia, she worked with both the performers and nonperformers for four to six months. Last October, she was in New York City for one week to receive the Gilder/Coigney International Theatre Award—the only award of its kind given to a woman theatre practitioner who lives and works outside the U.S. This time there was no such luxurious time frame.

In a microcosm of the Plaza Bolívar event, 17 women performed instead of several hundred; the space was the proscenium stage of prosaic Elebash Hall, at the CUNY Graduate Center, rather than a plaza surrounded by a cathedral and government buildings, symbols of Colombia’s patriarchy. There were no months for collective creation, only hours on a Sunday, plus a brief public rehearsal the next afternoon, Oct. 27, and a performance that evening.

But Ariza instilled trust, and the actors, who had never worked together before, opened up to themselves and to each other. Describing the workshop experience later, actor Miriam Kulick said, “After a 10-minute warmup, each of us had to go before the group and introduce ourselves. The main thing Patricia wanted us to share was occasions of violence in our personal lives, either directly or toward someone we knew or loved. I remember her saying, ‘I want to see your soul.’”

“It surprised me,” chimed in the Colombian-born actor Carolina Ravassa, “that every woman who got up in front of the group, as strong and self-assured as she seemed, had dealt with some sort of domestic abuse. We all opened our hearts. Patricia immediately conveyed a sense of camaraderie.”

Ariza asked each actor to come up with five physical actions that expressed the emotions connected to her particular story, then to hone the actions to three and to add three sentences or lines of song. The 17 women, barefoot and wearing black leotards, broke into two groups of five and one of seven: When one woman gestured and spoke, the others, like a Greek chorus, made the same gesture, spoke the same words.

By Monday’s open rehearsal and performance, we in the audience could see that, even though there were moments when certain actors came forward or stood out from the group because of a particular gesture, the 17 individuals who had brought personal stories of abuse to a workshop only the day before had become an ensemble. More than an ensemble: a force. It was a chilling moment when, toward the end of the performance, the women walked in a circle, raised their voices and called out to the audience, “Why should I walk with fear?”

Patricia ArizaPatricia Ariza. (Photo by Carlos Lema)


In Colombia, the movement for peace continues. General security for Colombians has improved since the murderous 1990s. Colombia’s president, Juan Manuel Santos, who was reelected in 2014 for a new term, appears to be trying to negotiate with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)—armed, anti-imperialist guerrillas. Still, Colombia’s National Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Science has documented that sexual offenses against women rose 40 percent between 2003 and 2012.

Ariza speaks of hope, but no certainty, that the peace for which she and so many other women have been striving through theatre will truly arrive, and that there will be a political solution, not a military one. Meanwhile, “Women,” says this artist, remain “at the forefront of the fight for human rights—at the forefront of the peace we are building in Colombia today.”

The Herat Women’s Prison in Afghanistan is a blocklike structure, with high, white walls surrounding a courtyard. It is comparatively new, and the interior looks more like a dormitory than a jail. Approximately 150 women sleep in bunk beds—usually 10 to a room—but the rooms are spacious and clean, and the women can decorate them if they wish. Some of the rooms even have television sets.

The prison appears almost progressive and is certainly an improvement over the dungeon-like environment in which women used to be kept. Now, infants and young children can stay with their mothers, and there is a daycare center. The women receive regular meals and health care, they are allowed to wear their own clothes, and they may also move freely throughout the building. Of course there are (female) guards and bars on the windows.

It all sounds encouraging until one learns that many of the women have been incarcerated for so-called crimes of morality, or because they have brought what is considered “dishonor” to their families. Some of the women have been raped, some abused. Others have run away from their families. Afghanistan’s legal age for a girl to get married is 18, but in rural areas, families still barter an underage daughter to a man far older—a man whom the girl meets for the first time at her wedding.

Rape, domestic abuse, leaving the home of a man who frightens or physically damages you—these are usually treated as crimes that the victim has committed, and she can be imprisoned. As the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) wrote in a May 2014 special report, the women of Afghanistan “enjoy significant rights”—on paper. The 2004 constitution grants equality to women and men, and sets a minimum age for marriage. The groundbreaking 2009 Law on Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) provides criminal penalties for rape, child marriage and forced marriage and domestic violence.

But in practice, the USIP Report finds that legal protections for women do not function. The state judicial system sets up impossible hurdles. Also, Islamic Law (sometimes misinterpreted) or local customs often trump what many in Afghanistan, women as well as men, deem a Western-influenced constitution. So women go to prison, and girls under 18 go to juvenile correction centers. Upon release, they often cannot return to their families, for imprisonment is also considered dishonorable; back in their homes, they might once again be abused, by female in-laws as well as a husband or father. Unable to support themselves, the women often marry again.

Against this background, in March 2015, the Bond Street Theatre, led by its artistic director, Joanna Sherman, is bringing the Creative Arts Prison Program to the women incarcerated in Herat.

“There has not been this kind of creative project in the Afghan prisons before,” says Sherman, talking last October at the company’s loft on Bond Street in New York City. “The women are usually taught skills like tailoring and beauty and rug-making, but nothing like self-expressive, theatrical storytelling, which I see as motivational.”

Like Ariza, Sherman believes making theatre can be liberating, emotionally and politically. “It’s stretching their imaginations, getting them to talk to each other, share experiences—in a kindhearted way. They will be able to imagine another situation besides being beaten down and not able to speak your mind.”

Bond Street Theatre was born during the dwindling liberal optimism of late 1970s America. “We came of age at the end of the political theatre movement in the U.S.,” says Sherman, a petite, lean, energetic woman, who cofounded Bond Street in 1976 . “We looked to the San Francisco Mime Troupe, Bread and Puppet Theater—these were our inspirations. When the ’80s arrived, and with Reagan, we were all juiced up. But it was impossible to get any money for community programs.”

The company began touring internationally and decided that, whatever the political frustrations at home, women, men and children in war-torn and poverty-stricken parts of the world were in need and would benefit more from the sort of theatre work that Bond Street undertakes—collaborating with existing theatre companies, or helping to form new ones, and training them to bring theatre into their communities. There is nothing like theatre, Bond Street’s artist-educators believe, for encouraging creativity, intellectual freedom and humanitarian values.

In association with the United Nations, working through UNICEF and with numerous NGOs, Bond Street has brought performances, workshops and training to more than 20 countries, from Kosovo to Pakistan, Brazil to the Palestinian territories, Haiti to Myanmar. Currently the group is developing a project in Kenya.

After 9/11, Afghanistan’s refugee camps became Bond Street’s destination. Amid the tents, makeshift huts and thousands of displaced people, Sherman and her Bond Street band found actors who, as actors will, had found each other and formed Exile Theatre. Eventually, as the U.S.-led coalition weakened the Taliban and theatre practitioners emerged from years of enforced silence, Bond Street discovered additional companies with which to work, and by 2009 had received grants for its Theatre of Social Development Project.

“Of course,” Sherman recounts, “these were all-male companies. To create all-women theatre groups was secretly my goal. We told the men that, if you want to be part of the project, you have to have six women. They said, ‘There’s no way.’ And we said, ‘Well, you won’t get paid, then.’ ‘Oh, well, I think I can get six women.’” And with Sherman’s help, they did.

Month-long training sessions followed for the young women, most of whom had never expressed themselves in any public situation, let alone performed. And so emerged the all-women Nangarhar Theatre in Jalalabad; White Star Theatre in Kabul; and collaboration with the Simorgh Theatre in Herat, an existing company of men and women led by writer and director Monireh Hashemi. Workshops focused on trust exercises and physical expression—and simply raising one’s voice.

“Getting women to speak out is huge,” says Sherman. “Young women who have been told, ‘We don’t want to hear from you,’ lift their heads and call their names. We call a name across the room, and everyone echoes back. It’s incredibly affirming.”

Problem-solving exercises led to improvisations and then to scenarios of conflict and resolution. Scenarios led to brief plays. White Star Theatre created Rights Are Not Given, They Are Taken, which begins with a husband hitting and kicking his wife because she wants to read, and ends with women uniting and insisting on their rights. (According to U.N. statistics, 85 percent of Afghan women were illiterate as of 2011.) The women’s troupe of Simorgh Theatre created Rahela’s Bride, in which a mother-in-law beats her son’s bride until a female neighbor urges her to stop; the neighbor used to beat her own son’s bride, but then the young wife set herself on fire, the son walked out, and now the neighbor is alone. At play’s end, the abusive mother embraces her daughter-in-law and they hug, to loud applause from the audience.

Truthful vignettes of women’s lives, staged with minimal props and no scenery, followed by discussion: the format is familiar to educators and audiences in much of the world. But it has proved newly illuminating for women’s theatre companies and their audiences in Afghanistan. The groups take their plays to women’s shelters, prisons and schools, even into homes.

Come March 2015, Bond Street will bring this template to the Herat Women’s Prison, in partnership with Simorgh Theatre and with support from the American nonprofit Dining for Women. Bond Street will train the Simorgh team to conduct theatre workshops with the incarcerated women (and maybe their guards as well), so that, after Bond Street’s artist-educators leave, Simorgh can continue to assist the jailed women to create and put on plays by themselves.

They also hope that by March Afghanistan’s new president, Ashraf Ghani, and his parliament will have resolved the issues surrounding a 2013 bill that could severely weaken the 2009 EVAW laws. (Afghanistan’s previous president, Hamid Karzai, left the issue hanging.) Ghani, an internationally respected academic, returned to Afghanistan after 9/11, after 24 years abroad, eventually becoming chancellor of Kabul University and then minister of finance. At his 2014 inauguration, Ghani publicly recognized his Lebanese wife, Rula Saade, as “my partner,” and said, “She has always supported Afghan women and I hope she continues to do so.”

As in so many countries, in Afghanistan, the struggle of women to shed oppression and eliminate abuse goes on.