In June 2002, 30-year-old Mukhtar Mai was gang-raped by four men and forced to walk home almost naked through the streets of her hometown in rural Pakistan as retribution for an alleged crime committed by her younger brother.
One decade later and Mai, who refused to resort to silence or even suicide as a means of dealing with her ordeal, is one of Pakistan’s most prominent human rights activists.
Mai’s story forms part of “seven,” a documentary-theater piece made up of a series of monologues recounting the true experiences of seven women from the Washington-based Vital Voices Global Leadership Network.
Written by seven leading female playwrights -- Paula Cizmar, Catherine Filloux, Gail Kriegel, Carol K. mack, Ruth Margraff, Anna Deavere Smith and Susan Yankowitz -- the documentary play was staged before a sellout crowd for the second time in Turkey at İstanbul’s historic Kenter Theater on Wednesday evening as part of the city’s 18th international theater festival. Turkish journalist Can Dündar featured among an otherwise all-female cast starring actresses Derya Alabora, Ayça Damgacı, Zeliha Berksoy, Meral Çetinkaya and Esra Dermancıoğlu, and journalist Mehveş Evin.
“In a nutshell, we are telling women’s stories of violence and the difficulties involved in that process. The message for everyone is get engaged and change something,” Hedda Krausz Sjögren, the director of the production, told a lunchtime audience at a seminar at İstanbul’s Swedish Research Institute on Wednesday. Sjögren, who describes her first reading of the piece four years ago as having “awakened a slumbering activist within me,” has directed more than 200 high-profile public figures, including Hillary Clinton and Meryl Streep, since the production’s premiere in 2009.
With Cizmar, Mack, Yankowitz and Margraff in town for the occasion, Wednesday’s lunchtime session was the first time that some of the playwrights have gathered together in the same place to discuss “seven” and the stories behind the piece.
‘Every woman playwright I knew wanted to take part’
Mack penned the tale of Northern Irish Inez McCormack, an activist for women’s and human rights and labor and social justice during and following the period of The Troubles. McCormack was the first woman to hold the office of president of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions.
“When we first put out the call for playwrights to work on the project we were overwhelmed by interest. We found our seven in three days, but it seemed that every woman playwright I knew would have wanted to take part,” Mack told her İstanbul audience.
Speaking to Sunday’s Zaman, Mack said that like all the women in the project, McCormack was an outsider. She rejected society and her family by marrying a Catholic at a time of extreme societal segregation. “Inez was from a staunch unionist Protestant family and she discovered the intensity of the Protestant, Catholic divide through brutality as an outsider. She was then exiled by her own family,” Mack, who has remained firm friends with the Belfast-born campaigner, recalled.
The outsider status of the seven women is what unites their stories. However, director Sjögren reminded audiences on Wednesday: “You can’t say it’s just the poor ones, the uneducated ones or the foreign ones who suffer. If you listen to women’s stories, violence is everywhere. It is among us and we need to deal with it.”
Indeed, it is the diversity of the backgrounds of the seven women whose stories make up “Seven” that is most startling. While Mai was a poor illiterate village girl and Annabella De Leon wrenched herself and her family out of poverty in Guatemala by fighting for education, Farida Azizi, who became an activist fighting the marginalization of women under Taliban rule in her native Afghanistan, was the daughter of a successful doctor, and human rights advocate Hafsat Abiola, whose father won Nigeria’s first democratic presidential election in 10 years in 1993, was educated at Harvard University.
Mu Sochua, a former minister of women’s affairs in Cambodia, suffered for many years as a refugee when the Vietnam War spilled over into Cambodia while Marina Pisklakova-Parker made an active choice to step out of middle-class comfort to launch a hotline for victims of domestic violence in Russia in 1993.
Trumping survival to become leaders
Margraff, who wrote the part of Azizi, reflected that there is often an assumption in the media that victims of violence are mere survivors. However, these women rose far beyond that to become leaders who inspire other women.
With the spotlight on women in “Seven,” director Sjögren has been keen to invite men to step into the shoes of the seven characters in a number of dramatizations of the production. In July 2010, seven suited and booted members of the Swedish parliament removed themselves from their regular contexts in an all-male performance of “Seven” as part of Sweden’s Visby Political Week. And indeed, Dündar performed the part of Pisklakova-Parker as honorary male magnificently on Wednesday evening.
Speaking with Sunday’s Zaman, actress Damgacı, a natural storyteller who performed the role of Nigerian Abiola with characteristic finesse, said it would have been particularly poignant to see an all-male cast perform the play in Turkey, a country where figures for domestic violence and violence against women have doubled in the past four years according to a report published by the parliamentary Human Rights Commission last week.
“Violence against women is a serious and prevalent issue in Turkey, so to have seen seven political figures take on the roles in ‘Seven’ would have been hugely symbolic and a boost to the efforts of women’s groups to raise awareness to the gravity of the problem here,” Damgacı said, adding that she hopes the play will be performed to a wider cross-section of society.
“There was no doubt as to the subject of the play, yet still the theater was full of hundreds of people keen to see the performance and hear the stories of these women. That curiosity alone is very encouraging,” Damgacı told Sunday’s Zaman.
Playwright and academic Cizmar, who wrote the part of Pisklakova-Parker, was intent on emphasizing the importance of continuing to perform the play and on spreading its message that broken women can recuperate and re-emerge not only as victims but as leaders.
“Almost every time there is a reading or staging of the play, someone comes up afterwards and says that’s my story you’re talking about. Of course it isn’t, but people relate to these characters and through that they feel like they have an opening to tell their own stories. That is what we are trying to encourage,” she explained.
As Wednesday night’s performance closed with a standing ovation, there was an atmosphere of hope for abused women and those trying to help them in Turkey and elsewhere. Investing in women, after all, as Diane von Furstenberg of the Vital Voices organization once said, is investing in the world.