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How women’s theatre groups, in the last 20 years, gave voice to Afghanistan’s long history of storytelling

An artistic director, who had nurtured some of these groups, on how that stands threatened now. The last two decades saw music at weddings and public places and people enjoying Turkish dramas and Bollywood films

Written by Dipanita Nath |
Updated: August 29, 2021 7:12:36 am
theatre, afghanistanSepia tones: Memories of a theatre workshop in Afghanistan (Source: Joanna Sherman, Bond Street Theatre)

At the centre of the Pashto play, Backbiters, are a young girl who refuses to be sold in marriage to an older man and her friend who intends to go for higher studies. Women in the latter’s neighbourhood in northern Afghanistan gossip that she intends to go to university, where she’d sit next to boys and wear lipstick. By the end of the show, these women are made to realise that their chatter is not only harmful, it is also against Islamic tenets. Until recently, Backbiters was a hugely popular plays espousing women’s rights. Today, its performers are hiding from the Taliban, who took control of Afghanistan recently.

“Our women’s theatre groups in Afghanistan were very successful. Theatre training is good for confidence building and the women learnt to stand straight, not keep their eyes down as they had done since childhood and speak clearly. Many went on to hold public offices and become provincial youth leaders. It is disheartening to see all the good work reversed in days,” says Joanna Sherman, artistic director, Bond Street Theatre, which has been working in Afghanistan since 2003, with the support of the US embassy and the US Institute of Peace, among others. The collaboration resulted in four women’s theatre companies across Afghanistan.

Bond Street’s first view of Afghanistan was of a demolished landscape. “Most places looked like stones had been piled on stone. People were eking out an existence between two walls that had fallen on top of each other. What struck us was that the people were determined to get life going again,” she says.

Theatre in Afghanistan had also been subjected to these political upheavals, brought about by years of the mujahideen, civil war and the Taliban regime. A group of some of the best actors, directors, playwrights had escaped from Afghanistan during the first Taliban regime and had formed Exile Theatre in Peshawar, where they did theatre performances about different social topics. But Afghans have a long history of storytelling. At the Bharat Rang Mahotsav, the theatre festival of the National School of Drama in Delhi, a few years ago, a puppet theatre artiste had said, “If bombs go off, all of us freeze mid-dialogue for a few seconds and then we start acting immediately and ignore everything else.” This was evident when the Kabul Theatre Festival was held in 2005, and 50 groups turned up from across the country, made up of many young Afghans who had never seen a play. “At the festival, 49 stories were about the war. It showed that theatre is intrinsic to human nature and people want to tell stories and act it out,” says New York-based Sherman.

The last 20 years have also been a time of experiments and transformations, with music beginning to play in weddings and people enjoying Turkish dramas and Bollywood films. In theatre, young performers were ready to shed realism and explore new movements in theatre. Bond Street Theatre partnered with Exile Theatre in their work in Afghanistan. “Initially, we faced resistance from certain quarters… Women were also not allowed to perform in public, especially in conservative areas. We had to go to religious leaders and say the women were only going to perform for other women on topics such as health issues and voting rights. In areas where we did our performances about voting, women’s voting went up by 80 per cent,” says Sherman.

The women who performed were mostly either teenagers yet to be married or over 35 years of age, who had fulfilled their childbearing duties and were ready to explore their artistic sides. While male actors put up street shows in marketplaces, women’s theatre was staged in the homes of women or women’s parks, each performance of about 30 minutes. “The audience was delighted because it was like live TV coming home. We hear about men playing women, but in our plays, women play the men. They are really good because they know how the abusive husband is or how the dismissive policeman behaves,” says Sherman.

With the US deadline to leave Afghanistan only hours away, the theatre company is “deluged with requests for asylum”. One of the women they are trying to get out is an actor they had come across in a theatre festival in 2005, when she was merely 14 years old. She has become an outspoken activist since and features on the Taliban’s list.

Another young woman, an orphan who once performed with the group before her relatives put a stop to it, will stay back. “Maybe she’ll have a hard life but she will always remember that she had been strong and mighty on stage and the women in the audience had listened to her because she had something to say that was important, and the boldness to say it,” says Sherman.

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