In 2009, Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave a TED talk where she pointed out the danger of telling a single story. “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue but they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story,” said Adichie.
This applies not only to media narratives on cultural and national stereotypes but also gender issues. So it was refreshing to see that the play Seven, performed at Habib University on Monday, explored stories of women activists from seven different countries.
Aside from Mukhtar Mai’s story, which most Pakistanis are familiar with, it was interesting to learn about how women have struggled and triumphed against the odds in places such as Cambodia, Russia, Northern Ireland, Nigeria, Guatemala and Afghanistan. The play, thankfully, also breaks the stereotypes and tropes often used in the Western media that it is only women in ‘developing’ countries such as Pakistan, not the West, that are victims of violence and discrimination.
The diverse range of activists portrayed (Farida Azizi, Inez McCormack, Marina Pisklakova-Parker, Annabella De Leon, Mukhtar Mai, Mu Sochua and Hafsat Abiola) added to the flow of the play and made it engaging.
Written by seven different playwrights, the play has toured around the globe and is currently in its tenth year of production. In Pakistan, the play has so far been performed in Karachi, Islamabad and Lahore and shall be held in Quetta and Peshawar. Organised by Voices in collaboration with a number of partners including the Embassy of Sweden, the Swedish Institute, the EU, UN Women and the Potohar Organisation for Development Advocacy, the play was performed for a select audience by a mix of musicians, actors, politicians and a human rights activist: Asim Azhar, Ayesha Tammy Haq, Natasha Humera Ejaz, Nuzhat Shirin, Shazia Atta Marri, Pushpa Kumari and Sarwat Gilani Mirza.
Each performer portrayed one of the activists and the activists’ stories were told through monologues and snippets of conversations or incidences that had happened in the activists’ lives. Overall the performances were passable with Mirza’s and Azhar’s being the exception. Mirza, the only male actor on stage, was particularly outstanding in his portrayal of McCormack and as Pisklakova-Parker’s stalker. Although Ejaz stumbled at one point, she, too, came into her own with her portrayal of Mukhtar Mai. Granted her role was the most challenging given that Mai herself was in the audience.
Overall the stories told in Seven are worth listening to and as a play it is effective in making the audience realise the universal struggle and courage of women. However, given its subject matter and that the proposed aim of the play’s tour in Pakistan, according to the various organisers, is to raise “awareness on Pakistan’s existing legal services and framework on violence against women”, one can’t help but wonder if they are playing to the wrong audience.
Perhaps it would have more of an impact if it was performed outside of elite, liberal spaces such as private universities and hotels.
Originally published in Dawn, March 28th, 2018