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Risky revival of Afghan theater puts women center stage

By Maseeh RahmanContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / November 26, 2004


Barely three years ago, at a time when women in Afghanistan were not permitted even to leave their homes, the idea of a woman performing on stage - and in mixed company! - seemed inconceivable. Any woman who did so risked life and limb.

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All the more astonishing, then, that a theater festival opening in Kabul will include a play written by a woman (a teenage schoolgirl, to be precise), with real actresses, about the brutal suppression of women under the country's now-ousted Taliban government.

"To those people who want to keep us away from the stage, I say: You have no right to interfere," says 16-year-old playwright/director Naseeba Ghulam Mohammed, whose "Toward Brightness" is among the plays women will perform during the eight-day national festival. "In Afghanistan today, men and women are equal."

Her words hint that opposition to women on stage - and perhaps to live theater in general - is not entirely a thing of the past. Indeed, the festival devotes a day to "women's theater" which challenges Islamic fundamentalists who would block women's ascent to the stage - not to mention school, jobs, and other aspects of civic life. But the country's first theater festival ever, and the participation of about two dozen newly formed dramatic companies from around the country, speaks to how quickly this Muslim country is evolving and to the role the arts are playing in its transformation.

To those who support this flowering of Afghan theater, drama is an effective way to spread the message of a modern, democratic Afghanistan.

"People may not listen to the mullah, but they will pick up good things when they come to the theater," says Majid Ghiasi, director of the government-financed Kabul Theatre Company. "The message conveyed through drama or comedy is more easily absorbed."

The Kabul Theatre Company has toured several provinces in the past year, presenting short plays on themes such as women's education and the importance of democracy.

Audiences have greeted the troupe with enthusiasm, even in villages. Only once did trouble arise, when fundamentalist university students stormed a performance in Jalalabad.

Hostile reviews

Many Afghans, though, continue to regard theater as inappropriate for women and some see it as in conflict with Islam. Female performers at the 45-play festival in Kabul will wear a hijab, the traditional head covering prescribed by Islam. But the audiences will be mixed and women's voices well represented.

Naseeba's half-hour play, to be performed by the Mediothek Girls' Theatre from the northern city of Kunduz, is just part of her repertoire. The teenager has written, directed, or acted in 15 short plays for the German-sponsored girls' theater company in the three years since a US-led coalition force swept the Taliban from power. Before that, she could not even attend school in Afghanistan and received her education as a refugee in Iran.

"Theater is an easy medium," says Nobert Spitz of Germany's Goethe Institute, which supports the Afghan theater revival and is helping to organize the festival. "It travels by bus, it doesn't need electricity, it can go to the remotest region, and the audience needn't be literate."