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Difference Maker

People making a difference: Sheema Kermani

In Pakistan, this women's rights activist stages plays that stir controversy – and thought.

By Huma YusufCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 8, 2009

Actors, including troupe founder Sheema Kermani, perform in a Karachi production of ‘One Thousand and One Nights.’ Her plays often hit controversial themes.

Fahim Siddiqi

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KARACHI, Pakistan

Last December, when the theater troupe Tehrik-e-Niswan (Women's Movement) performed in Orangi Town – the largest slum in the Pakistani port city of Karachi – it did not expect Muslim clerics to make up the bulk of the audience.

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At the invitation of a nonprofit organization, the activist troupe was staging a play about child abuse, which features a cleric as a molester. "We were too scared to perform," says Asma Mundrawala, one of the actors. "But Sheema encouraged us to go on, reminding us that this was the exact audience we were trying to reach."

Sheema Kermani is the founder of Tehrik-e-Niswan, considered the cultural wing of the women's rights movement in Pakistan. For 30 years, Ms. Kermani has staged plays in low-income urban and rural communities that touch on taboo topics, including domestic violence, rape, child molestation, the claustrophobic fate of unmarried women, and the importance of education for girls.

The troupe flourished in the 1980s, when then-military dictator Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq imposed draconian Islamic laws that curtailed women's rights. One piece of legislature, for example, required the government to prosecute rape victims for pre- or extramarital sex. During that time, Kermani directed and acted in plays such as "Anji," in which her character is raped on stage, and "Chadar Aur Chaardiwari," in which a young girl commits suicide, which is illegal in Pakistan.

Given the controversial nature of her plays, Kermani concedes that performing in villages and urban slums across Pakistan "is always a risk," adding quickly, "but that's the point."

During a performance at the prestigious University of Karachi in 1983, a religious political party threatened to shoot at the troupe for bringing men and women together on stage.

"I was scared for my life," Kermani says. "But I knew that this was the exact situation in which the show had to go on." Guns were fired in the air outside the auditorium, but no one was hurt.

Two years ago, Kermani's troupe performed a play about girls' education in Lyari, a large slum in Karachi. The men of the community insisted on watching the play first, before their female family members, and eventually decided that the women could not see the performance.

"The decision should have made me sad," Kermani says. "But it only reinforced that this medium is so powerful that people are scared of it. Those men thought the play would inspire or incite women to think for themselves – and that's what we want."

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