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.
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."
Despite coming of age in the 1980s, Kermani and her plays continue to be relevant in Pakistan today. According to a report published last month by the Aurat Foundation, a national women's rights organization, 7,733 cases of violence against women – including abduction, murder, gang rape, and "honor" killings – were reported in 2008.
Kermani's troupe makes an important argument for change at a time when militants are cracking down on Pakistan's cultural heritage. In the past few months, CD and DVD shops have been burned nationwide. The shrines of Sufi saints – spaces where folk dance and music thrive – have been bombed. Last November, the World Performing Arts Festival being held in Lahore was rocked by three explosions.
The daughter of an Army officer, Kermani had the privilege of attending English-language private high schools in Karachi before enrolling at an art school in Britain in the early 1960s. There, she attended talks by feminist and leftist activists such as Germaine Greer and Angela Davis.
"I became quite a communist," Kermani recalls. "I wanted to do something to change society."
Upon her return to Pakistan, she wanted to involve more women in the labor union movement. She organized female factory workers and opened women's literacy and day-care centers at textile mills.
"It was a wonderful period – I was not scared of anything," she says.
But Kermani soon began to feel that union organizing was not enough.
"I realized that even if the socialist change took place, social values wouldn't change," she says. "And the only thing that can change values is the cultural aspect."
For that reason, she began encouraging female factory workers to write poetry and stage skits at literacy centers. "Then it hit me," she says. "We needed a platform for women's creative expression."
Since giving women a public voice with her first play in 1979, Kermani has been acknowledged as in the avant-garde of the Pakistani women's movement.
"Sheema took up the challenge to resist pressure and revive theater and dance when everything was banned [during General Haq's regime]," says Anis Haroon, a prominent women's rights activist and provincial director of the Aurat Foundation. "Art is one of the most powerful ways to take your message to an audience who is uninitiated and get new ideas out there."
For all her resilience, Kermani concedes that sharing ideas through theater is increasingly difficult. "When I was growing up, there was no stigma against dancing or acting. But that's no longer the case," she says.
"For years, I've been performing in all corners of Pakistan, and no one has shut us down. But the mullahs [clerics] in the crowd are growing in number. I don't know if theater can defeat the fashion of fundamentalism."