ImaginAction in Afghanistan

Hector traveled to Afghanistan in autumn 2009, offering Theater of the Oppressed masterclasses with a variety of human rights organizations, including the International Center for Transitional Justice and Friedrich Ebert Stiftung . He also gave special workshops for women in Herat.

After a workshop in Kabul, one participant said that, for the first time, “I know the sound of my own laughter.”

Our friend Aunohita Mojumbar, an Indian journalist who has lived in Afghanistan since 2003, wrote about the role of theatre giving Afghan women a voice. Here are excerpts from her March 26, 2010 report:

KABUL, Afghanistan (WOMENSENEWS)–On a makeshift stage on a small verandah of a ramshackle house in Kabul, four women stand together in front of an audience of more than 50 women who are gathered in the courtyard of the house. Three  actresses play the parts of women: a matriarch and her two daughters-in-law. The fourth plays a disabled son.

The production is part of the women’s attempts to come to peace with what they have experienced in their nation. Yet, a new realization that those who raped and otherwise maimed and murdered them and members of their families now will receive total amnesty in perpetuity may add even more of a sense of unresolved grief.

Its plot: With no able men to hold down a job, the family is reduced to penury and discord. The story ends with the disabled son joining the Taliban in return for money.

The situation is familiar to both the actors and the audience, all women from some of the poorest neighborhoods of Kabul who have lost a family member or suffered brutal violence in the successive waves of fighting and the regime change from the Soviet- installed government to the anti-Soviet mujahideen and the Taliban.

Some of these women have survived rape, according to some rights workers here, but little public mention is made of that due to the heavy social taboo that can turn rape victims into social outcasts.

The participatory theater is organized by the Afghanistan Human Rights and Democracy Organization. The group, based in Kabul, works with victims of the Afghan conflict and is a member of a coalition of civil society groups advocating a transitional justice program.

The theatricals call on the women to take on one of the roles in a familiar societal drama and transform it. Based on theories of social psychotherapy, the goal is to internalize a sense of civil rights and to heal wounds. Before the staging, the women go through a workshop about the social influence of theater and taking the performances into their communities.

“Most of the women suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder,” said Dr. Neak Mohammed Sharif, a member of the Afghanistan Human Rights and Democracy Organization. Sharif says the project draws on the Theatre of the Oppressed, pioneered by Augusto Boal of Brazil.

None of the women in the production last week wanted to play the part of the Taliban insurgent. Several said a Taliban character would be too rigid and unchangeable. The women associated with the drama group come from the neighborhoods of Chilsitoon and Dasht-e-Barchi, which were caught in the crosshairs of the violence unleashed on the city between 1992 and 1996 as commanders of political factions fought for control of Kabul.

Since 2006 they have been waiting for the Afghan government’s promise to implement a transitional justice program intended to help women such as themselves. The phrase “transitional justice” refers to a process that seeks recognition for victims while promoting possibilities for peace, reconciliation and democracy.