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Claire Chambers teaches global literature at the University of York and is the author of British Muslim Fictions: Interviews with Contemporary Writers

In his seminal article ‘Advocacy with Footnotes: The Human Rights Report as a Literary Genre,’ which I quoted in my previous column, Ron Dudai writes that “all the tensions and contradictions” of the human rights report can leave the reader feeling unsatisfied. However, he poses the important question, “do we have anything better?” than human rights discourse with which to tackle the abuse and murder of people, and to effect change in global society.

The tensions and contradictions to which Dudai refers include the human rights report’s disjuncture between the scientific, ‘fact-finding’ style of the main text and the emotional language of the victims’ testimony contained therein. However, in my last column I suggested that literature and film could serve as the “anything better” he asks about. Today, I wish to add theatre into the mix, suggesting that the human rights report is not necessarily the best form we have through which to combat violence and discrimination. In one understanding, human rights are the abstract rules outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), and the legal instruments that come out of it, which are often seen as being deeply flawed. The UDHR was made in 1948, shortly after the Partition of India, the beginning of apartheid in South Africa, and the creation of the state of Israel, which all stemmed from the British Empire. Critics like Paul Gilroy therefore deride “human-rights talk” for continuing colonialism under a new guise, for a Eurocentric, secularist approach to individuals and ‘freedom,’ and capitalist prioritisation of property, resources, and the nation state.

However, in another interpretation, human rights are principles which many people hold dear and try to live by. Articles 3-5 concern the rights to life, to not be enslaved, and to live outside slavery: basic rights, but many examples from Pakistan, Asia, and the wider world indicate the devastating impact on individuals and communities when these rights are violated.

We remember Parveen Rahman, the head of Orangi Pilot Project, who was shot dead earlier this year. And if we were in danger of forgetting ongoing human rights abuses at GuantanamoBay, the hunger strike there which recently passed its hundredth day is a salient reminder. In 2004, London-based writers Victoria Brittain and Gillian Slovo wrote the play Guantanamo: Honour Bound to Defend Freedom to address this human rights black hole.

For reasons of safety, dignity, equality, and remembrance, I believe that everyday lived human rights have inalienable value. In his book Theatre and Human Rights, Paul Rae writes, “presuming an inherent sympathy between making theatre and safeguarding human rights does neither — and no one — any good.” I would describe the relationship between theatre and human rights not, as the Brazilian founder of ‘Theatre of the Oppressed’ Augusto Boal grandly describes it, as “rehearsal for revolution,” but as concerning smaller, local change. To a great extent, there are symmetries and sympathy between making theatre and safeguarding human rights. One of the main symbioses, as Rae recognises, is that both are concerned with “who did what to whom”. In human rights discourse, this is about getting to the bottom of who committed what kind of abuses against which individuals or groups. Theatre is similarly interested in plot, which concerns characters, action, and resolution. It can thus be an ideal vehicle through which to air views about rights and to promote action and activism.

Earlier this year, I led a tutorial on theatre and human rights at the University of York, and one class member, a human rights defender from a troubled African country that shall remain nameless, told me that her work involves using theatre and puppetry to spread the word on human rights violations in a coded way, and to encourage adults and children to enter into discussion about the issues raised afterwards. However, the student acknowledged this is politically very risky in a dictatorial regime such as that in her country.

Therefore, censorship of the theatre can itself be a human rights issue. That said, Article 19 concerning “freedom of expression” is one of the most controversial parts of the UDHR, and more open to discussion than incontrovertible human rights such as the right to life.

There are also tensions between theatre and human rights when directors or writers are thought to tread close to hate speech. In Britain, a production of Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s play Behzti was cancelled in 2004, because Sikh activists disputed its use of religious icons and negative representations of the Sikh community. English PEN lobbied the government in support of Bhatti and in opposition to proposed religious hatred legislation, using human rights arguments about freedom of expression. Yet in cases such as the Behzti affair and protests over the filming of Monica Ali’s Brick Lane in Spitalfields, the working-class communities being criticised did not have the same right identified in Article 19 to “seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media” as did the educated, media-savvy Bhatti and Ali.

In 1984, Peter Chelkowski wrote an article ‘Islam in Modern Drama and Theatre’ in part to challenge the assumption, common in the West, that “Islam was completely antagonistic to drama and the theatre.” He finds many examples of theatre thriving in the “Muslim world,” including Persian puppetry and pantomime, and comes to the sensible conclusion that “Islam is not generally opposed to drama and theatre.”

While Chelkowski dismissed Pakistan in less than a sentence as “an Islamic country par excellence” and has nothing to say about the nation’s drama, one gets a different impression of Pakistani performing arts from Fawzia Afzal-Khan’s later research. She explores the “secular alternative theatre” that emerged in response to President Zia’s rule, and which continues to address “issues of human rights and gender equity within the larger political realm of Pakistani society.”

Afzal-Khan refers to Dukhini, an Ajoka play about the trafficking of Bangladeshi women into prostitution in Pakistan, which is also described in a Human Rights Watch global report, and to Lok Rehas’s play Saar, adapted from the famous ‘Saima love-marriage’ case. Theatre groups intervening in high-profile human rights cases in this way is highly significant because dramaturgy can make a difference when human rights are at stake, using song, dance and physical gestures to convey complex situations to people in an accessible, emotive way.

However, the theatre companies’ funders, their links with NGOs, and their underlying political ideologies also matter, and can lead to particular drama initiatives being compromised. Hajrah Mumtaz argues that what used to be called ‘parallel theatre’ has become somewhat toothless post-Zia.

In the Tehrik-i-Niswan YouTube clip ‘I am a Woman,’ an actor describes a female as follows: “She is a wife … She is a daughter,” to which the actress responds, “I am a human being. I am … a woman.” The implications of this scene for our understanding of women’s human rights are profound, encouraging empathy for the individuated female subject. Theatre groups such as Lok Rehas, Tehrik-i-Niswan, Dustak, Bang, and Ajoka stage human rights as a crucial battleground on which Pakistan’s future identity is being fought out. As Nawaz Sharif returns to power and the YouTube ban continues, we wait to see whether he will allow Pakistani theatre and the arts to flourish as democratic, oppositional forces.