KAHLIL Gibran wrote many decades ago: “Pity the nation that despises a passion in its dream,/...Pity the nation that raises not its voice...and will rebel not.../ Pity the nation whose statesman is a fox,/ whose philosopher is a juggler,/ and whose art is the art of patching and mimicking...”
These lines sound so familiar in Pakistan’s context. But this country also has the good fortune of having a Sheema Kermani, who founded the Tehrik-e-Niswan soon after the ‘fox’ had seized power in Islamabad in July 1977. No voice was raised. No whisper of a rebellion was heard. But soon a female voice rose from the heart of Karachi to, in Sheema’s own words, “advocate for gender and class equality” and launch a “creative dialogue”. It was the need of the hour.
That was when the age of ‘chador aur char diwari’ had descended upon the women of Pakistan. For the underprivileged and the workers, the threat of lashes was like the sword of Damocles.
Equality has underpinned the causes that Sheema championed.
Using theatre in support of rights advocacy is shrewd.
What was particularly significant about the Tehrik was its recourse to performing arts in support of its advocacy. This was a shrewd use of ‘resistance arts’ to challenge the concept of culture as imposed by the ruler of the day. Heads had to be covered and the sari was declared un-Islamic. It was a brave act of defiance by the Tehrik’s founder that also proved to be the secret of her success. Theatre, dance and music have been part of our cultural legacy since the age when the Mohenjodaro civilisation flourished.
As Sheema puts it, her goal is to “interrogate the constructions of identity, class and religious affiliation and provoke people to think beyond the stereotypical representations of gendered experience”.
In an unlettered society where literacy even today is as low as 60pc, the visual makes an impact. Hence Sheema Kermani is right when she says that she managed to pioneer a dialogue on women’s rights and convinced others to join it. They did. The discourse continues without interruption. But nearly 45 years later, Pakistan still has a long way to go to empower its women. The Global Gender Gap Index 2022 issued by the World Economic Forum ranks Pakistan 145th out of 146 countries. Similarly, the World Gender Gap Index of UN Women 2022 ranks Pakistan 145/156 for economic participation and opportunity, 135/156 for educational attainment, 143/156 for health and survival and 95/156 for political empowerment.
It is Sheema’s commitment that sustains the Tehrik; a theatre and dance festival was inaugurated last Friday to celebrate its 45th anniversary.
Sheema also wanted to focus on class equality, something that does not receive much space in public discourse. She speaks angrily of our society that nurses prejudices against the underprivileged and discriminates between people. But she struggles on in the belief that “art and theatre create an environment of equality and justice by promoting an awareness of rights”.
To her credit, the Tehrik is inclusive in its composition and class/religious distinctions do not divide its membership. This was testified by members from different backgrounds who spoke about Sheema’s humane and egalitarian approach vis-à-vis them and how she extended support to them in times of crisis.
Moreover, she has tried to make theatre accessible to the working classes. She has taken her group to localities from where people cannot travel to the city auditoriums to watch performances. They have gone to areas such as Orangi, Lyari, Ibrahim Hyderi and others to perform street theatre and also train youngsters from these localities who are interested in learning the art. I have accompanied her on many occasions and the joy on the faces of the participating youths is most satisfying.
Last Friday at the inaugural, Suhaee Abro who performed the Thillana, a form of the Bharatanatyam, paid rich tribute to her “teacher”, saying that “she was the one to introduce me to the world of dance when I was a child”.
The best quality of a teacher — whether for the performing arts, sports or education — is her/his ability to inspire passion in the student for what s/he is being taught. Sheema excels in this. Suhaee now lives in Italy and continues to perform and also takes classes online. Speaking of how her passion continues to drive her, Suhaee recalled performing the Motherhood Dance as her infant daughter watched from her father’s arms. It was Mother’s Day and the audience was delighted.
Given the deteriorating state of the national economy and the low status of women in Pakistan, one can only hope that Tehrik-e-Niswan’s mission of creating a dialogue on class equality and social justice is realised soon. This is important if the country is to survive.
Published in Dawn, January 13th, 2023
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