Global drama putting women’s rights centre stage

Seven, a travelling documentary play recounting the real-life ordeals of women who have encountered violence, rape and trafficking, has become a fulcrum for debate and action among students in Bangladesh

In a lecture theatre at Rajshahi University in Bangladesh, seven people take their places on stage. They begin to speak. “Hafsat Abiola, Nigeria,” says one. “Mu Sochua, Cambodia,” says another. “Anabella de Leon, Guatemala,” says a third. They perform monologues based on interviews with women’s rights activists who have experienced domestic violence, gang rape and human trafficking.

A poster advertising a performance of Seven in Rajshahi. The project aims to raise awareness and prevent sexual harassment on campuses

The stories make up the documentary play Seven, which is being used to promote women’s rights. It was first performed in the US in 2008, and a Swedish non-profit organisation, Seven on Tour, has taken the play to 28 countries and translated the text into 23 languages. It stages a reading to engage local people in a particular aspect of women’s rights. Organisers invite local influential people to read the play, rather than actors.

Professors, lawyers, students and the wife of the town’s popular former mayor read the monologues, translated into Bangla, at Rajshahi University.

As the words are spoken, the noise from an audience of 3,000 students and teachers dies down. “[Normally] it’s hard to keep them quiet. It amazed me that they all went silent,” says 20-year-old law student Sumaya Rahman, who directed the play.

“When I first read the play I felt that these stories belong to Bangladeshi women too,” she adds. “In Marina’s story there is a line that says: ‘Women don’t feel loved if they’re not beaten.’ A domestic worker who was attacked by her husband once told me the same thing.”

Rahman was inspired to get involved in the campaign after witnessing her friend being physically attacked after he defended her from harassment. She says Seven “teaches us how to break the silence”.

Sexual harassment was chosen as the issue to campaign on in Bangladesh, where it is a widespread problem, despite the government signing international commitments to end discrimination and violence against women, and a constitution that enshrines equal rights for women and men.

Bangladesh has outlawed domestic violence, but in a government study in 2013, 87% of married women said they had been physically or emotionally abused by their husbands. Stigma and not knowing the law prevents women from reporting violence.

In 2009, the country introduced a high court directive that called for harassment complaint committees, headed by women, to be established at every workplace and education institution.

However, a 2015 study of 897 students by UN Women and Bangladesh’s Human Development Research Centre found that 38% knew nothing about the directive, and 76% of female students experienced sexual harassment at university. Nearly 5% said the harassment stopped them going to classes.

The most common examples of harassment were verbal sexual remarks, physical advances, suggestive phone calls and text messages, and being followed.

Nearly half of respondents didn’t tell anyone about the harassment. “Sexual harassment is a strategy to say that women don’t belong there, they should get out of that space,” says the UN Women country director for Bangladesh, Christine Hunter, who helped stage Seven. “If women and girls are harassed every time they go out in the public street, what’s the message? That they shouldn’t be in the public sphere, that that’s a man’s space. That’s a creation of inequality.”

Sarker Samira Jannat, a law student and part-time radio presenter at Rajshahi University, is afraid to go out at night by herself. “I don’t stay out after dark,” says the 26-year-old. “Our classes always end by 2pm. In the libraries, the girls can stay till 8pm but the boys can stay till 10pm. The authorities are worried that some boy will harass us or something awful will happen, so they have put in this restriction.

“At night the campus is almost empty and girls usually do not get out of their resident halls, so if I am alone out there, I get pretty scared of the boys.”

Rahman says she has to be home before dark or her family worry about her, while her male friends can study in the library in groups. She adds that female students who can’t afford to buy books have a narrow window for when they can use the library. “This obviously makes studying a degree harder for female students,” she says. “We are not given the same amount of time. It’s not a fair competition.”

Other freedoms are seriously limited by the fear of being out after dark, and of taking public transport.

Pnomita Pew, a student at Jahangirnagar University outside the capital, Dhaka, which also staged a reading of Seven, says the perpetrators of harassment think they can do what they like to women when they are in the public sphere.

She says: “I ride a bus every day to campus and boys always want to touch girls and do bad things to them. Most of the time the victim doesn’t say anything but when the situation gets really bad she says, ‘Stay away from me!’ and then the guy says, ‘I’m a man – I can do what I want.’” Some women carry toothpicks on buses so they can retaliate against men who try to touch them.

Rahman says students are too frightened to report incidents in case perpetrators take revenge.

M Abdul Alim, a law professor at Rajshahi, sits on the committee that deals with complaints at the university and says they receive only a handful of reports a year. “The students are not comfortable complaining,” he says. “Sometimes they need to complain about a teacher, but they worry that the teacher will under-evaluate them.”

Poster advertising the performance of Seven in Rajshahi. The project aims to raise awareness and prevent sexual harassment on campuses.

Alim hopes that the campaign prompted by Seven will raise awareness. “I would like [students] to be aware so that they can speak out,” he says. “They will realise – ‘This is not my problem, this is all of our problem, and we can talk about it.’” At the performance, a booklet explaining the high court directive was placed on each seat.

Students were also encouraged to publicly sign a pledge promising that they would not harass other students, or allow it to happen. Rahman says seeing students signing the pledge has given her hope. “I saw one male student taking photos of his friends signing the pledge. He said, ‘I took your picture so next time you are not going to tease a girl’,” she says. “I think the people who watched Seven are thinking differently about women now. But it can’t change the atmosphere overnight.”

Rahman believes Seven demonstrates how strong women are. “Society creates a fake mirror where women look weak,” she says. “After watching the play girls know how to break that fake mirror. It has power to create a huge change in our society.”

-The Guardian