KARACHI: Married women spend most of their lives like widows. It is a familiar story: a young, beautiful girl has a fairy tale wedding. Soon after she arrives at her new home, her husband leaves for Dubai where he has to work to keep the family afloat. She lives a life of isolation with her in-laws.
This would be enough to drive anyone mad.
On Thursday night this was the theme of The Lyceum school’s theatre evening to raise funds for War Against Rape. The plight of the left-behind wives of migrant workers, the focus of the second performance ‘Aadhi Gawahi’ by Shahid Nadeem, was tied in to the psychological distress that the neglected wife develops and society’s response to it: hakeems, aamils, doctors. All she really needed and wanted was to live a normal life with a husband.
Pakistan has an estimated one million workers in the UAE who sent $753 million home in the first quarter of this year (July to September). ‘Aadhi Gawahi’ highlights the cost at which that money is made. The workers, who leave their wives and children at home in Pakistan, not only live difficult lives abroad, but their families grow up without a key parent.
In the case of protagonist Sameena (Batool Siddiqui), her new husband’s family was just interested in the latest Rado watch or touch-screen phone or gold bangles he could send them from Dubai. In the meantime, she slowly sinks into depression, pining for her husband.
‘Aadhi Gawahi’ also highlights our society’s still primitive response to mental illness. The depressed Sameena is first taken to an aamil (Abdullah Jan), a hakeem (Akbar Amin Lakhani) and then a doctor (Usama Khatri). It was director Yaseen Bizinjo’s brilliance that helped depict the absurdity of each group’s ‘cures’ by making their characters jump, shake and quiver. This physical ‘craziness’ mirrored the stupidity of the aamil, hakeem and doctor’s suggestions on how to make Sameena better. ‘Aadhi Gawahi’ shows that sometimes the solution is really that simple: treat the woman fairly and with respect and you will not drive her mad. The first, and equally strong performance, was the script of ‘Aurat’, written by Safdar Hashmi.
Its non-linear narrative was strung along in short scenarios of the situations young girls and women find themselves in. They ranged from the young, Malala-esque student who wants nothing more than to study, to the beaten down wife, whose inebriated husband swears at her if the dinner isn’t ready and whose naked, malnourished horde of neglected children scream the house down. Some of the acts were based on familiar, even overwrought stories that leaned towards the hysterical instead of subtle. The women were most portrayed as victims who were paradoxically extremely vocal about their miserable condition but seemingly unable to change it.
There was one exception though, of a teenager walking down the street only to be harassed by two thugs. She complains to the policeman standing nearby. “Hey, are you guys bothering this young woman,” he asks. The boys start pulling out a 500-rupee note. The policeman refuses the bribe. “But sir, she was harassing us!” they cry as they pull out more notes. The cop is sufficiently mollified with double the bribe and turns on the woman. It is more of this, ironic work that can breathe life into these themes. The shrill script that painfully spells out each social message could perhaps be eschewed for nuanced dialogue that turns the spotlight on to newer more modern challenges that our women face.
The last performance is tonight, Saturday, at the Alliance Francaise de Karachi. Tickets available at the door.