Peter Luce Play Readers give women a voice

Rise Terney read from "Seven" at the West Tisbury library on Sunday. — Photo by Michael Cummo

On Sunday afternoon, an overflow audience listened silently for several hours to the reading of Seven, a documentary play about seven women around the world who survived personal and systemic abuse to give women a voice, to become safer, and to change their national cultures of enslavement of women.

Seven is a relentless telling, and then retelling, of personal and gender atrocities against women in Northern Ireland, Guatemala, Afghanistan, Russia, Cambodia, Nigeria, and Pakistan. The play was staged by The Friends of the Vineyard Haven Library, directed by Leslie J. Stark, and presented by Island residents Connie McCreery, Charlena Seymour, Nora Nevin, Linda Vadasz, Sofia Anthony, Ellie Beth, and Elaine Bart.  

Initially staged in 2008, Seven has been performed around the world, though unsurprisingly, not often or at all in the seven subject countries. In five years, Seven has become an anthem for women’s equality and an important tool for women’s rights activism.

In a startling performance this year, seven NATO generals took the stage in camo uniforms and insignia to tell the stories of Inez McCormick (Northern Ireland), Anabella De Leon (Guatemala), Farida Azizi (Afghanistan), Marina Pisklakova (Russia), Mu Sochoa (Cambodia), Hafset Abiola (Nigeria), and Mukhtar Mai (Pakistan), seven women who militated successfully against impossible odds in cultures with thousand-year traditions of subjugating women.  

Seven was created as a collaboration of seven women playwrights who interviewed the women activists and produced an interrelated story delivered in a present-day, objective, reportorial style that more shockingly illuminates the content. The story of Mukhtar Mai, a lower-caste illiterate Pakistani villager, is searing. Her brother has been accused of sexual misconduct by four men and brought before village elders for adjudication of a crime for which execution is the punishment.

She is brought by her father and uncle to the elders to beg for mercy. A plea for mercy in her culture must be made by women since it is beneath the dignity of men to beg. She is willing to do this to save her brother, but the headman is more interested in her humiliation and orders the four accusers to “do with her what you will.”

The four armed accusers drag her into a stable and gang-rape her, then throw her into the street, bloody and near-naked. These men are also the four who raped her two-year-old brother before accusing him of the sexual misconduct that has brought her to them. She files a report with bored and unsympathetic police who order her to affix her thumbprint to a form. “We will fill in the details of report,” she is told.

Mukhtar Mai feels the powerlessness of her situation. “A man is like gold, a woman like a piece of white cloth. If the gold falls into the mud, it can be shined brighter than before but a white cloth that falls into the mud is ruined forever,” she tells playwright Susan Yankowitz.

In her culture, women devalued in this way are encouraged to commit suicide.

But though no Pakistani woman has ever successfully brought charges against a man, she persists and finds a sympathetic government eye. The accused men laugh at her efforts but are not laughing when they are found guilty, fined heavily, and sentenced to death.

Some months later, Mukhtar Mai receives a settlement of 500,000 rupees, about $8,000.  “I do not want money. I want to learn to read,” she exclaims, and uses the money to begin a school for girls in her village. At the time of writing, Mukhtar Mai had completed the fifth grade in the school she founded. She has begun two more schools, educating girls and boys. One of the things literacy has taught her is that the Koran specifically forbids violence against women rather than condones it.

Mukhtar Mai learned the same things early in life as Hafset Abiola learned in Nigeria: “I learned fear, I learned to be silent. I learned to submit,” Hafset Abiola, now a Nigerian state minister, recalls of her early education in the village.

In Moscow, Marina Pisklakova speaks with an acquaintance on fear of her life from beatings by her husband. “Report this to the police. Someone must be able to help,” Ms. Pisklakova counsels. “There is no help. No one can help. The police say being beaten by your husband is proof of how much he loves you,” she says. There is a protocol for wife-beating that counsels men to beat their wives with a rod because the pain is more intense, hence more loving. Men are cautioned only against beating their wives in the face so that she may not be seen in public and to avoid beating her in the stomach if she is pregnant. The two women continue to talk over a period of weeks, then the calls stop.

Ms. Pisklakova does the research and finds her friend was correct. There is no enforcement or protective agency in the world’s largest bureaucracy devoted to helping or protecting women. Today there is. At great personal risk, Ms. Pisklakova began the first domestic violence hotline in Moscow, pushed officials to discover that 15,000 battered women were killed and nearly 60,000 hospitalized each year in Russia. Today her National Center for The Prevention of Violence operates 170 crisis centers across her country.

And on it went last Sunday afternoon. Asia, Europe, South America, The Far East. Christian countries, Islamic countries, Pagan worship countries. The message is that cultures that are completely alien to each other have used and continue to use a common system to abuse women. These stories are not ancient history. They occur daily across the globe.

We see that the Pakistani cops who laughed at Mukhtar Mai had the same mentality as Russian policeman in the 1990s who called to tip off the husband to be careful with his wife beating behavior after a Pisklakova client reported his domestic abuse.

When the two-hour reading concluded, a grim-faced audience of 70, overwhelmingly women, sat stunned momentarily before applauding the players for their efforts.

Refreshments were served, but many rose and filed silently out of the meeting space. “I can’t measure my reactions right now. I don’t have the words right now,” one woman said as she exited.

Noting the reaction of the audience, Bonnie George of Chilmark said, “It is necessary to hear these stories over and over again to make change. There cannot be enough publicizing of abuse against women.”

Seven is an experience of benefit to every man and woman of good will and a cautionary tale for those who are not.