Beneath the urban glamour of Dhaka city - with its bright lights, chic eateries and high rise buildings - lies a darker reality of the struggles that women face every day. On Friday August 19, 2016, ‘Bonhishikha – unlearn gender,’ an organisation that believes that gender stereotypes and roles constrain the potentials of individuals by holding them back, staged the play It’s a SHE thing at Spectra Convention Centre, to shed light on some of these struggles. The play, inspired by Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues, is based on real-life incidents and stories collected from women and girls from around Dhaka, and are from all age groups and walks of life.
This year, the play lived up to its reputation and was engaging from beginning to end, drawing peals of laughter from the audience in one instance, and inspiring a breathless silence in another. It started with a few of the cast speaking about the things that girls often have to hear, starting from “ladies don’t behave like that” to “women are meant to raise families” and “make sure you don’t earn more money than your husband.” While the statements seemed to resonate with the crowd, it also drew attention to the brunt of the play - how often women are constantly put in boxes and expected to play certain roles in our society, regardless of their personalities and personal preferences.
The actors also shed light on certain parts of women’s lives that are considered to be completely taboo, such as conversations about sex and sexual organs, as well as menstruation cycles. The cast spoke directly to the audience about their experiences, including being told they were napak or dirty while they were on their periods, anecdotes of having the chapter on reproductive systems in biology books being stapled together at school and much more. While the discussion on such social taboos was lighthearted and drew laughs as well, it focused on the very real issues of a total lack of sex education in our school systems, a lack of knowledge on sexually transmitted diseases in our health system and the equating of morality with virginity that often dissuades women from getting help for very real medical problems. Throughout the play, the cast continued to discuss issues of sexuality, and was bold in its no-nonsense and honest take on the importance of breaking antiquated social taboos.
Another lighthearted segment that drew tumultuous applause from the audience focused primarily on the ‘orna’ and the different ways of wearing it. Three of the cast represented three different voices of the orna itself, where it is in turn declared to be essential, stifling, beautiful and oppressive. However, regardless of what the orna represented, the focus was on the fact that it is a choice and not a necessity, and that the notions of honour, modesty and ‘womanhood’ that are intrinsically a part of this piece of fabric need to be deconstructed and tossed in the bin. As one of the actors put it - “breasts don’t stop existing just because you put a cloth over them”.
The play also included some powerful monologues, including an emotive narration on psychological domestic abuse - an important but oft ignored issue that needs to be part of current debates on domestic violence. There was also an excellent telling of a young girl’s story of sexual harassment, and how she slowly got sucked into a restrictive religious education establishment in order to get away from it, thus completely losing the very little liberties she had yet held so dear. However, the most poignant piece of the play was a re-telling of the stories of sex workers, which again included diverse stories, including a sex worker who chose her profession and demanded rights for herself and her child, and a young girl who was sold into sex slavery. Again, the cast of it’s a SHE thing did a brilliant job in bringing to light issues that are an important part of our urban society, including the rights of marginalised women, such as sex workers.
While the play did shed light on many important issues that affect women in Dhaka and tried to make sure that diverse stories were being told, a few other segments fell slightly short of expectations. The discussion on the difficulties women face in the workplace, especially when they are the boss, seemed to skirt around the experiences of professional woman and seemed ambiguous at times. The explanation of modern feminism was also slightly repetitive and presented the debates around feminism in perhaps oversimplified and binary terms (although one could argue that simple language and repetition is what is needed to drive the message home). On the other hand, while the piece on ‘superwomen’ and the many roles of wife, mother, daughter, boss/worker and more that women are constantly expected to play resonated strongly with the audience, one hoped for a little more focus on the domestic labourers who make it possible for many upper and middle class women to play these multiple roles in the first place.
On the whole, the cast of It’s a SHE thing, which included Anika, Chenoa, Mayeesha, Minaal, Namira, Nawrin, Poroma, Samara, Shararat and Tasaffy, did an amazing job in presenting the struggles of urban Bangladeshi women. While some issues tackled seemed a bit simplified and reflections on the influence of race and class in perpetuating the patriarchal society in Bangladesh seemed largely absent, their performance was commendable in shedding light on other important yet often ignored issues, such as psychological abuse, consent, sexuality, rights of sex workers, etc. The play was bold, funny, poignant and extremely relevant; even necessary, considering the sheer number of women who still cannot make very simple choices and take control of their bodies without a power struggle over their personhood.