MELBOURNE — For nearly an hour the audience sits in silence as Feryal Ali Gauhar paces the stage, delivering a solo performance that spans three continents and tells the story of various women; mothers and daughters, the wealthy elite and domestic maids.
All the characters in the play are based on real-life stories and have a common theme of gender-based violence and control at the hands of men. "It's a very immediate medium," she later explains. "For most women in the audience it is an experience that is close to them. The debate begins really on the journey home with their partners and with the families that they come from. So at least the conversation starts."
Feryal, an actress and writer, is also a human rights activist, political economist and a UN Good Will ambassador in Pakistan. Her performance, in Melbourne, Australia, is part of an event to raise funds for the Depilex Smile Again Foundation, an organization that provides free surgeries to victims of acid attacks in Pakistan.
Members of the Pakistani community in Australia offered to put on the fund-raiser, and together with tickets and an auction of donated designer clothes and art works raised more than $50,000.
The Depilex Smile Again Foundation was founded by Musarat Misbah, a successful Pakistani businesswoman who owns a chain of beauty salons. She says that besides covering the costs of cosmetic surgeries, the organization also raises awareness in the community and helps women lead a normal life.
"After a certain number of surgeries, when the eyes have opened up and the limbs start working, we start training these girls in certain skill so that they can become integrated into society and contribute to society again," Musarat explains.
"There is a way out"
Sabra Sultana, who traveled to Melbourne for the event, is one of the women who was helped by the foundation. Sabra, just 16 at the time, had already been abused by her husband because of a lack of dowry from her family. One day, when she was three months pregnant with her first child, he burnt her face with acid.
Through a translator, Sabra explains that she has had 35 surgeries — all part of a slow and painful process that involves removing skin from other parts of her body and putting it on her face. "It takes 10 to 15 years because after each surgery you have to wait six months," she says.
After the acid attack, Sabra's eyes were down to her cheeks. She couldn't open her mouth because it was joined to her neck. It's taken her about a decade just to be able to drink water again out of a glass.
For many years Sabra wouldn't look at herself in the mirror. She says her family has been very supportive. But dealing with the broader community has been extremely difficult. Mostly she covers her face. Otherwise people stare. Sometimes they approach her, physically touch her, and ask direct questions: What happened? Why are you looking like this? With that comes the stigma, the idea that she must have done something wrong. It must have been her fault.
After beginning the long surgery process with the Depilex Foundation, Sabra first trained as a beautician and has now moved on to be the organization's patient co-ordinator for new victims receiving treatment. "She can empathize and sympathize with them," says Musarat. "She knows exactly where it hurts and how much it hurts. So she tells them that she is the light at the end of the tunnel and that there is a way out."
While acid attacks are a problem unique to South Asia, organizers of the event also want to raise awareness about domestic violence in Australia and show the issues as interlinked.
Tasneem Chopra, the chair of the Australian Muslim Women's Centre for Human Rights, says that violence against women in Australia has inherently the same motivations as in Pakistan.
"Violence against women transcends religious, racial and cultural lines," she says. "It's a really vile mindset that is entrenched in power and domination. So we see that manifest throughout different cultures in different ways, but the end result is always the same: taking away a woman's identity, sovereignty and ensuring that she is always a victim. The tendency is to remove the capacity of a woman and turn her into a possession."
In Australia more than one woman is murdered by her current or former partner every week. For women under 45, the domestic violence "epidemic," as some people describe it, is the leading cause of preventable death and injury.
Tasneem says that there is a tendency in Australia to view violence against women in developing countries as a different issue to violence here. "In Australia we don't even discuss it as a religious or ethnic issue. We discuss it for what it is: violence against women," she says. "I think often the tendency when we discuss violence against women in Pakistan or India, or the Middle East, is to somehow cloak it as being a cultural issue."
The rights activist says that while different countries inevitably take different approaches to the matter, the ultimate goal needs to be same: getting men to change their behavior. Societies, whether in the East or West, also need to "shift from a culture of victim blaming," says Tasneem.
"When we do hear about attacks, be it rape, be it sexual assault or physical assault, we often ask what she was doing to provoke it," she says. "The premise is wrong. There is no excuse for violence."