Iraqi Women: Playwrights Discuss Their World

This discussion was held at American University on March 6, 2012.

I had the privilege to sit-in on a discussion with five Iraqi women who are playwrights and actresses.  They spoke of what it was like before, during, and after the war for their industry and their lives in general.  It has been a rather long time since I have been exposed to a firsthand expression of another world, and I am sincerely grateful to have met them all.

Many of the women are working on their Masters in Iraq, three of them are from Baghdad, one from Kirgizstan, and one from Basra.  During the introductions, it was made clear that the women were well known in their field of theatre, and one is a prominent actress in film.

When asked about how the war affected the arts, the women answered reservedly.  They stated that from 2003 onward, the war had changed all aspects of the arts, such that new characters are being added to plays and the playwrights can openly criticize the government officials because the officials are now civil servants.  They laughed at the ability to do so, enjoying the fact that they were free to openly (but conservatively) criticize the ruling party.

The women went on to discuss the civil war waging in Iraq and how it pertained to the theatre.  They said that the Iraqi people are hopeless, citing that all their plays are about war.  The people of Iraq are focusing on the problems and the suffering when they see the plays, and the plays are not for entertainment.  This is part of the reason the women came to the US, first was to expose us to their culture, but hopefully to gain something from ours as well.

Then came some interesting information – Saddam Hussein actually set boundaries for the religious fundamentalists and the playwrights not to cross.  For the fundamentalists, Hussein suppressed them some when it came to the theatre, as they were not allowed to stop a government approved show.

The playwrights were subjected to harsher conditions.  Security forces would read over all scripts and delete whatever they found offensive; as such, the playwright either had to abide by the changes or throw out the script altogether.  As has happened many times over in the world, the writers would use symbols in their plays to talk about what they wanted.

During the performances, Security forces were known to stop the play, then take the actor and director in for investigation.  Many artists were killed, vanished, or were banished from the country during this time.

They then talked about how difficult it was to be an actress in Iraqi, saying that unless a woman lived in Baghdad, it was very hard to study art or even become an artist.  In Basra, women are not allowed to act at all, and in the rest of the country it depends on your family.  The panel said most are not accepting of women on the stage, and there have been many roadblocks and setbacks.  Families are not proud of sons who go into theatre, but it is a stigma if daughters do.  One women said if she acted she would be risking her life due to the objections of her family.  She mentioned that she was used to the beatings for her career path, but made sure that her family could not have an opposition.

The discussion moved to television and the women started with pre-2003 issues, citing that there were only two channels available to the Iraqi public and those belonged to the government.  Now there are multiple channels belonging to each political party.  The women said the bad in this was that all television was censored, but the good was that there is now a debate starting in the country.  They all expressed happiness to the fact that these channels are run by the youth, even if the youth have to follow the political ideology of the channel’s party.  They said that this was leading to a lack of creation because the people do not believe in what they are broadcasting.

When asked about funding for the plays, there was a collective laugh and a vast difference in answers.  The playwright from Kirgizstan said the Department of Culture funds all the plays (like the Federal Theatre here in the WPA back in the 30’s).  The playwright from Kirgizstan said there was a common joke in the region – that the government funded the plays to criticize themselves.  Even the Prime Minister is subject to this artistic analysis.

For the women from Baghdad and Basra, things were different, they self funded the plays from the actors and directors.  As for movie funding, usually the prize monies from awards in Japan and France helped fund the future films and other productions.  Occasionally the Department of Culture will aid in funding, but that is rare.

Perhaps the most chilling part of the panel was when arts education was brought up.  As an arts enthusiast, it is difficult for me to imagine a world where the arts are not welcome (even though our country has Puritanism and Calvinism).  There are special schools for ballet and music in Baghdad, but the fundamentalists criticize them, so they are now not accepted by the culture.  The women said religious parties from outside Iraq are now interfering with the arts, causing most of the school theatres to close.  They made it explicitly clear that these events have nothing to do with the West, but they are based in religious objections.

As for art in the schools, the only thing available to students is visual art – drawing.  The only career choice in arts education for these women (who all have Bachelors of Arts – most in Theatre) is to teach drawing to young students, regardless of their qualifications.

A few pointed questions and quotes from the women

What is the hope for your students?

As kids in the elementary school, they all want to act, they all want to talk to themselves.  They enjoy singing and acting.  Unfortunately, the Department of Education doesn’t support them morally or financially.  The norms, community, and traditions don’t either.  So kids can act in some religious plays.  When I talk about the religious play, my  child will be [a part of it].  [The play] was acceptable by the principal.

Do you think are can help heal and unify your country?

We have a lot of social issues, and a lot of culture and religious issues.  We don’t study or analyze them.  We don’t work on eliminating them.  So now we have a problem, drugs among the youth.  If you’re an actor and you want to solve the problem, you would have to work all alone by yourself.

The problem is in the healing.  The healing that’s been giving to the new generation in Iraq has been going wrong.  They are giving them religious tuition, the wrong one and not the right one.  As a child is growing up, he learns there are many taboos doing with art.  We’re now [telling] our children to cry about the past and not look toward the future.  We don’t do anything, the government talks, and the people shut up.  And when the people talk, the government doesn’t listen.  We have very little hope.  Even in the up-coming generation.  Everything in our daily life has been exported into our country, we only get the negative.  The Arab people are wasting their time on […] things that are not useful.

The responsibility of an artist is to diagnose the problem, and just by giving his opinion he might change something.  For example, I made a short film, discussed 5-6 social problems facing the country.  Administrative problems, and when they saw me in the street, I was stopped and told it was illegal.  There is no recovery, no solution.

Proudest moment as a women and an artist?

  • When I walk down the street and the people would stop me and show me how much they love me, ask about new projects and feel my people are proud of me. The audience likes what I am doing.
  • I feel proud on the stage, and free.
  • When I’m at a festival and all the actors are men, and I’m the one who gets the prize.
  • When I start writing about social issues, and try to solve them through my novel.  I don’t care what happens later, I was already beaten for writing and being an actress.
  • When I am on the stage and I feel the audience is happy and accepting of my performance and the subject matter.

Thoughts on the US:

When asked about what their impressions were of the United States and the people, the women expressed collective surprise.  They said they are only familiar with the military and government of the United States, and that they were shocked to see that the American Public is friendly and nice.  They expressed a desire to take back 5% of the good of the US home to Iraq because their outlook on Americans has changed.

When asked about Washington, DC, they enjoyed the beauty of the city.  That it was not what they were expecting with the architecture, gardens, and organization. The one thing they all agreed on was seeing American youth out and about on the streets, something which they do not get to see as often back home.

Authors note:

Please know that I did not intentionally inflame any of the statements the women made, nor should more be read into their statements.  These women are very proud of their country, but want to see their home change for the better.

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