NEW YORK – When disaster strikes somewhere around the world, governments and relief agencies rush to the rescue.
Food shipments alleviate hunger, tents provide shelter and security forces restore order. But how are more abstract needs in traumatized societies like raising awareness to women’s rights addressed? In recent years, non-governmental organizations like the New York-based Bond Street Theatre have teamed up with Jewish agencies to try and fill that void.
“We give people tools to express themselves,” said the troupe’s co-founder Anna Zastrow in an interview with The Jerusalem Post on Friday. “Our techniques give a voice to the voiceless.”
Zastrow has taught performance art to countless people in dozens of conflict zones such as Myanmar, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Kosovo. Her organization is currently being sponsored by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) to empower women in Haiti.
“When we first met with Favelik we asked them what do they need,” said Bond Street Theatre’s artistic director Joanna Sherman, referring to the women’s group she has worked with in Haiti for the past two years. “One of them [Maricia Jean, a cofounder] said ‘we need theatre.’ It was completely unsolicited.”
The lives of women in an impoverished, male-dominated society like Haiti have never been easy, but the 2010 earthquake, which left many thousands dead and wounded, made things worse. Sherman and Zastrow say sexual violence in the country has increased dramatically, scarring generations of women.
“One of [the women performers] was raped in the ’90s,” Zostrow said. “Then her daughter was raped after the earthquake.”
The shows set up by Bond Street Theatre are a way for victims to tell their stories.
The women act out scenes, dance and sing songs with lyrics like “women say enough!” Sherman said.
Sometimes, amid the usually tragic subject matter comedy briefly emerges.
“It\’s important to have joyous moments even while addressing a serious issue like rape,” Sherman explained.
The theater group has had a relationship with Jewish organizations such JDC and the American Jewish World Service for years. Its first foray overseas was to Israel in 1984 when it took part in the Jerusalem Festival. There, Zastrow said she held joint workshops for Israelis and Palestinians.
“When you’re working hard on a joint project nobody knows or cares if you’re Jewish or Palestinian,” she said.
In a few weeks Zastrow is set to go on one her frequent trips to Afghanistan, a deeply conservative Muslim country. In order to teach performance art to Afghani women she needs the cooperation of village elders, most of whom, she said, approve of her project.
“We ask the mullah what he thinks, and he says ‘Oh, this is a good message,’” she said.
“‘Mothers should not beat up their daughter-in-law, husbands should not abuse their wives.’” Still, the ability to affect change on a large scale through projects like theater is debatable. Sometimes it can also be dangerous. Last year Juliano Mar, a Jewish-Palestinian actor and director, was gunned down in Jenin, apparently for no other reason than teaching drama to local children.
Despite the risks, Zastrow said she is not afraid of working in countries like Afghanistan.
“We travel under the radar and stay away from the most dangerous places like Kandahar,” she said.
The indefatigable Zastrow does not let occasional setbacks affect her conviction. Of the nine women she worked with in Afghanistan last year five have since married and are not allowed to perform anymore.