Home ARTS & THEATER Shifting the Spotlight: Exploring the Scarcity of Female Voices in Iraqi Theatre

Shifting the Spotlight: Exploring the Scarcity of Female Voices in Iraqi Theatre

by Ohio Digital News

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Upon the release of Contemporary Plays from Iraq in 2017, my focus shifted to translating works exclusively written by female playwrights. The aim was to boost visibility and amplify their voices globally. To my surprise, research unveiled only one female playwright in Iraq. Further exploration revealed a notable scarcity of female playwrights in the Arab world, with men dominating the genre. I was curious to investigate the underlying reasons for this shortage, particularly in Iraq, looking at political, social, economic, and artistic influences. As a literary translator and theatre scholar, I acknowledge that my efforts alone are insufficient to enhance the visibility of female playwrights. It is crucial to undertake more comprehensive initiatives to address the existing inequities within this industry.

Following the Iraqi war in 2003, the rise of a fundamentalist and conservative wave, coupled with a lack of safety and security and the changing societal view of theatre have contributed to the scarcity of female theater artists in the country. For theatre critic and author Abbas Latif, the aftermath of the occupation brought numerous setbacks to Iraqi theatre, notably the absence of female artists which is attributed to the tumultuous political environment, declining security, and the influence of Islamic groups that oppose artistic expression.[1]

Female Playwrights in Iraq

Presently in Iraq, aside from Layla Mohammed (an actress, dancer, and playwright), Awatif Naeem stands out as the solitary prominent female playwright, paving the way for emerging talents to follow. Despite Naeem’s success, she has faced criticism from some fellow Iraqi theatre artists who claim she lacks the ability to create original plays, often adapting or reworking Western classics. Regardless, Naeem’s plays, addressing women’s issues, have gained widespread production both locally and internationally, establishing her as a significant figure in theatre, not only as a playwright but also as an actor and director.

Ana Wajhi, by Awatif Naeem, Al-Rafidain Theatre, Baghdad, 2022

Among the emerging female playwrights like Atyaf Rashid, Rasha Fadhil, and Fatin Altaee, gaining recognition remains a challenge in a male-centric industry. While their works may get published or receive awards, few plays see the light on stage, reflecting the ongoing struggle for acknowledgment in the field.

Al-Ishara, by Atyaf Rashid, College of Fine Arts, University of Babylon, Babylon, 2021.

Reasons for the Scarcity of Female Playwrights 

Exploring the dearth of female playwrights prompts the question of why there is an abundance of female poets and fiction writers, yet a notable absence of women in the realm of playwriting. Numerous theatre practitioners, including female playwrights, suggest that playwriting poses unique challenges, characterizing it as a “difficult” genre that may be less accessible for female writers. According to Mithal Ghazi, playwriting is considerably challenging, especially in comparison to poetry and fiction, as it involves a synthesis of art and literature (M. Ghazi, personal communication, January 1, 2024). Similarly, Ali Abdel-Nabi Al-Zaidi contends that writing for the theatre is intricate and complex, surpassing the difficulty of poetry or fiction. Al-Zaidi further asserts that women are not naturally inclined towards the theatre genre; instead, they tend to gravitate towards easier genres such as poetry and short stories (A. Al-Zaidi, personal communication, January 2, 2024).

The nature of theatre, for some theatre artists, with its emphasis on action and adherence to specific rules, may not align with the socialized inclination of women to engage in narrative digressions and detailed descriptions. Rasha Fadhil, for instance, contends that the constraints imposed by the rules of theatrical writing can limit the freedom of female writers, hindering their natural tendency for digression and exploration (R. Fadhil, personal communication, January 1, 2024). Moreover, works of emerging female playwrights are perceived by Naeem as more literary in nature, emphasizing that theatre revolves around actions rather than narration (A. Naeem, personal communication, January 2, 2024). Shockingly, Fatin Altaee rejects social or political factors or pressures, and instead attributes the scarcity of female playwrights to a lack of talent among women (F. Altaee, personal communication, January 1, 2024). In the fabric of these perspectives where even some female writers perpetuate and sustain male-centric values and biases, and despite the problematic statements of poetry and fiction as “easy” genres compared to theatre, a pervasive thread of patriarchal and gender bias is woven. It insinuates a hierarchical stance, portraying women as inferior to this particular genre, while conferring the mantle of capability solely upon men.

Other factors include the means of production and the challenge of bringing a play to life, both financially and logistically. The industry, controlled predominantly by men, poses an additional barrier especially for female directors and producers, who are very few (one or two). This male-centric environment may have led women writers to opt for poetry and fiction, which, thanks to technology and social media, has become easier to publish and gain recognition.

Another reason could be how theatre is viewed in Arab culture, particularly in Iraq, where poetry holds higher regard than theatre, and where theatre is often looked down upon as mere entertainment and a disreputable profession. Unless one is a famous theatre artist, working in the theatre field is met with disrespect, even for men and worse for women. Students of theatre are sometimes labeled as intellectually inferior. Such students may find themselves unfairly characterized as engaging in the pursuit of an “easy” subject, sometimes even stigmatized as “Kawliyya,” or mere entertainers. Although theatre artists believe playwriting to be challenging, it seems that the broader public perceive it to be easy. According to theater critic Ahmed al-Sharji, the emergence of infamous Roma dancers in commercial theatres resulted in certain Iraqi families forbidding girls from pursuing theatre studies.[2] Even for those female students engaged in theatre education, societal biases and religious pressures discourage them from pursuing careers in the field. Moreover, a career in theatre is perceived as lacking in financial rewards, adding another layer of challenge to those passionate about theatre.

The pervasiveness of patriarchal and gender bias, evident in responses from theatre practitioners, perpetuates a narrative that positions women as seemingly inferior to the challenging genre of playwriting. This bias, coupled with societal disdain for theatre as a profession, diverts aspiring female writers toward ostensibly “easier” genres like poetry and fiction. Beyond creative barriers, the scarcity of women in key roles such as directors and producers further complicates the struggle for recognition. In a society where poetry holds higher regard than theatre, and societal predispositions dissuade women from pursuing theatrical careers, addressing the underrepresentation of female playwrights requires not only an artistic shift but a profound societal reevaluation of the value assigned to women’s contributions in shaping the cultural narrative.

 

Photos were provided by the playwrights.

[1] ‘Alaa Yousif, (2013, May5). “Ghiyab Niswi bi-l-Masrah al-Iraqi”. AlJazeera. https://www.aljazeera.net/culture/2013/5/15/%d8%ba%d9%8a%d8%a7%d8%a8-%d9%86%d8%b3%d9%88%d9%8a-%d8%a8%d8%a7%d9%84%d9%85%d8%b3%d8%b1%d8%ad-%d8%a7%d9%84%d8%b9%d8%b1%d8%a7%d9%82%d9%8a

[2] Ibid.

This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.

This post was written by Amir Al-Azraki.

The views expressed here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect our views and opinions.

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