Saturday, April 21, 2007

Shakespeare in Afghanistan

Last week I saw a CBC Documentary on the National called “Shakespeare in Afghanistan.” It was about Canadian actress Corinne Jabor directing an all Afghani cast in Shakespeare's “Love's Labours Lost”. Apparently the play caused quite a sensation. What with twenty years of civil war and then the Taliban a lot of Afghanis didn't know what to think of a comedy about love. “Love's Labours Lost” is one of Shakespeare's minor comedies. The story is about a king and his three companions who together make a pact to swear off wine, women and song for three years. Everything falls apart when they meet up with a princess and her three ladies and the King and his companions promptly fall in love with them. They spend the rest of the play trying to woo the ladies with singing and dancing but in the end the ladies persuade the men to prove their love by keeping their vows of abstinence for another year.

The documentary showed that the reception for the play was quite different depending on whether the play was shown in Afghani cities or the countryside. In the country it was a lot harder to obtain permission from the warlords to put on the play. Only men were in the audience. When a few women turned up they were quickly hustled away. In the city the audiences were mixed.

Two of the Afghani actors were women. One of them was kicked out of her family for being an actress. An actress is considered the equivalent to a prostitute in Afghani society.

At first I thought it was a misguided effort on the part of the Canadian director to put on this play in Afghanistan. To the people in a conservative Islamic society Shakespeare's ideas about love and equality between the sexes are pretty revolutionary in spite of the fact that he wrote those plays about four hundred years ago. Most marriages in Afghanistan are arranged. Wasn't the director acting like a missionary trying to push western ideas of the equality of the sexes on the poor Afghanis?

But I keep thinking of the time when Shakespeare wrote his plays, four hundred years ago. At that time Elizabeth I was the Queen of England. She was such an able leader that she is considered England's greatest monarch. At the same time as Elizabeth was Queen there was religious ferment all over England and Europe. In England, Catholics, Anglicans, and various protestant sects were all competing with each other. Some of it was quite violent. People were getting their heads chopped off and getting burned at the stake for what they believed. There were revolutionary ideas in the air and at the same time, there was a lot of fear and anxiety.

Two protestant sects that became well known at this time were the Quakers and the Mennonites. Both practiced pacifism. Both were persecuted by the state. The Quakers, unlike any other religous group at the time, believed that men and women had equal authority to speak in meetings.

Today is a time of religious ferment like the sixteenth century but the big difference is that the religious ideas in the air are reactionary not revolutionary. Christian Fundamentalists want to turn back the clock on woman's rights by banning abortion and suppressing contraception. In Afghanistan the Taliban whipped women for having their heads uncovered in public. And they executed women for working outside of the home. Conservative Islamic societies treat women as the property of men. In the Bible one of the Ten Commandments, the one that says “Thou shalt not covet...”, lists “thy neighbor's wife” as part of a list of his property. It's no coincidence that those who want to make the Ten Commandments the law of the land also focus on abortion and homosexuality. Their big priority is procreation but the thing is, there are five billion people on Earth. We've already fulfilled God's first commandment to be fruitful and multiply so why are the fundamentalists still stuck on it? Maybe the thing that scares them the most is the idea that women could be free to choose whether or not to procreate.

It gets me that people could be so worried about homosexuals getting married and at the same time they ignore the scientific evidence about global warming. Somehow stopping homosexuals from getting married and women from having abortions is a moral priority but doing something to prevent global warming is not as important.  In the end, which one of these priorities is really going to make the difference?  Hint: it won't be abortion or homosexuality.

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