When Mukhtar Mai was gang-raped by four men, her community expected her to commit suicide. Instead, she took her rapists to court in what was a groundbreaking move in her home country of Pakistan and has since spent her life promoting education for women. Hers was one of the seven true stories of women around the world featured in the LA Theatre Works’ presentation of “Seven,” which took place at the Knickerbocker Theater on February 22 as part of Hope College’s Great Performance Series. The show’s mix of narrative and acting made for a piercing and interactive effect. The seven performers alternated back and forth in telling the stories of the real women they represented; women around the globe who have overcome enormous adversity to fight for change in human rights, gender equality and gender-based violence, among other issues. Sound and visual elements contributed to the dramatic effect and drew the audience in to the emotions of each character. Often, the background music accompanying a speaker was characteristic of that woman’s home country. Each woman’s story included both heartbreak and incredible triumph. The actors alternated seamlessly back and forth between narratives, creating a sense of rising tension as each character began to find her voice and struggle against overwhelming opposition.
Hafsat Abiola-Costello was a Nigerian woman who became an advocate for democracy following the assassination of her mother, a democratic activist. Abiola-Costello was determined to follow in her mothers’ footsteps and did so by founding the Kudirat Initiative for Democracy. Named after her mother, the initiative provides opportunity and training for women in leadership across Nigeria. Abiola-Costello’s father was fairly elected as president but was thrown in prison and later was murdered there. Her parents’ legacies inspired Abiola-Costello to continue to struggle against deep-seated corruption.
Annabella de León was raised in Guatemala in extreme poverty but managed to get an education, lifting herself and her family out of their situation. She became a member of the Congress of the Republic of Guatemala and has devoted her work to enforcing human rights. As a result of her work she has received multiple death threats and has to be protected by four bodyguards throughout her day. Maritxell Carrero did an excellent job of portraying de León’s relentless persistence to break through corrupt bureaucracy to ensure basic rights to vulnerable people who often had no other representation.
Mukhtar Mai was raped by four men as revenge for a crime her brother was falsely accused of committing. In the remote village in Pakistan where she grew up, no women were educated and none were even able to read. In the play, her character describes the constant fear of sexual assault in which all local girls lived. After surviving the assault, Mai made the stunning decision to take her perpetrators to court. When she first went to the police, they refused to listen to her complaint, and instead gave her a paper that she couldn’t read and demanded she sign it. Since she didn’t know how to write her name, they told her to sign with her thumbprint, saying in the play, “That’s what all the other women do.” However, Mai kept talking to different people and pursuing her case. Finally, she was able to bring her perpetrators to justice. Eventually, Mai’s case attracted international attention, and she used donations she was given to build schools for women in her community and create an international foundation for education.
Marina Pisklakova-Parker started the very first hotline in Russia for victims of domestic violence after discovering that two of her friends had suffered silently through domestic abuse. For a long time, she was the only person responding to calls from victims across the country. Now her project is known as ANNA, a national resource center for Russia and former Soviet states, and contracts with a network of more than 120 other organizations. Besides directly addressing specific situations of violence, Pisklavoa-Parker’s work has raised awareness about the problem, beginning to break through the cultural taboo and de-normalize such behavior.
Inez McCormick was the first female President of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and had a critical role in the 1998 Good Friday Peace Accords in Ireland. She spent her life advocating for fair labor practices for women and minorities.
Mu Sochua was nominated in 2005 for the Nobel Peace Prize for her work preventing sex trafficking of women in Cambodia and helping heal rescued victims and bring their perpetrators to justice. She was forced to flee the country when Hun Sen, Cambodia’s strongman Prime Minister of more than 30 years, dissolved the government in 2017. However, Sochua continues to fight for democracy around the world.
The vast majority of the actors’ speech was based off of interviews with the real women. One of the actors commented, “You do a lot of listening and a lot of repeating.” After the performance, one member of the audience asked how their daily struggles and triumphs can still seem significant compared to the staggering things these women have done. Ellis Greer, who played Inez McCormick, responded, “Many of these women—they want us to start small. They want us to start in our communities. They want us to knock on doors, they want us to take that one small step forward. That’s accessible…” Laila Ayad, who played Farida Azizi, made perhaps the most striking comment: “I think we are in important times historically, and we could give up and say the world is crazy and what are we going to do? But I think it’s worth living this life thinking that our voice is important, and one of the things that I took away from studying this play is to be more courageous. And I think we all need to, if we want the world to survive, and compassion and life… to survive, we need to step up and be more courageous in everything we do.”