Cultural liberty under
spotlight at Women Playwrights

Carla Bianpoen, Contributor, Jakarta

Hundreds of women's hands rose toward the sky in trembling motion, and their voices in a dramatic roar of ""cak-cak-cak...cak-cak"", resounded in the tropical night of Bali.

Evoking the feeling of great strength and intent, the performance of the Cak by women playwrights, allied theater artists, culture workers and scholars from 23 countries around the globe, gave voice to the sentiments that had prevailed during the five-day conference of Women Playwrights (Nov. 19 to 26) in Jakarta and Bali; it was of compelling unity in great mutual respect and of poise and determination.

Some may have been surprised to see the Cak performed by women, as this form of music where performers chant the word cak in interlocking rhythms while moving the body in powerful dynamic and stirring unison is the traditional preserve of men. Well, Bali artist and jewelry designer Desak Nyoman Suarti changed that. In 2001 she set up the Luh Luwih Foundation for women's creative development and formed a women's cak troupe.

The Women's Playwright International (WPI) Conference, the seventh since its inception in 1988 in Buffalo, was organized by the Jakarta Arts Council, supported by the Jakarta city administration and the Culture and Tourism Ministry in Indonesia. The event drew 186 participants from around the globe, including 112 from 33 cities in 25 provinces of Indonesia. The convener was Ratna Sarumpaet.

Held every three years, WPI is dedicated to facilitating communication and interchanges and furthering the work of women playwrights around the world, WPI is also intent on bringing international recognition to their works.

But the Jakarta conference, which discussed cultural liberty as essential for women playwrights revealed that for their mission to succeed, they must also deal with peculiar situations in countries where creativity is repressed by grave violence against women and religious radicalism or an oppressive state regime. Censorship by the authorities or veiled censorship through coercion using politics, financing and religious restrictions are realities that need to be dealt with.

The keynote address by the renowned feminist and novelist Nawal El Saadawi pointed out that writing required creativity, to be creative often implies being a dissident. ""When we live in a world that is very unjust, you have to be a dissident,"" she said. ""In order to be creative, whether writing plays, novels, short stories or science, we have to be a dissident,"" she insisted.

The status of women worldwide may appear to be advancing, but statistics tell another story. Rampant violence against women is still a fact of life in many countries of the world. Even in Australia, the research for the 2006 submission by Australia to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination shows that human rights for women are going backwards in Australia. The report documents institutional failures across seven key areas: health, education, work, housing, violence, law and leadership. In the Philippines, extrajudicial killings are on the increase. The same could be said of situations in other countries.

So is this something that should engage women in theater?

Julie Holledge, a senior member of WPI, in her address linking theater to human rights, power and freedom, asked the question: What can the women theater artists do to assist the billions of women, the faces behind the statistics, in their struggle for human rights? She refers to women in theater as being connected to a strong and proud tradition of art for social justice, citing how theater practitioners in Britain at the beginning of the last century, joined hands with women activists to take on the power of the state during periods of intense militarization, and succeeding in obtaining the right to vote.

Major themes included (1) Identity, Community and the Role of Diversity; (2) Language, Culture and Structure; (3) Dramatic Performance Text, Cultural Context and Intertextual Practices; (4) Stage, State and Ideology; and (5) Freedom, Human Rights and Power.

Drama sessions and performances from various countries gave a good view particularly of the similarities in issues faced by women playwrights worldwide, though skills in writing and performing may differ. Interestingly, a major focus for playwrights from Southeast Asia, and Indonesia in particular, was injustice, violence against humanity -- of which women are often the victims.

Highlights of drama sessions and performances included, but were not limited to -- the excellent short performance by Vietnamese Ngok M. Nguyen, the Island Vignettes written and played by Filipino Marili Fernandez-Ilagan and Dessa Quesada, Erika Batdor's compelling movements in Poetic License, Ratna Sarumpaet's courageous mockery in The Prostitute and the President, the esthetic stylized presentation of the Stone Crushers directed by Citra Devi from Palu/Central Sulawesi, and Tya Setiawati from Padang's radical visualization of women's struggle in The Female Earth. All actors, including Tyia had shorn their hair off. Standing out for its empowering values is Gerhana-Gerhana, written by Lena Simanjuntak for ex-prostitutes to bring on stage. It was an impressive undertaking, where victims turned to regain their self respect as successful actors on stage. Lena resides in Germany, but spends at least two months a year in Indonesia to work on rehabilitating women victims of drugs, trafficking and natural disasters.

The conference thanked the Indonesian government for its support and urged that it ensure cultural liberty in Indonesia today and in the future. As the conference proceeded to request official status with the United Nations, it will be interesting to see how their strategies as a global network evolve in the course of time.

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