Feryal Ali Gauhar paces an empty stage, the furniture of a lavish Pakistani house behind her.
For almost an hour she holds the audience in silence with her solo performance that spans across the three continents and the lives of different women; mothers and daughters, the wealthy elite and domestic maids.
All the characters in the play are based off real life stories and have a common theme of gendered violence and control at the hands of men.
“It’s a very immediate medium, most women in the audience it is an experience that is close to them and the debate begins really on the journey home with their partners and with the families that they come from. So at least the conversation starts,” she said.
As well as an actress and a writer, Feryal is also a human rights activist, political economist and a UN Good Will ambassador in Pakistan.
The performance is part of an event to raise funds for the Diplex Smile Again Foundation, an organisation that provides free surgeries to victims of acid attacks in Pakistan.
Members of the Pakistani community in Australia offered to put on the fund-raiser, and together with tickets and an auction of donated designer clothes and art works raised over 50 thousand Dollars.
The organisations founder Musarat Misbah is a successful Pakistani business woman and the owner of a chain of beauty salons.
She says as well as cosmetic surgeries the organisation raises awareness in the community and helps women lead a normal life.
“After a certain number of surgeries when the eyes have opened up and the limbs start working, we start training these girls in certain skill so that they can become integrated into society, they can contribute to society again,” Musaeat said.
Sabra Sultana, who travelled to Melbourne for the event, is one of the women who have been helped by the foundation.
At just 16 years of age, Sabra had already been abused by her husband because of a lack of dowry from her family. One day, when she was 3 months pregnant with her first child, he burnt her face with acid.
Through a translator Sabra told me she has undergone 35 surgeries of a slow and painful process which involves removing skin from other parts of her body and putting it on her face.
“10 to 15 years the reason being because after each surgery you have to wait 6 months, especially as Sabra was saying after the incident, her eyes were down to her cheeks, her mouth was joined to her neck she couldn’t open her mouth, she had to have sips of water and she would wait for the day she could actually glug down through a glass of water, so all that has taken about 10 years,” she explained.
For many years after the attack Sabra didn’t look at herself in the mirror. While she says her family were very supportive it was much harder in the broader community.
“She doesn’t normally go around in Pakistan without covering her face because she gets stared at, people come and they actually touch her physically and ask her what happened, why are you looking like this, so it’s very direct questions. And with that also comes that stigma that pre-thought that she must have done something wrong. It must have been her fault.”
After beginning the surgery with Diplex Foundation, Sabra first trained as a beautician and has now moved on to be the foundations patient co-ordinator for new victims receiving treatment.
“She can empathise and sympathise with them, she knows exactly where it hurts and how much it hurts. So she tells them that she is the light at the end of the tunnel and that there is a way out, she feels that this is her calling and what she gets the most satisfaction out of,” she said.
While acid attacks are a problem unique to South Asia, organisers of the event also want to raise awareness about domestic violence in Australia and show the issues as interlinked.
Tasneem Chopra is the chair of the Australian Muslim Women’s Centre for Human Rights.
She says that violence against women in Australia has inherently the same motivations as in Pakistan.
“Violence against women transcends, religion race and cultural barriers, it’s a really vile mind-set that is really entrenched in power and domination. So we see that manifest throughout different cultures in different ways but the end result is always the same. Taking away a woman’s identity, sovereignty and ensuring that she is always a victim, the tendency is to remove the capacity of a woman and turn her into a possession,” she said.
In Australia more than one woman is murdered by her current or former partner every week and many have called that rate of domestic violence in the country an ‘epidemic’.
Domestic violence is the leading cause of preventable death and injury for Australian women under 45.
Tasneem says that there is a tendency in Australia to view violence against women in developing countries as a different issue to violence here.
“In Australia we don’t even discuss it as a religious or ethnic issue we discuss it for what it is, violence against women and I think often the tendency is that when we discuss violence against women in Pakistan or India, or Bangladesh as an example, or in the middle-east. We some-how cloak it in being a cultural issue.”
“I think different countries are going to have to have different approaches, the end result is that men’s behaviour has to change. But the common denominator for Western and Eastern countries, is to shift from a culture of victim blaming. Because when we do hear about attacks, be it rape, be it sexual assault or physical assault, what was she doing did she provoke it, so the premise is wrong, there is no excuse for violence.”
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