New Internationalist

‘A peaceful, constructive riot’: how prison theatre is changing policy in Lebanon

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Janey Stephenson meets those at centre stage of an artistic revolution.

Prison theatre group in Lebanon [Related Image]
Another successful performance: women from the prison theatre group in Lebanon. © Dalia Khamissy

Zeina Daccache has a theory: ‘Theatre can live in the most forgotten places and grow in the most difficult situations.’ As an actress and drama therapist who has worked in Lebanon’s prisons and psychiatric hospitals, she knows what she’s talking about. However, nothing proves her hypothesis more than her recent work, ‘Scheherazade in Baabda’.

The ‘self-revelatory performance’ was based on 10 months of drama therapy with 20 female inmates in Baabda prison, west Lebanon. Through exercises with objects, images and storytelling, Daccache gently guided a creative process that empowered ‘murderers of husbands’, ‘adulterers’ and ‘drug felons’ to share stories of violence, betrayal and abuse that led to their life behind bars.

The finished product was the first-ever theatre performance inside an Arab women’s prison (and an award-winning documentary titled ‘Scheherazade’s Diary’). Comprised of monologues, short scenes and flamenco, ‘Scheherazade in Baabda’ sharply interrogates whom the Lebanese justice system is really defending.

‘In Lebanon, there is no law to protect women from domestic violence, and in most of the rural areas here, divorce is considered a “bad thing”, so any woman suffering from domestic violence has no big choices,’ Daccache explains. ‘She’s threatened by her husband and her own family if she decides to divorce or escape, and if she goes to the police, they will tell her: “excuse us, but there is no law to protect you”.’

She describes the result: ‘Many of the oppressed women end up being the oppressor’; in the most extreme cases, by killing their abusive husbands. The women at Baabda have suffered years of domestic violence, forced child marriages and sexual abuse; instead of sharing wonderful tales of adventure like the original Scheherazade did, their stories hold an unforgiving mirror up to the patriarchal society that has shaped their fate.

On a mission

Due to an overwhelmed and under-funded justice system, many of Baabda’s inmates are still under arrest rather than serving sentences. According to Daccache, ‘you are presumed guilty until proven innocent, which leads to overcrowded prisons, slow tribunal appointments and procedures’. Inside the prison, women spend long days sitting on plastic chairs in concrete rooms, waiting for updates on their cases.

However, Daccache is on a mission: to alter the public’s perception of prisoners and tackle the social problems that drive people onto the wrong side of the law. In 2007, she founded Lebanon’s first drama therapy centre, Catharsis, which uses theatre to empower disadvantaged people and lobby for policy change.

Instead of sharing wonderful tales of adventure like the original Scheherazade did, their stories hold an unforgiving mirror up to the patriarchal society that has shaped their fate

‘Theatre is a tool for anyone and everyone,’ she explains. Catharsis works with marginalized populations, including Syrian refugees, domestic workers and people in rehabilitation centres. Her work with prisoners is ‘changing how the public perceives prisoners: to see them as human beings, combating stereotypes and misperceptions that limit the prisoner to a sinner, criminal, or loser’.

Daccache’s tragicomic documentary about the play, ‘Scheherazade’s Diary’, appears to have the same goal. Simultaneously moving, lively and funny, it exposes the personalities, fears and yearnings of the socially vulnerable yet strong-willed women at Baabda. Their voices had until now been excluded from public debate.

‘At first, most of the women inmates had apprehensions in showing themselves to people, cameras, stage. We totally respected that, and ethics is the first rule that we commit to… but slowly they started asking to show and perform. The audience got a lot of awareness because few of them knew why a woman would end up in jail in Lebanon.’

After seeing the play and witnessing the tough living conditions at Baabda, audience members offered legal assistance and social support, helped improve hygiene facilities and even gave jobs to women leaving the prison.

Advocacy initiatives

Catharsis frequently holds meetings in parliament with judges and ministers to communicate prisoners’ issues, and also advocates on behalf of specific cases. One of the Scheherazades, Afaf, had been imprisoned for four years for suspected murder before being tried: ‘We pushed for a trial, found her a lawyer… and 10 days later she was out innocent.

Dalia Khamissy
On stage at the prison theatre. Dalia Khamissy

‘As soon as we have a performance open to the public, and the performance on DVD in the market, and a film such as ‘Scheherazade’s Diary’ or ‘12 Angry Lebanese’, the advocacy starts.’ Catharsis invites governmental figures and judges directly into the prisons to watch the performances and meet the performers afterwards.

‘12 Angry Lebanese’ was the product of a drama therapy project in 2009, in Roumieh men’s prison, the largest in Lebanon. An adaptation of ‘12 Angry Men’, it directly led to the implementation of Law 463 (reduction of sentences based on good behaviour). Daccache is proud: ‘For the first time, society started paying attention to this forgotten place… before that, you’d only hear about prison because there’s a riot… no-one listened to the inmates’ needs.’ She describes prison theatre as an ‘artistic, peaceful, constructive riot’.

‘Scheherazade in Baabda’ served a similar function. In April 2014, less than two years after the play was first performed, Lebanon passed its first law on domestic violence. Catharsis had joined forces with other advocacy initiatives in Lebanon to push for this change. Daccache states: ‘the most important thing is that these ladies added their voice to the other voices claiming for a law to protect women from domestic violence.’ However, she sounds sceptical about its impact: ‘Now we need to see if the bill will be applied in a manner that protects women.’

Daccache believes there are still vast changes to be made for women’s liberation in Lebanon. Discriminatory personal status laws, which are determined by religious affiliation, put women at a considerable disadvantage compared to men when it comes to issues of marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance.

Child marriage is a persistent problem in the country, as she describes: ‘Many girls are being married still at the age of 12 or 15, not really knowing where they’re heading to.’ In Lebanon, there is no civil law on the minimum age of marriage, which is instead determined by religious sects. According to Human Rights Watch, all sects permit the marriage of girls below 18.

Though her efforts are relentless, Daccache denies being anyone’s advocate: ‘I give the tools of drama therapy and theatre to people to lobby and advocate for themselves.’ This is why it reaps such powerful results. Unlike policy briefs, theatre empowers the most vulnerable members of society to directly stare lawmakers in the eye and dare them to share their pain.

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