writer & editor

Invisible Women

‘…theatre overlaps into memory. It’s poetry stretches into the silence of the spectators.’

K Madvane

Ayad Akhtar’s play, The Invisible Hand, recently staged at the Kiln Theatre had an entirely male cast. There were four characters and the setting was a cell in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Akhtar’s play is about Nick, an American banker kidnapped by a terrorist group led by Imam Saleem. Nick’s jail guard is a Dar, who is supervised by Bashir, Imam Saleem’s sidekick. Nick, captured for an exorbitant ransom which he knows no one will pay, promises to raise the money through his expertise of the markets in exchange for his freedom. He teaches Bashir how to study the markets. The ‘invisible hand,’ is a metaphor and refers to the unseen forces that move the market economy. The play has various overlapping themes, including religious fundamentalism, excessive materialism, human connection, and the lack thereof. During the entire play there are only four moments of humanity displayed by the largely unlikeable characters. However, it was none of this that made the experience uncomfortable viewing. I’m not against stories or plays with only one gender or jail settings. The claustrophobia of the closed space, a small room remote from the rest of the world, and the inactivity and lack of interaction of the prisoner with the outside, allows a writer or playwright to explore their characters more fully. It was what the absence of women suggested, in this particular context of frenzied male aggression, which made it harrowing viewing.

One could argue that female characters on stage were unnecessary to the plot, but women were in fact integral to the play even though they were mentioned only four or five times. Dar mentions visiting his mother in the village, Nick tries to connect with his wife in America on Bashir’s phone, and at the end Imam Saleem speaks of his wife’s happiness at owning a house. Women are mentioned in these fleeting instances, and only in two roles- the wife and mother.

But what is it that made the absence of women on stage in Akhtar’s play so terrifying? In a Guardian article (5th August, 2021) Joan Smith writes about Project Starlight, a study which looked at V2R or people ‘vulnerable to radicalisation.’ The research found that 40% of adult referrals had a history of domestic abuse as perpetrators, witnesses or victims and ‘terrorism’ is ‘at least as much about male violence as ideology…the research reveals that almost 16% of adult V2R referrals have been victims of domestic abuse, nearly three times higher than the national estimated figure.’ She also noted, ‘a link also emerged between V2R referrals and women hating.’ Watching four men on stage, play out their misogyny, fear, and greed and how they terrorised each other, and the dramatic absence of women, ironically highlighted what it must be like for them.

Akhtar’s intention to have his characters make only passing references to women may have been to show they had families and to further narrative plot. However, it spoke volumes about women’s invisibility, not in prison spaces, which might be expected, but more generally and their absence allowed the viewer’s imagination to fill the spaces.

As I sat watching in a socially distanced theatre, my memory took me back to a fourteen hour, 490 km, road trip I had made in 2019 from Gilgit Baltistan to Islamabad. The north of Pakistan has panoramic mountain and valley landscapes of the Himalayas. The route we took led us through Mansehra, Abbottabad, Batgar, and Patan. As precarious as the journey was on the Karakoram Highway, one of world’s highest road networks, with its winding route on a road built into the side of the mountain ranges, where there were unexpected waterfalls, rock avalanches, multiple car accidents and lorries piled high with construction material coming from the opposite side with full beam headlights, the thing that was most terrifying was that throughout our journey we did not see a single woman. We were stopped at multiple checkpoints by men dressed in black carrying Kalashnikovs, who asked for our passports and asked why we were women travelling on our own. At one stop we were told to leave our car and enter a small kiosk where our photos were taken. My nieces were 9 and 11. A hundred thoughts crossed my mind when those guns were pointed at us and we followed the men into the room. There was no mobile signal, and no one knew where we were. At the end of the photo session, one man said we were a ‘nice family, and you all have good smiles,’ and he offered to send two escort cars to make sure we wouldn’t be harmed along the way. We didn’t have a choice. And so for the next three or four hours, we had two open-back station wagons in front of us and two behind us, with six men in each. All of them had covered their heads and faces with black cloth, all we could see were their eyes. We stopped at one place along the roadside, where some young boys were playing football. One of the men shouted from the escort cars and the boys immediately stopped and gave a salute. There was not a woman in sight. Our paan-chewing driver kept saying, ‘you’re like my sister, don’t worry. Your nieces are like baby markhor, (a rare type of mountain goat), I’ll look after you.’ I asked him what he did when he wasn’t a driver, he said he was a deer hunter, he sold their meat and hides to Russian and Chinese dealers. He asked me to open the glove box so I could see his hunting licence. At midnight, after ten hours on the road, we stopped at Bisham for a break. Needless to say, this was the longest journey of my life, which we were forced to take because of poor weather conditions which made it impossible for us to take a plane from Gilgit, where we’d been waiting for a week for the weather to improve. The beautiful Serena hotel had become a prison, and this car journey was our only way out.

Memory, especially triggered involuntarily is a curious thing. As Borges said, ‘we are our memory…that chimerical museum of shifting shapes, that pile of broken mirrors.’ My memory, could arguably then be quite different from the actual experience, and as Proust noted, ‘remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.’ Whatever the case, what I am certain is that we did not see any women on that road trip, and all of the fear and anxiety that I’d felt, sitting in the front seat of the Land Cruiser with my nieces asleep in the back, as we hurtled along in pitch darkness suddenly came back to me as I sat watching ‘The Invisible Hand.’ The play also reminded me of many types of silences: that of the audience, the women missing from the stage, the few seconds after curtain fall, the dark Himalayan valley covered in apricot blossoms in the middle of the night, and the silence of women suffering in walled compounds, in places not shown on maps.