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A Play Women At Point Zero

About A Play Women At Point Zero – Perempuan Di Titik Nol 

Base from a novel by Egyptian feminist writer Nawal El Saadawi

Faiza Mardzoeki

The production of “Women at Point Zero” in 2002 was a different experience. I proposed the idea that the well-known novel of the Egyptian feminist, Nawal El Saadawi, be produced as theatre in 2001. There were a number of different reactions. While I had spent some time with theatre groups in the early 1990s, I was proposing this ideas an activist in the organisation WOMEN’S SOLIDARITY. So some reacted: Faiza, you are an activist, and what are you doing talking about producing a play. Perhaps you really want to make some kind of street demonstration – is that it?

Another reaction was to remind me that the book was about female sexuality and was not really good material for entertainment. “A seminar would be better,” they said. One week before the performance, one well-known feminist figure that was a person who followed the arts reminded me: “Faiza, this is art, you know, not just a pamphlet.”

Of course, these kinds of comments did not lessen our commitment to produce the play. We reread the novel, organised discussions with both feminist activists as well as writers, with people in the theatre arts. We bought up all the copies of the book to make sure that everyone involved read the book; we organised the rehearsals and other activities.

About 5,000 people came to see the play over three nights. There were even demonstrations by hundreds of people protesting that they could not get seats and demanding extra performances. The performances achieved record audiences for Indonesia since Rendra’s plays on the 1970s. It attracted a great deal of public attention and was discussed in all the media. TEMPO magazine, the major weekly socio-political magazine in Indonesia, conducted an exclusive interview with Nawal El Saadawi in Egypt to coincide with the performance. Nawal herself wrote a letter of support to us in Indonesia.

What was the real “appeal” or “Strength” of the production of WOMEN AT POINT ZERO? The novel is a story of the politics of sexuality, about women in Egypt. In her Novel, Nawal confronts the reader with the cased of a woman who fulfils three roles at once: as a domestic servant to her husband, as (unpaid) prostitute and as a (honored?) wife. The novel takes us deep into the issues of women’s sexuality as well as analyses the social order that turns women into second-class persons. Women’s sexuality in Indonesia is still a taboo subject; repressed, just as in Egypt. Nawal’s novel is based on a true story.

For two weeks before and two weeks after the performance there was intense discussion of “women’s sexuality” and “women and art” in both the media and on the email lists. Of course, this burst of discussion is not enough. Issues surrounding female sexuality remain and there is still much debate about women and art. The discussion has not stopped. It is clear then that art can indeed have a role in raising issues of social justice and other such issues in society. OF COURSE IT MUST.

I think that anybody who decides to use art, whether theatre, film or text and literature, as a medium for consciousness rising, they will be aware that they face the issue that they are using ART. But what ART means can depend on the background of the person creating the work and what their purpose is. There will be those that say that art is for art’s sake . . .

When in the middle of producing of WOMEN AT POINT ZERO, the thing in my head was that this novel was very important, very important in influencing my thinking about women, for the progress of women. The question was how to get its ideas to the widest possible public. That is where the idea of a performance came from. And the performance must have a “selling point”. What kind of selling point? There was of course the story itself (with its messages, reflections, ideas), as well as its artistic beauty. But I also decided to collaborate with some high-profile women actresses, theatre artists and activists. So we wanted to make it a performance with a message as well as with artistic appeal. This was “art that would not just be a pamphlet … we hoped …”

In this approach, I was trying to combine elements from the three categories that I mentioned earlier. There were activists from the women’s rights movement, professional artistic people such as the director, the lead actresses (two well known TV and movie actresses), professional musicians as well as actors from the “marginal” art groups involved in street theatre and “idealist” artists in the various artistic communities.

Before we began rehearsals, we organised a “women’s retreat” for more intense discussions of issues relate to “women’s sexuality”, especially involving the activists and some actors. This was followed by more discussions of the novel with women’s organizations, writers and other artists. This program, alongside intensive rehearsals, continued over four months.

Our publicity strategy was multi-pronged. We lobbied the electronic and print media to get them to discuss the performance. So we had discussion on TV and radio, articles, interviews with the actors and cultural figures during the one-month before the performance and for one week afterwards. “Women at Point Zero” became a household word and was the top story in the women’s and cultural columns. Using theatre to get a message out meant using the publicity and discussion generated by the theatre and not just the performance on stage itself.

It was a very educational experience for the activists also. Activists usually dwelt in the world of street protest and meetings and seminars and working with victims and lobbying government officials. They had to learn a new discipline required by the world of the stage.

Funding was also a big issue for this big project involving around 100 people. We used up a budget of about 400 million rupiah (60,000 Australian dollars). Everybody accepted very low honorariums so that most costs were for production. We raised the money from donor organizations, some friendly businesses and through contra deals with publishers. We performed the play in one of the main theatres in Jakarta.

The experience of “Women at Point Zero” showed that political and social activism and art could work very well together. They support and befriend each other.

Artistic groups keep appearing accompanying the struggles for justice and resistance against oppression wherever it develops. In society there is also constant evaluation of this art. There are always comments like that from my friend: “this is art, you know … not a pamphlet.”

For me, art is a pamphlet, which is beauty…, pamphlet of ideas, pamphlets which take sides … Art accompanies us in our efforts to reach a goal.

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