Pakistan: Madeeha Gauhar

By starting Ajoka Theatre during the strictest period of martial law, Madeeha Gauhar created an outlet for human rights activism at a time when other avenues had been blocked.

— Madeeha Gauhar

If alternative theater is today a vibrant form of political expression in Pakistan, a large share of the credit goes to Ajoka Theatre and its founder, Madeeha Gauhar, a theater director and human rights activist. Led by Gauhar for over 20 years, Ajoka has been, and continues to be, an integral part of the struggle for a secular, democratic, humane, just, and egalitarian Pakistan.

At a time when Zia-ul-Haq's regime had blocked all avenues for political expression in Pakistan, Madeeha Gauhar decided to start an alternative theater group, Ajoka Theatre, which was born in 1983. The group began modestly operating out of the homes of its members, using money raised from personal contributions and donations by activist supporters and audiences. Soon, it built up a reputation for taking up bold and topical themes, including the eroding rights of women, the plight of bonded labor, minorities facing an assault on their rights, and religious intolerance, which had been given official patronage. With censorship in force, Madeeha and her band lived with the fear of arrest, and worse. Madeeha had to quit as lecturer at a girl's college because her theater activism was intolerable to the regime. She was also briefly jailed for demonstrating, along with other women activists, against a proposed discriminatory Law of Evidence. Ajoka has become one of Pakistan's foremost theater groups. The group has over 40 original plays and adaptations to its credit, uses prosceniums to street theater, and regularly holds theater training workshops for community groups and cultural activists all over Pakistan. Although political conditions have changed since Madeeha started her work, discrimination and intolerance have hardly faded into history. She is using theater to promote peace between Pakistan and India: Ajoka has participated in cultural exchanges between the two countries. In March 2004, Ajoka Theatre organized the first-ever India-Pakistan Women's Theater Festival in its homebase, Lahore. Ajoka still has to deal with attempts to censor its productions, and its director has been harassed by orthodox groups that have filed cases against her for defaming Pakistan and/or Islam.

Ajoka Theatre