Joyce McMillan: Tackling the taboo of domestic abuse in theatre

A scene from If I Had A Girl, main; Manjot Sumac and Louise Taggerty in the play, which is based on the accounts of women in Glasgow's Asian community who have suffered domestic abuse. Picture: Nathan Vedder
A scene from If I Had A Girl, main; Manjot Sumac and Louise Taggerty in the play, which is based on the accounts of women in Glasgow's Asian community who have suffered domestic abuse. Picture: Nathan Vedder
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Women’s rights campaigner Mariem Omari is using the power of storytelling to explore domestic abuse within Scotland’s Asian community

It begins in the foyer of the Citizens’ Theatre, with something like a wedding party. A drum beats; a beautiful woman with elaborately painted hands and a handsome young man in glowing wedding clothes move among the crowd, trying to draw the watchers into the rhythm of the dance. The drummer turns, and begins to lead us upstairs, towards the studio theatre; but when we get there, it’s not the joy of marriage that is celebrated and explored in If I Had A Girl – a new 75-minute theatre piece led by the two dancers, writer-researcher Mariem Omari and director Umar Ahmed – but the raw courage of women who have begun to speak out about the dark underside of married life in Scotland’s Asian communities, and about the domestic violence that often erupts in response to the stress of migration, cultural change, and fierce economic and social pressure.

If there’s one thing we should clearly understand about domestic violence, of course, it’s that it is not confined to any one community or class. By chance, the day I talk to Mariem Omari is also the day of the Old Firm match between Rangers and Celtic, and the police in Glasgow have been calling for fans on both sides to avoid becoming part of the shameful upsurge in domestic violence that routinely accompanies these highly-charged matches. It’s only in the last 40 years or so, since the 1970s, that the shame and silence around domestic violence has begun to break down, in western societies; and in Scotland’s Asian communities, where ideas of patriarchy and family honour still remain strong, a major shift in attitudes has only begun within the last few years.

“For me, this issue of violence against women is personal,” says Mariem Omari, who grew up in Australia in a home shadowed by the violent marriage between her Lebanese father and her Scottish-born mother, who came from Aberdeen. “When you witness these things as a child, you hold that experience in your body, for the rest of your life; and I vowed that I would never repeat that, never go down the same path.”

Omari studied drama in Australia, but after she graduated, she became increasingly interested in the healing power of storytelling, as a way of helping people to survive traumatic experience. She became involved in international humanitarian work in the war-zones of the Middle East, working with the United Nations, Care International and Medecins Sans Frontieres to help women who had experienced sexual violence in those conflicts to find their voices, and tell their stories; and after a period of burnout in 2013, she returned to the theatre, winning a playwright’s residency with La Mama of New York, and writing her own solo show about the “Arab Spring” revolutions of 2011.

“Then at that point,” says Omari, “I began to feel this great need to get to know my mother’s culture better, as I had come to know Lebanon through my work. So I looked for organisations working here on violence against women, and found Amina, the Muslim Women’s Resource Centre in Glasgow, which provides a safe meeting-place for women from Glasgow’s Asian communities. The idea for If I Had A Girl was born out of the real women’s stories I heard there; and eventually I found this wonderful group of nine women who were not only willing to talk openly about their lives, but were happy for me to use their experience, and their words, to create the four composite female characters in the play.

“I also wanted this play to go beyond something that would be useful for the community. I wanted it to be a strong, well-made piece of theatre that would communicate to people all over Scotland, and really make this issue part of Scottish life and debate; and I was really delighted when I found Umar Ahmed, who’s a very experienced actor and director, and also someone who grew up in the Glasgow Asian community, and is very passionate about creating good theatre that really reflects these vital issues.”

The result is a powerful and thoughtful piece of semi-verbatim theatre, beautifully performed by five professional actors, that explores the intense family and community pressures that both drive women into marriage, and keep them in violent partnerships. It ranges across the experience of both Muslim and Hindu women, and touches on hugely sensitive subjects like marital rape, and the domestic bullying of young women by their mothers-in-law; and it also includes a complex male character, whose thoughts and feelings were carefully researched by Omari through Safer Families in Edinburgh, and the Caledonia Project, which tries to change the lives of men with a record of domestic violence by understanding the forces that led them down that path.

“I must say I’ve been surprised by just how open people have been to this project,” says Omari. “It’s a very, very sensitive subject, particularly at a time when the Muslim community often feels under pressure, and is divided on so many issues.

“Yet so many women that I’ve met, while I’ve been working on it, have said, ‘We just can’t hide this any more.’ Next spring, we hope to take this show on tour; and we want it to go not only to the Lemon Tree and the Traverse and Eden Court in Inverness, but to small venues in the communities most affected by these issues. We’re planning that now; and so far, the response to the play has been overwhelmingly positive, with every performance sold out. It’s quite something, for me, to feel so welcome in my Mum’s homeland, and in the theatre community here; and I feel there’s much more work to be done, over the next few years.”

• If I Had A Girl will tour across Scotland in spring 2017