by Carole Di Tosti


What is the price one pays for freedom in a country where women are oppressed and under the servitude of men? In a trenchant and powerful work by Shahid Nadeem, translated from Urdu by Tahira Naqvi and directed by Noelle Ghoussaini, Acquittal reveals the answer toward the end of the play. It is then we understand that freedom from oppression is worth fighting for and for some women who have no other means, death is a welcome respite from abuse, terror, torture and familial incarceration in a paternalistic Pakistani culture.


At the outset of the play, which takes place in the 1980s, we meet Zahida Zaman (Aizzah Fatimah’s passion and strength gathers out trust and interest from the outset), an educated, renowned activist who has been jailed because she leads others to protest Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq’s Islamization and militarization of their country.


Zia, who was the president of Pakistan from 1978-1988 suspended political parties, banned labor strikes, imposed censorship on the press and declared martial law. His Hudood Ordinances were created to uphold paternalism and demean women to make them even more powerless than they had been previously. The ordinances promulgated a rape culture in Pakistan. To prosecute against rape, the woman was first considered guilty. To prove her innocence, she needed four male witnesses who would attest to her virtue.


We only learn of these injustices as Zahida Zaman becomes acquainted with her three prison mates, discovers why each of them has been incarcerated and together they sustain the horrific conditions of their imprisonment (no inside toilet, no showers, lice, etc.).



From the moment Zahida Zaman enters the cell and protests conditions and their treatment of her to the guards, up to the time when she leaves, we are struck by her determination, her intelligence, her bravery and her strength. She is willing to stand up to her bullying oppressors because her education and  knowledge of the law has lifted her from the bottom rung of the ladder where Zia and the other paternalists in the government would keep her in dispossession of her rights as a powerless creature.


We understand the extent of their demoralization as Zahida gradually breaks the silence of all the women and they speak with her. Their interactions are touching and we empathize greatly with their plight that manifests a representative avenue of oppression for women of every class and status in Pakistan. Jannat Bibi (Shetal Shah gives a quiescent, nuanced portrayal as the heart-broken mother) has been jailed because of her son’s theft. Because he cannot be caught, his older mother is being held accountable for his actions. She remains passive in prison, accepting his punishment and covering for the irresponsibility of her spoiled son.


Marium (Salma Shaw is profound as the innocent rape victim who was a temple dancer) has been gang raped. There is no man who will admit to witnessing the act. Nevertheless, there is new life in her body and she is accepting that she must be punished. She is willing to raise her child hoping to forget and forgive the trauma of the gang rape.


The most stirring story is that of Jamila (Gulshan Mia is vibrant, assertive, determined and defiant in an exceptional portrayal) who is willing to risk death to set herself free from her husband and his daughter. When Jamila attempts to gain a boyfriend and run away, she has violated the laws of divorce (it was not included in her arranged marriage contract). When she is captured and brought back to her husband, he and the daughter beat her bloody and tie her to the bed for fifteen days. She retaliates against them.


What happens to each of the women by the play’s conclusion is poignant and realistically drawn. The theme of the power of education to deliver freedom to uphold the preciousness of human rights is masterfully elucidated. The production engenders our reverence for those in the global Women’s Rights Movement, who are willing to sacrifice themselves in a cause which can only benefit future generations of women.


The minimalistic set design, lighting and music are evocative, solidly thought out and functional. The ensemble is beautifully shepherded by the director. They turn in outstanding performances. This is a riveting, uplifting production that is not to be missed.



Acquittal. Through June 25 at Studio Theatre, Theatre Row (410 West 42nd Street, between Ninth Avenue and Dyer). No intermission.



Photos: Courtesy of Pan Asian Rep