They are fighters from Pakistan. Both have waged a ceaseless crusade for decades in a country they cling to as home, despite threats against their lives.
If you live in any of the 12 cities they have targeted in USA, you stand a good chance to meet them.
The doctor and the dancer are amazingly alike in their crusade of social activism, aimed to create awareness in a society sickened by all the ills, which plague third world countries.
Both Sheema and Dr Shershah Syed have won recognition at home and abroad for their achievements in their respective fields as they continue their war for women’s rights, which, as Sheema says, are human rights. Under the banner of a women empowering organization, Tehrik e Niswan (the women’s movement) founded by Sheema and a group of women in 1979, she carries on a dialogue with her audience through dance and drama, seeking to end gender discrimination, prejudices and injustices on all fronts. She takes her plays into downtrodden, poverty ridden slums with an intrepid zeal, which is amazing to behold. The response she gets is worth the guts it takes.
In a country with a prejudice against dance, Sheema has continued to pass on her legacy as a performer and a teacher to her students ranging in age from six to sixty. During a visit in 2010 to Karachi, I was able to see, what in many ways was a major milestone in her journey, an entertaining, educative, week long festival of dance and drama. She had dedicated that festival to peace, disarmament and to her earliest dance Guru, Ghanshyam. Ghanshyam was there for that festival, his first visit back to Pakistan after his forced exit 27 years earlier. That exhilarating reunion of teacher and the taught was also to be the last, as Ghanshyam passed away in 2012. She had titled that festival ”tilism”, which means magic.
Magic it was. The magic of thoughts and ideas, transformed into music, dance and drama, crossing boundaries of time and space, a show reflecting a commonly shared cultural heritage that binds India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
It was during that same visit of mine that I saw a collaboration between the dancer and the doctor in a stage play “hur aurat hai anmol”, or every woman is priceless, which highlighted issues of gender discrimination, child marriages and the lack of maternal care for the poor. A lack that results in 30,000 maternal deaths each year, a shameful figure, which Shershah has sought to bring down ever since he was shocked on seeing maternal death for the first time when he returned to Pakistan in 1989 after his postgraduate study abroad.
Even more horrifying was the realization that no treatment existed in Karachi for a debilitating early marriage, childbirth related injury called Obstetric Fistula that leaves young women unable to control the passing out of their body wastes. As many as 2 million women in third world countries suffer in shamed silence from this condition, forced into isolated, miserable lives, needlessly and for no fault of their own.
Shocked but undeterred, Dr. Shershah went to Ethiopia to train at the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital to get the training needed to help such women patients. Over the years Dr Shershah has continued to expand the treatment facilities available.
Never one to mince words or refrain from voicing the truth, Shershah says:
my patient had waited for 41 years for treatment, and all it took me was just 21 minutes to give her back her dignity.
Dr.Shershah’s dream child, Koohi Goth Hospital, a center for obstetrics and gynecological care, started operating in 2004. Initially with funds from his family and friends and the UNFPA. Koohi Goth is one of the few large and well-equipped facilities in Pakistan which specialize in treating obstetric fistula. Apart from providing modern quality care around the clock to women patients totally free of cost, the hospital also fulfills Shershah’s priority to train the midwives, nurses and technicians needed to extend and ensure the care every woman patient should get regardless of her social or economic level.
As Dr. Shershah explains,
Every day some 250 women come to the hospital in OPD (out patient department). Whichever woman needs surgical intervention gets surgery without any cost to them.
Every year the number of patients increases. Shershah’s dream now is to expand this center for women’s diseases to a General Hospital for poor women, and cover other ailments including mental illnesses which is still a hush-hush subject.
Another goal is to increase the number of beds, from 130 to 250. Funds raised at various levels keep this one of a kind visionary hospital going, which is what has brought Sheema and her loyal troupe along with Shershah on this first ever fundraising multi city tour in USA. If you get to dance as it were, with these two fighters from Pakistan, count yourself lucky.
These two are both one of a rare kind, who have taken on the responsibility on their own selves to do what has to be done, fighting for what is just, right and required-regardless.
The fundraising tour has already made it to Washington DC, Atlanta, and Orlando. The events in the various US cities include dinner and traditional Pakistani dance. Upcoming cities include: New York City, Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, Dallas, Houston, Austin, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Fremont. Don’t miss it!
Learn more about obstetric fistula at endfistula.org.