The captain of the British Muslim women's football team, an intersex waiting for the operation that will reassign her gender, and a daughter driven to contemplate knifing her belligerent father.
These are just some of the characters in Stephanie Street's engaging new play, Sisters. If representatives of all Muslim sisterhood seem to be gathered together in the home of the Khan family that's a tribute to the 43 Muslim women whom Street interviewed in Sheffield and to the deft way in which she collates her verbatim material into 17 contrasting characters played by just five actors.
Ruth Carney's simple production makes good use of the newly refurbished Studio's intimate configuration. Dozens of photos of Muslim women are suspended from the roof and the message is clear: "These women may be framed and silent but they have voices and opinions". The Khans' front room is typically working-class – you don't actually see the flocked wallpaper but you know it's there. The samosas, and later jam tarts, that are handed round the audience may be an awkward way of welcoming outsiders to the family's Sunday get-together but it also typifies a willingness to reach out to fellow sisters. Lifting the veil on a closed world of cultural customs and family traditions is a tricky business and Street, who also plays three roles, has left in the hesitations, occasional reluctance and often burning passion of the women whose stories and opinions we hear.
Sisters is loosely inspired by the 7 July London bombings and the reactions of Muslim women, in response to society's increasingly suspicious attitudes towards them. Street is bold in her representation of the divided feelings and often shocking experiences and treatment of Muslim women. The ensemble cast responds with an array of complex, colourful characters.
Issues such as the wearing of a head-covering are debated with the help of voices from the television in which President Sarkozy's decision to ban the veil in France and Jack Straw's opinion on the niqab fuel the often heated discussion. The constant threat of violence towards women within their own families, the problems of closet alcoholism, the ingrained loathing of gay women (and men), the challenges of mixed-race marriage, and the way that the Koran is open to varied interpretation are sensitively explored. A drop of leaflets entitled "Discover Islam – the Muslim Woman" gives Street the slightly stilted opportunity to have passages read aloud decrying the rights of Muslim women to go out to work. The same verses reveal the elevated status Islam confers on mothers.
Mrs Khan (Denise Black), locally born and married to a British Pakistani, is the beating heart of the family, surviving many struggles and the heartbreak of the loss of her only son. Of the three daughters whom we meet, we glimpse the diversity within one family in the secularised, the liberated and the firm traditionalist. As the women slip into other identities, they present the gay woman abducted and forced into marriage by her relatives, the middle-class and working Caucasian Sufi, the religious scholar and a trio of young women juggling the freedom of student life with the strict demands of a family.
It's not the first time Sheffield Theatres has drawn on the lives of Muslim women in the city. In 2006, the company worked with groups of Pakistani, Yemeni and Somalian women and young people to research Handful of Henna, resulting in a fascinating play by Rani Moorthy, now revived and currently touring the country. More of this sort of work, please, to help us understand each other better.
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