FRANCE or, The Niqab (Old Pirate) 2012 SummerWorks Review

In case you’ve been living under a rock: there’s a play being staged at SummerWorks called FRANCE or, The Niqab, which tells the tale of two headstrong women caught up in a legal struggle concerning this controversial religious clothing. In coming to terms with their differences – and their many similarities – these two go head to head on more than just hemlines, providing their audience with comedy and conversation-starters in equal measure.

FRANCE or, The Niqab is about complicated, emotionally-charged ideas as much as it is about its characters – it demands a simple, straightforward plot. Niqabs are subject to a particularly contentious illegality in France; Samira (Beatriz Yuste) wears a niqab, gets in trouble for it; she approaches Tabatha (Charlotte Cowdy) – a defense lawyer who redefines what it means to be well-heeled –  with an unusual plan of action.

Tabatha is an open-minded woman, and in taking Samira up on her offer, eventually lands herself in a niqab of her own (with a couple matchy-matchy Western additions). Her experiences as a Western woman behind the veil are what this play is all about, and ultimately what make it worth watching.

It is impossible to give the niqab serious discussion without discussing the role of women in society. What does it mean for a woman to be free? To have dignity? To be constrained?  Playwright Sean Dixon, a man, and presumably a non-Muslim one, masterfully – and carefully – gives these questions new life and fresh perspectives through his characters.

While the play strives to humanize the niqab and the women who wear it, it avoids weighing in too forcefully on the debate surrounding its legality. This absence of polemic is rare and wonderfully welcome – and it raises the thorniest aspect of tackling this cultural issue.

Over the past decade, non-Muslim men have done an awful lot of talking about Muslims, and the results have usually been bad – a recent example being the horrifying niqab/LCBO stunt staged by the equally horrifying Sun News Network.

These events contribute to the feeling, when we discuss Islam, that the people who actually practice it have been skirted to the sidelines and are now just being shouted over, like so many children at the dinner table. And so whenever non-Muslims speak for this member of our national community – even when it’s with benevolence – it’s hard not to cringe in anticipation of a thoughtless rebuttal from the other side, or wonder when the day will come when Canadians of any creed can speak for themselves.

Thankfully, FRANCE or, The Niqab shies away from speaking too much for its Muslim character. But with less and less to say as the play progresses, she fades into the background, and slips behind yet another veil.

This is no reason to discount the play: if we’re to move toward a more humane discussion of religion – any religion – in society, we must first ensure that the irrational fears that cloud our conversations are cured. FRANCE or, The Niqab is an entertaining, admirable step in this very noble direction.