Sisters opens with a traditional English living room scene; a chintzy floral sofa, a worn, enveloping armchair and the blaring tones of the television. This could be any suburban front room, until we see an array of framed photos suspended from the ceiling; all depicting Muslim women in their traditional hijab clothing.
A young Pakistani woman enters, Lena Kaur, introducing herself as Meena and shaking hands with audience members. Four other women sit casually on the sofa, and in the course of the evening, the five cast members each deftly play a number of characters, neatly differentiated by minimal costume changes, like the addition of sunglasses, a hooded top or a jilbab.
Stephanie Street’s play is based entirely on transcripts from interviews with Muslim women across the UK. Local references such as Meadowhall’s derogatory nickname “Meadowhell” help bring the play’s issues home for the Sheffield audience.
Material from dozens of interviews could have made for stultified viewing, but the narrative structure of this verbatim play has been carefully handled by Street. Sisters seamlessly flows from issues such as “Being a wife” to “Being a Patriot” through the intermittent recital from a junk-mail pamphlet, entitled “Muslim Woman”, which has dropped through the letterbox.
Audio excerpts of news bulletins relating to 9/11 and the London bombings are heard throughout the play, contrasting with the emphasis each character makes to the idea that the way they live their life is “their Islam”; highlighting that extremism is by no means majority belief.
The seventeen female characters’ experiences range from humorously bizarre Kumar-esque family banter and bickering to heartbreaking recollections of forced arranged marriages, physical abuse and lack of integration between British and Asian communities; mostly through misunderstanding.
Ex-Hollyoaks and Coronation Street actresses Denise Black and Lena Kaur deliver powerful soliloquies demonstrating the sometimes devastating clashes of West and East culture. Kaur’s character Farida, a lesbian, recalls the bitter resentment of her family regarding her sexuality, and Black’s portrayal of the Muslim Mother refusing to accept that her son died through alcoholism, instead justifying it as “sudden death syndrome.” The women refer to these poisonous influences on their culture as “Western Diseases”.
The warm hospitality of Muslim families is suggested through the distribution of Halal snacks during the performance; Asian Onion Bahjis, Samosas and Sweets are contrasted yet complemented by typically English Jam Tarts.
Male theatre-goers may be put off by the seemingly feminist overtones of Sisters. The Islamic belief of women as powerful beings is strongly enforced through references such as the Arabic “Paradise lies under the feet of your Mother”, but such statements are paralleled by positive descriptions of the “quintessential Muslim male” having “strong sexual potency.”
Sisters opens up the female Muslim world to us in a conversational, personal tone, as opposed to the political jargon that much of the media’s coverage of Muslim issues is swamped beneath. The audience left Sisters with food for thought long after the distributed doggy-bags of samosas have been devoured.
- Ruth Kilner