Dr Fahid Qurashi reviews the play ‘Cuts of the Cloth’, which is a poignant and disturbing portrayal of a Muslim woman caught in the net of the ‘war on terror’.
In August 2016 four male French police officers in Nice stood over a Muslim woman who was lying alone on a beach wearing a burkini and ordered her to remove the piece of clothing. She was then fined for not ‘wearing an outfit respecting good morals and secularism’.
More recently, Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police and head of Counter-terrorism, Mark Rowley, suggested that the children of ‘extremists’ should be separated from their parents. In fact, since at least 2015 numerous children (some as young as two years old) have been the subject of family court orders over fears of ‘radicalisation’ and separated from their parents by being made wards of court or placed into foster care following an interim care order.
These aspects of the ‘war on terror’ have recently been the subject of a new play, entitled Cuts of the Cloth, produced by Outside the Frame Arts Collective (OTFA) which had its first showing at [email protected] in Oldham.
Written and played by OTFA co-director Hafsah Aneela Bashir, directed by OTFA co-director Nikki Mailer, with live music by Sarah Yaseen, the play explores the place of ‘Muslim women and their relationship with the cloth in a society obsessed with policing the female body’.
Cuts of the Cloth revolves around one nameless Muslim woman. She is Exhibit 162001 ‘London Muslim Woman: a successful participant of the Global Government Muslim Realignment Programme’, in the Global Hearts and Minds Living Museum. The audience walks in, past a sign that describes the exhibit (see fig. 1), to see ‘London Muslim Woman’. The exhibits in the museum allow the audience to engage with ‘indigenous people of the Old World Order in their natural state’. Under the occasional gaze of a guard, the ‘London Muslim Woman’ is contained within a space, along with Islamic artefacts such as a prayer mat that is cordoned off by colourful scarves. As the audience enters and settles they observe her using water from a bowl to perform wudhu so that her audience can see how Muslims used to wash themselves before praying.
‘London Muslim Woman’ begins by welcoming her audience by speaking into the microphone in a loud official tone (see fig. 3). Using some of the scarves around her, she proudly tells the story of how the Global Government introduced the enlightened Realignment programme to show Muslims the ‘right’ way to live and integrate into society. As part of this realignment, the hijab was banned by the Global Health and Communication regulations in the interests of modernity and for the freedom of Muslim women. The global eradication of religious attire allowed for ‘good’ morals and freedom to prevail and empowered women to take on a central role in the fight against terrorism in their own communities.
‘Look, I know this isn’t what you came to hear but…’
However, despite the outward signs of pride and comfort she is a prisoner on the platform. She has been weaponised by the Global Government and turned in on herself. Whenever she notices that her guard is not paying attention she uses the few minutes to escape from the microphone and speak candidly with her audience. In these moments when her ‘real self’ is fighting to breathe and survive, she tells her audience, in small tense moments interchanged with the official story as the guard comes and goes, her real story about what it was like to be a Muslim.
A former school teacher, she was dismissed – without the right to attend, have representation, or appeal the decision of the disciplinary commission – after she facilitated a classroom discussion with her students about a news story of the razing of a 2,000 year old temple in Syria. Some of her students disappeared soon after. Then, her husband, Abdul Lateef, was arrested by IRIS after he was caught conducting research on similar cases of dismissal for her defence. Being branded the ‘wife of a terrorist’ led to isolation in her community, being spat at on the streets, and interrogated about her views on ISIS by a GP as she sought medical support for her anxiety. Next, IRIS raided her home at 3am and ‘saved’ her children from their mother’s rebellious nature. The school teachers noticed that the children always asked too many questions and believed they were being ‘radicalised’ by the mother at home.
She could no longer remember how old her children were and lost track of time. When did she last see Abdul Lateef? Do her children still remember her? Will they forget her as they grow older? IRIS exploits these fears with promises of help in exchange for the ‘names of those growing beards, wearing scarves, praying more, learning more.’
When the guard notices that she is away from her platform, pictures of her children are flashed onto the screens to get her back to work, and she returns to the microphone and manically starts to recite her script, all the while pleading for mercy from her captors.
Tragically, because so much time has passed since she last saw her children, she can’t even be certain that the images which are flashed onto the screens are of her children or whether she is being tricked by IRIS.
Through small moments, when the ‘real self’ of the character comes to the fore the play touches on a whole range of themes which add depth to the story of being Muslim in the west: experiences of racism and Islamophobia; racial profiling; children separated from parents; mental health in the ‘war on terror’; integration debates; surveillance; and victim blaming. The writer clearly understands the intricate details of the Muslim experience in the west, of the desperate attempts to be treated humanely, and the deep rooted fears and anxieties of Muslims. Nothing feels out of place or exaggerated, and the authenticity makes it very easy to invest in the character and go on a journey with her through a whole cycle of emotions.
If anything, the authenticity of the story is undermined by being situated decades into the future. Much like the commonplace refrain to George Orwell’s 1984 which suggest a need for vigilance lest we slide into a surveillance society, one way to read this play is as a warning of what awaits Muslims on the current trajectory of the ‘war on terror’. Yet the reality is that much of the story about the experiences of Muslims in the ‘war on terror’ at the hands of IRIS could have been lifted directly from real life cases.
For instance, the arrest of Abdul Lateef for researching his wife’s case mirrors the case of Dr Rizwaan Sabir, who was arrested and placed into solitary confinement as a postgraduate student in 2008 whilst researching terrorist tactics for his Masters dissertation. It also mirrors the case of Umm Ahmed, who was sentenced to a 12 month prison term for a terrorism offence in 2012. She was researching her brother’s terrorism conviction and was found to be in possession of terrorist literature. The judge in her case acknowledged that she had gathered the documents to understand the charges which her brothers faced, rather than to commit an act of terrorism.
‘When I lost my job…’
‘I remember them [children] screaming when they were taken away’.
‘He’s [Abdul Lateef] innocent. When they took him away I tried to tell them that.’
The story is centred around loss. ‘London Muslim Woman’ loses her job, her children, and her husband. But it is also a story about the Muslim sense of a loss of control over life, over material belongings (symbolised by her hijab being taken from her on several occasions), and about the loss of millions of Muslim lives in the ‘war on terror’ which are either destroyed or broken and cannot be returned or rebuilt – all as a direct result of Islamophobia. This is vividly illustrated in the play as she reads a list of the death toll in the ‘war on terror’ across numerous Muslim countries. At the same time it is also a story about the loss of the west and its values (certainly in the image it projects of itself as an enlightened civilization) as it turns into a veritable monster. The story captures the Janus face of the west: its self-projection vs. its oppressive reality. In doing so, the story is forcing the western audience to confront the underbelly of their seemingly moral civilization.
There were moments in the play when some of the language used to characterise Muslims was problematic as it reflected an internalisation of dominant characterisations of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Muslims in the ‘war on terror’, which undermined attempts to undo its dehumanising tendencies.
‘Strip the clothes back and were all sisters and brothers
Cut from the same cloth, soaked in different dyes
We could connect on many levels if we eradicate the lies’
The main message of the play is captured in these lyrics and they are also the basis for the play’s title. As a retort to IRIS and the ‘war on terror’ ‘London Muslim Woman’ appeals to liberal notions of universal humanity. However, how useful are such appeals? Whilst narratives of universal humanity are important, they are often deployed in racialised contexts, such as the ‘war on terror’, to dismiss and hide dimensions of race and Islamophobia which shape the life experiences and outcomes for Black Asian Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities. To talk about ‘being human’ in a racialised context often functions to encourage BAME communities to focus on the universal (white) experience of life and demands that they do not raise uncomfortable issues of race and Islamophobia. To talk about ‘being human’ with BAME communities is to tell them to ignore race and religion, and be more like, and think more like, everyone else. The problem of course is that in racialised contexts BAME communities cannot escape their race and religion – they are reminded about it at each turn. More important than appealing to liberal notions of universal humanity, which in any case are difficult for the machinery of the ‘war on terror’ to grasp given the thoroughness of its deliberate dehumanising efforts, is the need to reflect on and change the nature of counter-terrorism practice.
Cuts of the Cloth is a poignant but disturbing portrayal of one of the most pressing issues of our time. A must see.
Dr Fahid Qurashi is a lecturer in Sociology at Staffordshire University. He has a PhD in Sociology from the University of Kent and researches and publishes in the areas of political Islam, counter-terrorism, radicalisation, race and Islamophobia.