Oya Capelle and Nazmiye Oral in The Veiled Monologues
(© Jouk Oosterhof)
Oya Capelle and Nazmiye Oral in The Veiled Monologues
(© Jouk Oosterhof)
How different are Muslim women's attitudes towards sex and sexuality from non-Muslims? To find the answers, Dutch writer/director Adelheid Roosen -- inspired by Eve Ensler's groundbreaking The Vagina Monologues -- interviewed hundreds of women in the Netherlands who had an Islamic background. The resulting performance piece, The Veiled Monologues, currently playing at St. Ann's Warehouse (with upcoming engagements at Yale Repertory Theatre and American Repertory Theatre), often challenges our preconceptions on the subject, even if the performance itself is uneven.

Three women -- Oya Capelle, Nazmiye Oral, and Meral Polat -- tell the stories of a cross-section of Muslim women currently living in the Netherlands. The individual tales are delivered with frankness and humor, and include the voices of a virgin ashamed of her body and desires, a lesbian confident in her sexuality, and a Dutch woman who converted to Islam, among others.

One of the more compelling monologues presents a complex view on the practice of female circumcision. While the script uses the term "mutilation" by way of introducing the subject, it details an exchange of perspectives between a daughter whose father was adamant she not be circumcised, and a mother who had undergone circumcision as a ritual that initiated her into a community of women.

While religion is touched upon within the show, the women's attitudes seem shaped more by cultural tradition. The emphasis on virginity before marriage, and the lengths taken to "prove" it -- which include surgical procedures to construct a new hymen if the original has already been broken -- are surprising. For some of the women, sexual assault and rape are not counted as loss of virginity. The subject of incest is also viewed differently, as evidenced by one woman's story of how she was grateful that her brother was the one to gently deflower her prior to her arranged marriage to a man whom she feared.

Of the performers, Oral is the clear standout. She possesses a piercing gaze and phenomenal presence. Capelle has a genial demeanor, but her storytelling ability is less engaging. Polat seems the least fluent in English, and perhaps as a result, her monologues were often marked by a halting delivery and overlong pauses.

Musician Sercan Engin underscores several of the monologues, playing the Turkish saz and also singing Arabic songs at different sections of the performance. This adds greatly to the ambiance of the piece, which otherwise suffers from rather static staging. A dance performed by Oral at the show's close is also dynamic and compelling.

The diversity of perspectives within The Veiled Monologues makes clear the production's activist aim, which is to counter stereotypes that audience members may hold. The image many Westerners have of Muslim women is of repressed females dominated by a strict patriarchal culture that literally forces them to hide behind a veil. But many of these tales counter that simplistic view, showing the joys these women take in their sexuality and the freedom they have found within the confines of their religious and cultural upbringing.