It’s no big secret that men have a centuries-old history of being fearful and insecure, so it’s also no big coincidence that it’s the men who’ve been writing the rule books on religion all this time, especially when it comes to the conduct and role of women in society.
Our newly-adapted version of Tartuffe cleverly looks at this with its very own #metoo moment. We were in the throes of discussion about religion and offence in the first week of rehearsals when the wonderful Jim Clyde, who plays Khalil, shared this phrase which he'd learnt from a Sufi: Always beware the stench of holiness and righteous piety. It resonated on so many levels. It defines the play’s central theme, which looks at how religion is used for power and control.
My immediate thoughts went back to my time in a former life when I was working on a Channel 4 documentary series called Lahore Law. My job was to set up and research legal cases to be filmed and I learnt about all the clauses within Islamic Shariah law (administered and interpreted by men) with regards to a woman’s rape, which can only be proved if there were four male witnesses present at the time. I learnt very quickly that women were regarded as nothing more than a commodity and in this way the law is complicit in the cultural sexualisation and control of them. Don’t get me wrong… I’m not really having a pop at Islam – I’m having a pop at religion. And yes, religion, which Karl Marx defines as ‘the opium of the people’. But also most religions of the book, such as the Catholic Church, often have similar stories of abuse in the press. Staunch strict orthodox religious cultures which inevitably generate all kinds of disturbing aberrations within their own communities.
And yes, it is all very serious, but what better way to address such matters than through Richard Pinto’s and Anil Gupta’s brilliant comedy Tartuffe adaptation? And what I love most about the play is that it is the women who rule the roost - from my Dadimaa the matriarch, to Michelle Bonnard’s Darina, the more-than-dependable cleaner, Sasha Behar’s frustrated but brave Amira who represents the Asian everywoman wife, and Zainab Hasan’s Mariam, the feisty dutiful daughter.
I’m writing this particular blog from a lovely sleepy little coastal village called St Dogmaels in windy West Wales. And here’s the thing - in my primary school years in Cambridge, my mother brought me up as a muslim to read the Koran in old Arabic. At night, just before going to sleep, I recited my prayers to her in the same old Classical Arabic. In these years I went to Pakistan to visit the family in Lahore. I often found myself on the flat rooftop of my grandfather’s house and saw all the neighbourhood boys flying tissue paper kites they had bought for a couple of rupees on a nearby street corner. Somehow I managed to get hold of one and tried flying it. But unbeknownst to me, my uncle was walking down the street and saw me. He climbed up to the roof and told my seven-year-old self that “Girls don’t fly kites – it’s not islamic,” and took the kite from me. I followed him down and asked why and he told my aunt, his dutiful wife, to explain. So again I enquired as to how flying a kite was un-islamic for girls and she mimed the action for flying a kite by holding up her arm, telling me that it wasn’t modest behaviour.
A few days later I told the same religious uncle that I didn’t believe in Allah as I couldn’t see him, and he lost his temper. He spouted religious verses from the Koran and then went straight to my mother, very publicly humiliating and yelling at her for not bringing me up properly. This uncle of mine was a teacher and he had no problem with education and learning and reading books but when it came to controlling my behaviour as a young girl he cited religion. So fast forward a few good years later to this week, I went to Poppit Sands in West Wales and took my biggest isotope kite. The sky was grey but there was a good bit of sea wind and it flew really high, and for the second that I thought about my dead uncle, I couldn’t help but smile.