In his introduction to his new play, Veils, Tom Coash cautions his audience: “This is a fictional story and the characters are fictional.” With the uprisings in the Arab world—the “Arab Spring”— so much a part of our daily news cycle for the last three years, at first it may indeed be difficult for an audience to separate the events of the play from recent events in the Arab world, this distinction is at the crux of the import of this play.
Visiting African American student, Intisar, and her native Egyptian roommate, Samar, are both Muslim, but have different feelings about the Muslim practice of veiling. Intisar sees this practice as a beautiful and necessary expression of her faith. For Samar, living in an often-oppressive nation, it is essential that she have the freedom not to wear the veil.
While the story is fictional, the struggles faced by Intisar and Samar are those faced every day by women in Egypt – and in Inti’s case, right here in the US. The truth we derive from the story of these women is crucial to our role as informed citizens and compassionate human-beings.
If you are reading this, you are a person of privilege. Whether you have been a citizen of the United States for your entire life, or you actively chose to become a part of American society, you are privileged because you have choices. For many in our society it would be difficult to grasp the concept of having no control over what you wear, or indeed of being forced to wear something despite your beliefs. Perhaps you wear a veil or religious garment daily—perhaps you vehemently do not. Whatever your beliefs it is thankfully quite unlikely that you will be forced to relinquish your choice by your government. As Intisar explains when she speaks of her experience on 9/11, in America it is an affront to be questioned for your clothing. As Samar discovers, in Egypt it is an inevitability.
Intisar, our American ambassador, demands that Samar has a very narrow view of the problem at hand. She confronts Samar, saying “Its just as bad to say you can’t wear something as it is to say you must wear something.” Thus, Intisar comes down on the side of many Islamic-Egyptian women, in many ways she represents a mild form of the hate Samar faces by not veiling. Despite the adversity she faces, in a quiet moment Samar articulates the core of her beliefs: “Without the niquab you must rely on yourself to be modest, you must draw the holiness from within your soul.”
At its heart, this is a story of the nature of friendship and its power to transcend all obstacles. Intisar and Samar disagree on a very basic level. They both raise relevant questions and challenge one-another’s beliefs. But ultimately this is a story of friendship. These women are paradoxical, yet they choose to work together. Intisar claims that the crux of the veiling debate is about “choice,” while Samar demands it’s about “voice.” Through their journey together, they discover that both of these things—“both sides”—are important in their fight for equality and acceptance. This is not a cautionary tale, but a raw example of human capacity to compromise. At its heart it is a story of survival with dignity—a basic human aspiration.