In France, it's illegal for a woman to wear a niqab (a cloth that covers the head, leaving only the eyes visible, worn by some Muslim women) in public; in Canada, women wearing a niqab are not allowed to take the oath of citizenship.
Globe and Mail writer Tabatha Southey satirized the two ridiculous rules in a 2011 column titled Minister Kenney, Can I Become A Citizen In These Shoes?, which inspired Sean Dixon's sharp-edged comedy France, Or The Niqab.
"Before I read the article, I saw a political cartoon in which a woman in a bikini and a woman in a niqab pointed accusingly at each other. What I liked about Southey's article," which Dixon has adapted for the play's last scene, "was that she didn't present oppositional figures, but rather a powerful feminist alliance, imaginative and inclusive."
In Dixon's play, set in France, a Muslim woman named Samira receives several police fines for driving while wearing a niqab; she takes the case to Tabatha, a high-profile, high-heel-wearing lawyer, for advice. To understand Samira's situation, Tabatha spends a day wearing a niqab and meets the mysterious man who pays fines for women charged for their illegal public dress.
"Tabatha was happy to let me write a play that drew on the article," says Dixon, whose previous plays include The Painting and Billy Nothin'. "Like the play's Tabatha, she grew up wearing high heels and pencil skirts and didn't care what others thought about her wardrobe choices.
"My character is brash, unapologetic and physical," he continues. "Our director, Tanja Jacobs, says this Tabatha is confident in every situation, even though she may not have the perfect grasp of what's going on. Here she stumbles over and over into more complicated scenarios than she expects. That's part of the play's comedy."
Samira, on the other hand, isn't the oppressed, downtrodden woman that Tabatha at first imagines. She understands what Tabatha is about and sends her up incisively.
Dixon tackles the archetypal nature of the two women as well as their differences and similarities by using laughter.
"Comedy allows you to take energetic risks with touchy subjects," he says. "Your characters can be outrageous, make mistakes and be offensive."
France, Or The Niqab opens tonight (Thursday, August 9) at Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace.