• Aanisa Vylet in The Girl. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
An Arab-Muslim woman’s quest to get to know a boy, depicted in an interactive stage performance, asks some weighty questions about women’s sexuality and autonomy.
By
Amal Awad

6 May 2016 - 8:52 AM  UPDATED 6 May 2016 - 8:52 AM

With a tagline that reads, “A comedy about a young Arab Muslim girl discovering her sexuality in 2016”, it would be easy to consign The Girl to the ‘sensational’ and ‘serious’ baskets without further investigation. But the play, the work of actress and writer Aanisa Vylet (a pseudonym), is an interactive performance that, with a light hand, considers weighty sexual issues confronting women of all backgrounds.

“The issues that I talk about [include] having a really unhealthy relationship to your body. Because I developed a really unhealthy relationship to my body both in a strict, religious construct, and in an embracing-my-sexuality-Sex-In-The-City construct,” says Vylet.

“A lot of young women can’t speak to their parents, to their sisters, to their friends, about such things, out of shame. So where do we end this period of silence?”

The play, structured so that the audience creates the narrative with the performers in the space, sees Vylet joined by performer Brigitta Brown, who creates the vocal work in the show. It’s heavily improvised, but Vylet cautions that the play doesn’t offer answers – it simply explores and ask questions, among them: “What happened to the girl?”

“What’s happening to women in this day and age?” says the 29-year old performer, who has played the show – in a slightly different incarnation – to favourable reviews at fringe festivals in Adelaide and Perth.

While women’s bodies and sexual behaviour are never far from the scrutiny of the communities surrounding them, it’s a bold, sexually defiant world that Vylet is exploring in The Girl. And while her story is, she believes, one that many women will relate to, her own experience as a woman from an ethnic and religious background lends the play a depth that extends beyond a shallow dissection of how women discover their sexuality.

“I feel like what’s happening [now], and what’s been happening across the board, is that young women are not being encouraged to be themselves, in their own beauty, in their own light, in their own weirdness,” says Vylet. “They’re being encouraged to be something else – whether it is to be timid, or obedient, or over-confident. [This play is] about being yourself.”

Semi-autobiographical, the play centres on an Arab woman – brought up to be a people-pleaser, who prays, and is timid and polite. She’s the type, Vylet quips, who thinks that if a guy just looks at her, he wants something sexual from her. “She’s almost neurotic.”

"...young women are not being encouraged to be themselves, in their own beauty, in their own light, in their own weirdness.”

The girl’s world “breaks” when she falls in love with someone in the audience at the theatre show – in an echo of Vylet’s real life, where she admits to a ‘love at first sight’ moment at the theatre when she was 20.

“I saw a guy in the audience of a theatre show and I thought, ‘Oh God, there are feelings here I don’t understand’.”

Feeling lots of confusing emotions, The Girl tries to get on with daily life – until the emotions start to feel “real”. Having been told not to speak to boys her whole life, she has no idea how to talk to one. So The Girl does what any self-respecting young woman would do – she consults the internet.

It does not go well. But how it plays out on the night also depends on who Vylet “falls in love” with from the audience.

“That’s the fun of it, because I play with what he gives me as well. And in Adelaide we also experimented with it being a woman – she falls in love with a woman. She made me work really hard. For me there’s no difference … if you fall in love with someone, you fall in love.”

While Vylet says the show is light fun, it explores issues that can be quite dark and confronting for young women. The notion of confidence for a woman is at the heart of The Girl – in particular, what it’s supposed to look like.

"Most of these blogs are teaching young women to emulate celebrities, and in fact magazines do the same thing. Because women like Beyonce are seen as the ultimate woman. And especially if you’re from an ethnic background, she’s a person of colour.”

“You go online. You look up how to be more confident. Most of these blogs are teaching young women to emulate celebrities, and in fact magazines do the same thing. Because women like Beyonce are seen as the ultimate woman. And especially if you’re from an ethnic background, she’s a person of colour.”

This obsession with public confidence prompts The Girl into a new state of being: she transforms into Beyonce, and once again, it gets her into trouble.

Vylet doesn’t emphasise the religious influence, though it is certainly present in her show. The Girl considers the sexualisation of women and for Vylet, the middle ground is non-existent: young women trying to explore their sexuality today are at war between the shame that comes with being naturally sexual, and the pressure to be an overly-confident vixen in the bedroom.

“I’ve taught a lot of young women from different cultural backgrounds. I’ve spoken to women who are between 30 to 50 years old, who have come and seen this play and they’ve all just gone, ‘Wow, that’s what I experienced; I felt with you. They were very responsive,” Vylet says.

“For me the motivation is to exorcise the shame that we have around telling stories to do with women’s sexuality.”

The Girl is playing as part of the Site & Sound Festival on May 27, 2016 at Leichhardt Town Hall in Sydney.

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