Shafana and Aunt Sarrinah

by

Alana Valentine

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Shafana and Aunt Sarrinah Summary

The play opens in a science laboratory, where Shafana—a university student—is practicing a presentation about deep sea organisms. She speaks about how shrimp and other sea creatures have to constantly make sure not to incinerate themselves in geothermal vents called “black smokers.” And yet, despite this constant threat, they thrive.

As Shafana rehearses, Aunt Sarrinah enters and interrupts to make fun of her niece’s wording. Aunt Sarrinah has recently completed a PhD in engineering at the same university. She was a top engineer in Afghanistan, but after fleeing to Australia, it was difficult for her to find work without documentation proving her credentials. So, she got another PhD. Now, both Aunt Sarrinah and Shafana need to renew their university IDs, and Aunt Sarrinah wants them to go together because she’s proud of her accomplishment. Sarrinah is disappointed when Shafana refuses and suspects there’s a reason she won’t go. But Shafana simply says she’ll come to her aunt’s for dinner, at which point they can talk further.

When Aunt Sarrinah leaves, Shafana has a flashback to her early years in Australia. She and her immediate family left Afghanistan at the same time as Aunt Sarrinah’s family, but they first went to India to wait for the Australian government to let them enter. Because of her professional qualifications, Aunt Sarrinah was the first to go to Australia. Shafana also went ahead of her family, so she and Aunt Sarrinah lived together. In Shafana’s flashback, she’s embarrassed of Aunt Sarrinah’s thick accent and broken English, and she insists that Aunt Sarrinah is too good for her factory job. But Aunt Sarrinah says she’s not better than her coworkers just because she’s more educated.

In the present, Shafana comes for dinner at Aunt Sarrinah’s house. She reveals that she didn’t accompany her aunt to get new ID cards because she’s thinking about starting to wear a hijab and is still deciding whether she wants to wear one in her ID picture. Aunt Sarrinah is shocked, though she does acknowledge that wearing a hijab is a choice all Muslim women can make. Shafana has been considering this since she started contemplating her faith after the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.

Aunt Sarrinah refuses to explicitly state that she doesn’t want Shafana to wear a hijab. And yet, it’s obvious that this is how she feels, as evidenced by the many concerns she brings up—like how the decision might impact Shafana’s job prospects. She also brings up the general state of the world and the animosity people have toward Muslim women. But Shafana is undeterred—if she decides to wear a hijab, it will be because she simply feels spiritually moved to do so.

Shafana then runs out to the grocery store to get a dinner ingredient, and while she’s gone, Aunt Sarrinah briefly narrates her departure from Afghanistan. She was forced to leave her prestigious engineering job when a bomb dropped on her daughter’s school. She then has a flashback to 2002, in which Shafana shows her a school essay she’s written about a “contemporary crisis in religion.” Shafana wrote about Islam and, as a result, has been revisiting her own faith by reading the Qur’an. This makes her feel overwhelmingly content, but Aunt Sarrinah is skeptical. Shafana’s essay tries to show that violent terrorists do not represent Islam, but Aunt Sarrinah insists that this isn’t what she has been assigned to write about—Shafana should write another draft that simply summarizes the “discourse” surrounding the issue.

Back in the present, Shafana returns from the grocery store and reveals that she bought a scarf while she was out—it’s evident that Shafana really has made up her mind about wearing a hijab. Realizing this, Aunt Sarrinah brings up how Shafana’s life might change if she starts wearing a hijab. Ignorant people might harass her in public and treat her as a representative of the entire Islamic faith.

Nevertheless, Shafana still wants to wear a hijab. She tells Aunt Sarrinah about the “soft revolution,” a group of young Muslims who reject both liberal and extremist approaches to Islam. They want to use Islam to advocate for human rights and see wearing a hijab as empowering. Shafana thinks it’s possible to fuse Qur’anic ideas with the current cultural climate. But Aunt Sarrinah says there’s a difference between faith and “civil society,” even though Islam is a “fundamental” part of who Sarrinah is. But then Shafana says that Islam is all of who she is. Again, Aunt Sarrinah disapproves—people must leave room in their lives for “reason.” She doesn’t think religion is the answer to everything, and she fears Shafana’s outlook could lead to extremism and fundamentalism.

Shafana tries to get Aunt Sarrinah to say outright that she shouldn’t wear a hijab. Because Sarrinah refuses, Shafana suggests that her aunt should help her put the hijab on right now. Aunt Sarrinah avoids doing so and tells a story about how traumatic it was for her to escape the Taliban. She had to wear a chador (a Muslim religious garment covering the head and upper body) to disguise herself as her family traveled through Pakistan. But it was so hot on the crowded bus that she took it off for a moment, and an armed guard yelled at her and kicked her and her family off the bus. It was a terrifying experience.

Before Shafana leaves for the night, Aunt Sarrinah promises to stop by tomorrow before Shafana goes to get her new ID—she wants to see what her niece has decided. Once she’s alone, she has a flashback to September 12th, 2001. In the flashback, Shafana bursts into Aunt Sarrinah’s house. They frantically talk about the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, noting that newscasters keep using the term “Islamic extremists.” The more the newscasters talk about what happened, the less they seem to make a distinction between “Islamic extremists” and Muslims in general. To that end, Aunt Sarrinah has already begun to experience Islamophobia at her workplace. She’s going to go back to school and get a PhD, even though she already has one—that way, at least she’ll be able to teach. Shafana doesn’t think this is necessary, but Aunt Sarrinah tells her that everything is different after the terrorist attacks.

In the present, Aunt Sarrinah goes to visit Shafana, who is putting on a hijab. Aunt Sarrinah is upset, trying to tell her niece that she can still change her mind, but it’s clear that Shafana has made her decision. Aunt Sarrinah makes it clear that she still loves Shafana, and the tension between them lifts. And yet, Aunt Sarrinah says that now they are on different paths—they are “opponents.” They can still be close, but there’s no changing the fact that Sarrinah disapproves of Shafana’s approach to Islam. She kisses Shafana on the forehead and then leaves, at which point Shafana starts practicing her presentation once again, saying that the deep sea is full of many “impossibilities” that have yet to be discovered.