Shafana and Aunt Sarrinah

by

Alana Valentine

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Shafana & Aunt Sarrinah Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Shafana practices a presentation she has to give for one of her final exams. She’s in a laboratory filled with various specimen preserved in jars. Rehearsing her presentation, Shafana opens with a somewhat rambling rumination about trying to foresee whatever might come next in life, suggesting that—though it’s difficult to prepare for unknown events—it’s possible to wisely anticipate new developments. Except, she says, sometimes an entire generation prepares for a certain future, and then that future isn’t the one that comes to pass.
It’s not yet clear what, exactly, Shafana’s presentation is about. Nonetheless, her opening remarks lay the groundwork for her later conversations with her aunt about the possibility of applying ideas from the Qur’an to contemporary issues in the 21st century. Her comment about an entire generation preparing for a future that never comes to pass spotlights the play’s interest in generational gaps and the fact that people from very similar backgrounds can end up seeing the world in much different ways.
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Making her way to the actual purpose of her class presentation, Shafana continues to rehearse by saying that scientists should know better than to make unfounded assumptions about the future. Scientists should be aware of “the veil of knowing” and, in turn, give themselves over to a state of uncertainty. Like the future, many things about the world remain unknown. Even certain elements of the physical world, for example, are still mysteries. And this brings Shafana to her main topic: the nearly unfathomable ecosystems that exist in the deep ocean. As Shafana begins to talk about “black smokers” (geothermal vents on the ocean’s floor), her Aunt Sarrinah enters and tries to interrupt.
Again, it’s not yet clear how, exactly, Shafana’s presentation connects to the play’s broader considerations. However, what she says about the many unknown aspects of the deep ocean symbolically underscores a point that will become quite important in the play: namely, the general idea that there are many possibilities in life, despite the fact that people tend to think they know everything. In the play’s broader examination of religious faith, this idea is important because it urges people to embrace a certain open-mindedness­.
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Aunt Sarrinah lightly heckles Shafana, interjecting to ask why, exactly, she would care about geothermal vents on the ocean’s floor. Determined to finish the rehearsal of her presentation, Shafana presses on. She describes in vivid detail how the vents on the ocean’s floor spew extremely hot matter into the cold water, creating a very unique environment for a number of creatures to live in. Aunt Sarrinah continues to poke fun at her niece, but Shafana enthusiastically informs her that the many shrimp living in the vicinity of black smokers have to constantly make sure not to burn themselves to death—and yet, they still thrive in this environment.
As Shafana tries to practice her presentation, her aunt’s comments suggest that they are quite close—close enough for Aunt Sarrinah to pester Shafana in playful, caring way. On another note, though, what Shafana says about the precarity of the deep-sea ecosystems surrounding “black smokers” is symbolic of the tricky environment many Muslims find themselves in while living in predominantly white societies like Australia—it’s possible to thrive, Shafana thinks, but prejudice nonetheless makes everyday life for Muslims in Western cultures complicated and potentially dangerous (ideas the play will later explore in much more detail).
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As Aunt Sarrinah interjects to make fun of her niece, Shafana points out that Sarrinah was the one who told her to use vivid details as a way of making her presentation interesting. Aunt Sarrinah, however, doesn’t seem to think the details Shafana has chosen are all that interesting, prompting Shafana to note that her aunt thinks like an engineer. This makes sense, Aunt Sarrinah says, since she is an engineer. Shafana knows this, but her aunt notes that now she can go ahead and truly believe it, too, since she’s about to leave to get her new university ID made. Even though she has had a doctorate in engineering since long before she came to Australia, her credentials will finally be recognized in the country.
It hasn’t yet been revealed where Aunt Sarrinah is originally from, but the fact that she hasn’t been able to get her professional and academic credentials recognized until now underscores the difficulty of migrating to a new place. From Aunt Sarrinah’s triumphant but slightly jaded tone, it’s reasonable to conclude that she has had to work extremely hard to get to where she is now, suggesting that she essentially had to start over when she first came to Australia.
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Aunt Sarrinah says that until she goes to get her new university ID printed, she will continue to be “Sarrinah Obaidullah, migrant and Afghani nobody.” She has been working to finally regain her professional and academic status for the past decade, so this is an important moment for her—getting a new ID card is the last step, since it will reflect the fact that she has a doctorate in engineering. Despite this milestone, though, Shafana doesn’t want to accompany her aunt to get the new ID card. She has to focus on her studies, she says, insisting that she must keep working on her presentation. Aunt Sarrinah is clearly disappointed, but Shafana holds her ground.
The play now reveals that Aunt Sarrinah—and, presumably, Shafana—migrated to Australia from Afghanistan. Unfortunately for Sarrinah, this transition took a great toll on her professional life, since she seems to have had trouble getting Australian institutions to recognize her credentials. This situation drove her back to school as a way of working her way back to a professional level she had already attained long ago in Afghanistan. Sarrinah’s experiences are a good illustration of just one of the many difficulties related to certain kinds of migration.
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Frustrated, Aunt Sarrinah points out that she walked all the way across campus to come get Shafana, which meant trekking through the heat. And she didn’t drink any water even though it’s so hot, explaining that she’s fasting for Ramadan and won’t break fast until this evening. Shafana, for her part, says she wants to tell Aunt Sarrinah something, but when Sarrinah asks what, she returns to her initial meditation on the idea that sometimes an entire generation will think things are going to go a certain way when, in reality, they aren’t. She then asks if she can come to dinner to talk to her aunt about something.
It’s noteworthy that Aunt Sarrinah has been fasting for Ramadan, since this calls attention to the fact that she is religious. That she fasts for Ramadan also suggests that she isn’t just culturally Muslim—she genuinely practices the Islamic faith. This will be an important detail as the play continues to unfold, since Aunt Sarrinah’s level of religious devotion eventually contrasts Shafana’s more all-encompassing commitment to Islam.
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As soon as Shafana says she needs to talk to her, Aunt Sarrinah demands to know what’s wrong. She interrogates Shafana, asking if she’s doing drugs or having sex, but Shafana assures her she isn’t. Finally, Shafana gets her aunt to agree to have her over that evening, at which point they’ll talk further. But Aunt Sarrinah still can’t believe Shafana won’t accompany her to get an ID, especially since Shafana needs a new one anyway (though she already called to postpone her appointment until tomorrow). In the end, she disappointedly leaves, accepting that Shafana needs to focus on her studies.
The nature of Aunt Sarrinah and Shafana’s close relationship is apparent in this moment, as Aunt Sarrinah treats her niece in a protective, motherly way—she obviously worries about her niece. Her questions about drugs and sex highlight her (and Shafana’s)  conservative religious values. For Aunt Sarrinah, Shafana doing either of these things would be cause for great alarm, indicating that she and Shafana adhere to Islamic values forbidding premarital sex and drinking alcohol. Once again, then, it’s clear that Aunt Sarrinah is quite religious—a detail that will become especially important when Shafana begins to express her more devout religious views later in the play.
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When Aunt Sarrinah is gone, Shafana addresses the audience, explaining that she was born in Kabul, Afghanistan but left when she was very young, in 1989. Her family fled the country and went to India, where they lived in New Delhi while waiting to migrate to Australia. Aunt Sarrinah had already been permitted to enter Australia, and then Shafana was the first one in her immediate family to join her. She was 14 at the time.
The play never specifically names the events that caused Shafana and her family to leave Afghanistan. Given that they left in 1989, though, it’s reasonable to assume they were fleeing the Afghan Civil War, which began in 1989 after the withdrawal of the Soviet Union from Afghanistan. During this time, militant factions known as mujahideen began rebelling against the current Afghani government in an attempt to set forth extremist, fundamentalist Islamic values. This is an important detail, since Aunt Sarrinah’s views of religion are very closely tied to her experience fleeing fundamentalism and extremism. She undoubtedly remembers this experience clearly, whereas Shafana was perhaps less aware of the circumstances of her own departure from Afghanistan, since she was still rather young when she migrated to Australia. 
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In a flashback, Aunt Sarrinah asks a teenage Shafana if she wants her to “come to school as a pear.” Her accent is thick, and the question leads to great confusion between her and Shafana, who is annoyed that her aunt won’t say whatever she’s trying to say in Dari. But Aunt Sarrinah insists that she has to speak English, especially if she’s going to come to school as a “pear.” It eventually becomes clear that she’s asking if she should attend a parent-teacher night in place of Shafana’s parents, since they’re still in India. Shafana, however, tells her not to come. She should wait to do such things, Shafana says, until her qualifications as an engineer are “accepted.”
In this flashback, it’s obvious that Shafana is embarrassed of Aunt Sarrinah for failing to quickly assimilate into Australian culture. Moreover, she seems ashamed of the fact that Aunt Sarrinah’s professional qualifications haven’t been recognized in Australia, as if this is somehow a negative reflection on her and her family. The fact that she feels this way speaks to the kind of close-minded judgments she must be facing at school. In other words, she seems to have internalized a certain prejudice against migrants (and especially non-white migrants), which is why she now subjects her aunt to such unkindness.
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Aunt Sarrinah doesn’t understand why Shafana doesn’t want her at the parent-teacher night. Eventually, Shafana explains that it’s because Sarrinah can’t speak English very well and works in a factory. Of course, she actually has an advanced degree in engineering, but Shafana insists that her teachers won’t know about that. For all intents and purposes, she insists, her aunt is just like all the other women who work in the factory. When Aunt Sarrinah challenges Shafana about why she has such a negative opinion of the women who work in factories, Shafana speaks disparagingly about how the women are uneducated. Sarrinah, for her part, insists that not everyone has the opportunity to pursue an education, but Shafana argues that this isn’t true in Australia. Instead of pressing the point, Sarrinah declares that she will soon get her qualifications recognized in Australia.
Shafana believes that Australia is a land of opportunity, seeing it as a place where anyone can pursue higher education as a way of attaining upward mobility (increased wealth and social status). She uses this viewpoint to justify a rather elitist view of working-class people, whom she seems to think she and her family are better than. Aunt Sarrinah, on the other hand, doesn’t judge her fellow coworkers for working in a factory, suggesting that she recognizes how hard it is to attain upward mobility even in societies in which education is widely available. What’s most interesting about this moment, though, is that Shafana apparently only wants her aunt to assimilate into certain social circles. She criticizes Aunt Sarrinah for not seamlessly working her way into Australian culture, but she also expects her to specifically assimilate into an upper- or middle-class social environment.
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Back in the present, Aunt Sarrinah is in her kitchen at home, where she’s surrounded by preserved food in jars. As she cooks, she pretends to be the chef Nigella Lawson, waxing poetic about the Afghan dish she’s making. When Shafana comes in, she pokes fun at her aunt for pretending to be the “Afghan Nigella Lawson.” But Aunt Sarrinah asks her what’s so strange about that, and Shafana admits that there’s nothing strange about it, though she points out that Sarrinah doesn’t really need to do such a thing, since she’s a “highly qualified mechanical engineer.” Aunt Sarrinah responds by saying that she’s surprised Shafana knows this about her, since she couldn’t take the time to come with her to get an ID that accurately reflects her credentials. 
Nigella Lawson is a British chef and television personality. It’s interesting that Shafana says that Aunt Sarrinah doesn’t need to imitate Nigella Lawson because she is a “highly qualified mechanical engineer,” since this suggests that Shafana still has certain elitist ideas about the place her family occupies in Australian society. Now that Aunt Sarrinah has earned Australian credentials that prove her intellectual prowess and professional abilities, Shafana thinks her aunt can simply be herself, as if she thinks Aunt Sarrinah no longer has to prove herself—an indication that she previously thought Sarrinah did have to prove herself in Australia.
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Shafana asks to see Aunt Sarrinah’s new ID card and is surprised when her aunt immediately pulls it off her clothes—she was wearing it while cooking, Shafana realizes, teasing her aunt by asking if she’s also going to go to bed with it on. When Aunt Sarrinah humorously evades the question, Shafana says she’ll ask her husband if he thinks Sarrinah will wear the ID to bed, but Sarrinah says he’s having dinner with Shafana’s parents. And her children, Sarrinah says, are with their grandmother, meaning that she and her niece have time to talk. 
Aunt Sarrinah makes it clear to Shafana that they will be alone for the evening. The fact that she goes out of her way to stress this detail hints at her eagerness to know what Shafana wants to talk to her about. She can tell, it seems, that there’s something on Shafana’s mind. Though she herself is in a good mood because her ID card finally reaffirms her sense of self as an accomplished engineer, she can’t quite relax until she knows what’s bothering Shafana.
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Becoming more serious, Shafana tells her aunt that the reason she didn’t accompany her to get the ID wasn’t just because she needed to work on her presentation. She did have more work to do, but there was another reason, too. As Aunt Sarrinah knows, Shafana has been revisiting her relationship with Islam recently. Ever since the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in 2001, she has been more closely investigating the Islamic faith, but it wasn’t until she “went back to the source” of her religion that she suddenly felt so connected to it. Aunt Sarrinah becomes apprehensive, though she praises Shafana for reconnecting with her faith. But when Shafana finally says that she’s considering starting to wear a hijab, Sarrinah is nearly speechless.
A hijab is a head covering that some Muslim women wear when they’re in public. It has already been made clear that Aunt Sarrinah herself is Muslim, but she doesn’t wear a hijab, so it makes sense that she would have a strong reaction to Shafana’s announcement that she might start wearing one—after all, Aunt Sarrinah herself has surely made a conscious decision not to wear a hijab, so the idea of her niece (with whom she’s quite close) making the opposite decision is somewhat complicated for her.
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After a moment, Aunt Sarrinah points out that hijab is an Arabic word for “partition.” But she and Shafana, she says, aren’t Arabs—they’re Persians. When Shafana pushes her aunt to tell her what she thinks of the idea, though, Aunt Sarrinah merely says that wearing the hijab is an “option for all Muslim women.” Shafana seems apprehensive, implying to her aunt that she thought she might disapprove of the decision to wear the hijab. This prompts Aunt Sarrinah to ask Shafana if she thinks she (Sarrinah) isn’t a “good Muslim” because she doesn’t wear a hijab. Shafana insists that she doesn’t think this, but Aunt Sarrinah pushes on by asking if Shafana will think she’s a “better” Muslim than her once she starts wearing the hijab. Again, Shafana says no.
It’s obvious that Aunt Sarrinah disapproves of Shafana’s potential decision to wear a hijab, but she stops short of actually voicing this disapproval. Instead, she makes a few statements that seem neutral but are actually aimed at dissuading Shafana. For instance, she points out that hijab is an Arab word, and Shafana is Persian—a remark that tries to undermine Shafana’s idea of wearing a hijab by implying that it doesn’t make sense for her to do so (even though plenty of Persian Muslims wear hijabs). When this tactic doesn’t work, Aunt Sarrinah speaks a bit more combatively, inadvertently revealing that she sees Shafana’s newly enlivened religious devotion as a threat to her own religious identity.
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Shafana claims that she just wanted to discuss the possibility of wearing a hijab, implying that she hasn’t fully decided to go through with the decision. But Aunt Sarrinah seems unsure—she thinks her niece simply wants to convince her that it’s the right decision. She asks Shafana if she has told her parents yet, and Shafana explains that her mother said that she too has been considering wearing a hijab for the last five years, though she has never actually acted on the idea. Her father, on the other hand, wanted to make sure Shafana had thought the matter through carefully, encouraging her to think about global affairs and politics, as well as “employment considerations.”
Refraining from outwardly objecting to Shafana’s thoughts about wearing a hijab, Aunt Sarrinah wants to know what Shafana’s parents think about the matter, clearly hoping that they—like her—oppose the idea. But this doesn’t work, since Shafana’s mother has apparently considered wearing a hijab herself, suggesting that she wouldn’t get in the way of Shafana’s decision. And though Shafana’s father pointed out the potential hardships of wearing a hijab in a world that is hostile toward Muslims, he didn’t try to convince her not to wear one. Everyone around Shafana, then, stops short of telling her what to do, implying that they see the decision to wear a hijab as deeply personal.
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Aunt Sarrinah somberly tells Shafana that none of these considerations—about global affairs or employment opportunities—should stand in her way if she genuinely feels compelled to wear a hijab. But when Shafana agrees with her statement, Aunt Sarrinah quickly turns around and asks if that’s really how her niece feels. Shafana responds by saying that she wants to “make real the change that has happened” to her. God feels very real and present to her now, and she wants to do something to recognize this shift in her life. 
It’s apparent that Aunt Sarrinah has conflicting feelings about her niece wearing a hijab. Because she herself is Muslim, she understands why someone might want to wear one, and she recognizes that the decision to do so is very spiritual. Therefore, she recognizes that nonspiritual or nonreligious arguments against wearing a hijab are ultimately irrelevant. In keeping with this, Shafana goes on to talk about how her thoughts on the matter came from a place of religious soul-searching.
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Shafana talks about how people tend to misinterpret what it means to wear a hijab. Many people, she says, think women wear the hijab because they’ve been indoctrinated and even suppressed—because they have no choice. But that’s not the case for her. To a certain extent, wearing it would be a form of bravery. She knows that some people will only see her hijab when they look at her, ultimately failing to see her. Playing devil’s advocate, Aunt Sarrinah says that maybe wearing the hijab will discourage people from making “superficial judgments” about whether or not she’s pretty, thus putting more of an emphasis on who she actually is as a person. But when Shafana asks if Sarrinah actually believes this, her aunt only turns the question back on her.
Again, Aunt Sarrinah is clearly torn. She doesn’t want Shafana to wear a hijab, but she also can’t bring herself to say this—to the contrary, she recognizes (and even, to a certain extent, believes in) a number of arguments in favor of wearing a hijab. This makes it all the more complicated for her to listen to Shafana try to work her way to a decision, as she finds herself oddly arguing against the way she actually feels in an attempt to remain impartial.
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Aunt Sarrinah realizes the reason Shafana didn’t accompany her to get a new ID card: she’s trying to decide whether or not to wear a hijab in her ID picture. She then insists that Shafana has surely already decided that she’s going to start wearing a hijab. Shafana doesn’t deny this, simply pointing out that Aunt Sarrinah hasn’t necessarily said anything to dissuade her. When Sarrinah asks why Shafana needs her approval, she says that she cares about Sarrinah’s opinion, since she has always looked up to her aunt. Still, Aunt Sarrinah says that her feelings have nothing to do with the matter, prompting Shafana to ask why her aunt is acting this way—she can tell that Aunt Sarrinah doesn’t want her to wear a hijab but won’t say so.
In this case, the decision to wear a hijab is highly personal, since it’s rooted in religious devotion and spiritual self-discovery. (Other cases might be different, since many people start wearing hijabs not as a personal choice but as a matter of family or cultural practice.) However, Shafana wants her aunt’s emotional support, perhaps because she knows that wearing a hijab in a predominantly white society will present a number of difficult challenges—challenges that someone like Aunt Sarrinah might help her through.
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Quickly changing the subject, Aunt Sarrinah says that she has forgotten to get coriander for the dish she’s making. Although Sarrinah says they can skip the dish and have something else, Shafana insists on going to the market to get some coriander—partly because she loves the meal Sarrinah was going to make, and partly so she can “make up” for not going with her aunt to get new IDs earlier in the day. Once Shafana leaves, Sarrinah narrates the circumstances of her departure from Kabul, where she was “the chief engineer on all government building projects.” She was, in other words, extremely successful. But then a bomb was dropped on her daughter’s school, so she and her family left Afghanistan.
What Aunt Sarrinah says about her professional success in Afghanistan emphasizes the fact that leaving her home country as a refugee forced her to start anew. She and her family didn’t just randomly decide to move to Australia because they felt like living elsewhere. Rather, the decision to migrate was an undoubtedly difficult one to make, since it meant giving up everything and facing the many challenges of starting fresh in a foreign environment.
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Aunt Sarrinah was able to immediately enter Australia because of her impressive qualifications, going ahead of her many relatives, most of whom were quite successful but still had to wait to gain entry. Despite her qualifications, though, Aunt Sarrinah had trouble when she first came to Australia. She only had photocopies of her diplomas and certifications, since the Afghani government kept the originals in an attempt to get her to stay. Although she eventually found a job in Australia, it didn’t last long, and she decided to go back to school to earn yet another engineering degree, this time in English. She started the engineering program just as Shafana was entering the same university. 
Again, Aunt Sarrinah was forced to start completely anew after coming to Australia as a refugee (professionally, at least). The fact that she couldn’t prove her qualifications sheds light on the bureaucratic difficulties many migrants face upon coming to a new country—difficulties that make it that much harder to assimilate and build new lives.
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In a flashback to 2002, Shafana asks Aunt Sarrinah what she thought of an essay she wrote for class. The assignment was to focus on a “contemporary crisis in religion,” and Shafana has chosen to write about Islam. Aunt Sarrinah isn’t sure why her niece chose to write about Islam—just because they’re both Muslim doesn’t mean they have to “prove” it to anyone. But Shafana insists that she wanted to write about the Islamic faith.
Aunt Sarrinah is weary about her niece writing about Islam for her school paper, perhaps because she thinks it might put Shafana in a position in which her (presumably) white professor and peers will judge her and her religion. In a way, then, Aunt Sarrinah’s skepticism is really just an expression of her desire to protect Shafana from prejudice.
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Shafana explains that she has been reading the Qur’an. The experience has been overwhelming, making her feel like she’s finally finding answers to questions she’s had for her entire life. She has even felt “ecstatic” as she reads, but Aunt Sarrinah simply says that this is common, adding that the Qur’an reads “like someone who is caught up in a state of emotion rather than reason.” Shafana, on the other hand, says that reading the text has been a “faith experience” for her. Before reading the Qur’an, she only ever thought about “enjoyment and happiness.” Aunt Sarrinah says that these things are important, but Shafana says that there are other things to consider, too.
Aunt Sarrinah hints at a distinction between “reason” and religious rapture. She doesn’t necessarily devalue the meaningfulness of religious experiences, but she does imply that it’s important to maintain a certain levelheaded view of the world, even in deeply spiritual moments. Shafana, however, hints that she has embraced a more all-encompassing view of religion—one in which her entire worldview is informed by her religious devotion. This is why she thinks there’s more to life than simply finding “enjoyment and happiness.”
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Aunt Sarrinah says that Shafana is right to reach beyond “enjoyment and happiness,” since her essay needs to be grounded in reason, but Shafana tells her to forget about the essay—she’s talking about deeper matters. Her research into Islam is no longer just about school. Education has opened the door for her to have a spiritual experience, and now she feels as if her connection to the Islamic faith has reaffirmed everything she’s doing in life, including her pursuit of a degree in science. Aunt Sarrinah admits that she has noticed a certain change in her niece, and Shafana says that she has been praying and fasting—both she and Aunt Sarrinah have always done these things, but not as often or comprehensively as Shafana now does them.
It’s now quite clear that Shafana’s approach to religion has diverged from Aunt Sarrinah’s. Whereas Aunt Sarrinah seemingly wants to keep her everyday life and her religious devotion separate from each other, Shafana wants her commitment to Islam to influence every aspect of her daily existence. Needless to say, the difference in their religious approaches is at the heart of the play’s tension.
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The conversation shifts to the events of September 11th, 2001. Shafana says that, although the attack on the World Trade Center profoundly altered the world, she doesn’t believe that such violent actions are part of a “holy war.” Aunt Sarrinah is hesitant to discuss the matter, but Shafana presses on, insisting that the actions of a few violent Muslims don’t accurately represent the Islamic faith. The Qur’an, she says, contains passages that specifically advance ideas of “compassion” and “kindness.” Aunt Sarrinah, however, says that these considerations aren’t what Shafana’s assignment is asking her about—rather, Shafana has been asked to “analyse the discourse around [such matters], compare and contrast various points of view, summarise, and provide a lucid overview.” She then tells Shafana to write another draft.
Aunt Sarrinah doesn’t want Shafana to get too deep into analyzing the Qur’an for her essay, perhaps fearing that doing so will put her in a precarious position—a position in which she’ll be dragged into a complicated but potentially prejudiced discussion of the Islamic faith with her white peers and professors. To that end, Aunt Sarrinah doesn’t necessarily disagree with Shafana’s assertion that the Qur’an extols the virtues of “compassion” and “kindness.” But she fears the discourse surrounding Islam in the post-9/11 world will prevent anyone from truly listening to what Shafana has to say, thus making the entire conversation judgmental and potentially harmful.
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Back in the present, Shafana returns from the grocery store with some coriander. Aunt Sarrinah notes that she took a long time, but Shafana simply says there was traffic and suggests that perhaps there was an accident on the road. As they talk about the grocery store, Aunt Sarrinah asks if the woman working the checkout was wearing a hijab. Shafana interprets this as a sly comment about her employment prospects if she decides to start wearing a hijab.
By making an underhanded comment about Shafana’s employment prospects, Aunt Sarrinah effectively voices her disapproval of Shafana wearing a hijab without actually saying so. Her values and knowledge of the Islamic religion prevent her from interfering in what she knows is a highly personal decision, but she can’t help but make comments aimed at dissuading her niece from wearing a hijab
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This discussion leads Aunt Sarrinah to a story about finding a job in Australia after leaving Afghanistan. She had to lie about her abilities, since it had been long enough since she last had an engineering job that the technology had advanced beyond her knowledge. But she secretly taught herself the relevant software, working twice has hard as anyone else. And nobody ever found out. She then talks about how she knows what it’s like to desperately want something. Shafana notes that her aunt fiercely yearned for an engineering job when she first came to Australia and worked in a factory, joking that she’s a “snob”—a comment that angers Sarrinah, prompting her to say that Shafana is a “stupid, ignorant girl” who has no idea what it’s like to make her own way in a foreign country.
The audience may find Shafana’s joke about Aunt Sarrinah being a “snob” unfair, considering that Shafana herself was so critical of Aunt Sarrinah when they first migrated to Australia. Indeed, she was embarrassed of her aunt because Sarrinah didn’t assimilate into Australian culture as quickly as she did—and, ironically enough, because her aunt worked in a factory instead of at a prestigious engineering job. So although Shafana is making fun of Aunt Sarrinah for being a “snob” now, Shafana herself was the one who claimed she was somehow above her coworkers at the factory. All in all, this disagreement highlights the difference between migrating somewhere as a young person and as a full-grown adult, suggesting that adults often have a much harder time finding their way in their new country because they essentially have to start their entire lives anew.
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After apologizing to Aunt Sarrinah for being inconsiderate about how hard she worked to get where she is, Shafana tries to get her aunt to finally admit that she has a problem with the idea of her wearing a hijab. She tells her to yell if she needs to. When Aunt Sarrinah asks what, exactly, she should yell, Shafana says that maybe she should say that she (Shafana) is crazy for considering such a thing. Instead, though, Aunt Sarrinah simply changes the subject by saying that the coriander Shafana bought is good.
Shafana can sense that Aunt Sarrinah doesn’t want her to start wearing a hijab, but she wants to hear her aunt say so. It’s possible that she wants Aunt Sarrinah to voice her concerns because Shafana herself has some hesitations about the decision. But because Aunt Sarrinah respects that this is a highly personal decision (even if she doesn’t agree with it), she refuses to intervene.
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The conversation continues, as Aunt Sarrinah and Shafana talk about things unrelated to Islam. But then Aunt Sarrinah brings the conversation back around by pointing out that many women who wear hijabs end up buying cars because they get heckled and harassed on public transportation. Shafana is unperturbed—she can drive if necessary. But Aunt Sarrinah says that she might have to always go out in groups, since she might get spat on. Shafana, however, notes that even women who don’t wear hijabs sometimes get spat on, and her aunt agrees, adding that “fear is not a reason not to do something.”
That Aunt Sarrinah is worried about Shafana’s safety is a good illustration of how hostile the surrounding culture can be to Muslims, especially in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. And yet, this consideration doesn’t deter Shafana because her decision to wear a hijab is based on one thing only: the fact that she has been spiritually moved to do so. This, it seems, is the only consideration she deems relevant to whether or not she ends up wearing a hijab.
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Aunt Sarrinah goes on to say that sometimes fear can actually motivate people to do something—like, for instance, to defiantly take a stand against persecution. But this sentiment enervates Shafana, who throws her napkin down and says that her aunt isn’t listening to her. She isn’t thinking of wearing the hijab for any reason other than the fact that doing so would be an expression of who she is. She would wear the hijab for herself, not for anyone or anything else. Aunt Sarrinah then asks why Shafana took so long to come back from the grocery store, and Shafana reveals that she stopped to buy a headscarf.
Once again, it seems quite evident that Shafana has already made her decision: she is clearly going to start wearing a hijab, especially considering that she bought one on her way home from the grocery store. And yet, it seems important to her that she discuss the matter with Aunt Sarrinah, most likely because she respects her aunt’s opinions and also hopes to take comfort in whatever emotional support Sarrinah might be able to give her. However, Aunt Sarrinah appears somewhat incapable of supporting her in this way.
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Aunt Sarrinah demands to know what has really compelled Shafana to gravitate toward wearing a hijab. When Shafana suggests that it’s simply an external representation of her faith, Aunt Sarrinah insists that Shafana isn’t normally like this—she’s usually more rational. She thinks that her niece is “deceiving” herself in a certain way by ignoring her own misgivings about wearing a hijab and letting herself get carried away in a state of “religious ecstasy.” 
Until this point, Aunt Sarrinah has posed roundabout objections to Shafana’s idea of wearing a hijab—objections that almost make it seem like she’s simply playing the devil’s advocate, though it has been clear throughout that she doesn’t want Shafana to wear a hijab. Now, though, she pointedly implies that her niece is being irrational by embracing her religion. This could be read as insensitive to the meaningful changes Shafana has recently undergone, but it’s likely that Sarrinah thinks she’s simply trying to protect her niece from what she sees as a bad decision.
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Shafana defends her decision to wear a hijab by telling her aunt about something called the “soft revolution.” She explains that the “soft revolution” is a group of young Muslims who are neither “liberal” nor “extremist.” This group of young Muslims advocate for human rights, using Islamic values to make a case for various progressive causes. For these people, Shafana explains, wearing a hijab is liberating and empowering. This prompts Aunt Sarrinah to ask if Shafana thinks it’s possible to “synthesize” Qur’anic sentiments and values with the 21st century. When Shafana suggests that she does think this, Aunt Sarrinah becomes bitter, saying that Shafana clearly looks down on Sarrinah’s relationship to Islam.
For Aunt Sarrinah, there’s a very clear separation between religion and everyday life. She sees her religion as a personal belief that she can draw upon in times of need—that is, when it suits her. Shafana, on the other hand, thinks that the values at the core of Islam can be applied to any situation. The idea of the “soft revolution” is to use the Qur’an for humanitarian good, in contrast to the violence that many extremist or fundamentalist practitioners of the religion embrace. At the same time, the “soft revolution” also rejects the liberal Islamic worldview, which advocates for progressive values and looser interpretations of the Qur’an. If Aunt Sarrinah were to be grouped into either of these two categories, she would most likely identify with Islamic liberalism, so the fact that Shafana is interested in the “soft revolution” suggests that her new outlook stands in contrast to her aunt’s.
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Aunt Sarrinah defensively informs Shafana—who insists that she doesn’t judge her aunt’s faith—that her relationship with Islam is private. She says that her religion is a “fundamental part” of who she is. In response, Shafana says that her relationship with Islam is all of who she is. But Aunt Sarrinah disagrees with this sentiment. There’s faith, she argues, and then there’s “reason.” There’s a difference, she believes, between religion and “civil society.” Shafana, on the other hand, thinks that religious faith works its way into every part of a person’s life, but Aunt Sarrinah thinks this is mistaken, insisting that her own faith is “private and cultural.”
Aunt Sarrinah has been hinting throughout the play at the compartmentalization of religion in her life. She is devoted to the Islamic faith, but her devotion is only one aspect of her life and doesn’t necessarily define who she is. In other words, her faith is “private and cultural,” whereas the approach Shafana seems to have taken to religion is more comprehensive, as evidenced by her desire to wear a hijab, which symbolically announces her total devotion to Islam.
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Aunt Sarrinah goes on to suggest that her religion—which is very important to her—isn’t the answer to everything in life. When Shafana argues this point, Sarrinah insists that religious “fanaticism” is a dangerous thing. Shafana is taken aback by her aunt’s suggestion that she’s embracing a form of fanaticism, but Sarrinah presses on, reiterating that religious faith shouldn’t dictate everything in life. Clearly annoyed, Shafana says that all she wants is to cover up her hair, but Aunt Sarrinah claims that doing so is just the first step toward submission. In contrast, Shafana argues that wearing a hijab is the opposite of this kind of obeisance.
It’s worth noting that both Aunt Sarrinah and Shafana fled Afghanistan because of extremists who used violence to push for religious fundamentalism. Aunt Sarrinah, however, was much older than Shafana when this happened, so she most likely had a better understanding of what was going on in Afghanistan at the time. As such, it’s not all that surprising that she’s very sensitive to anything that reminds her of the religious “fanaticism” that led to so much violence and ultimately drove her from her home.
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What Aunt Sarrinah struggles with, she admits, is that she’ll have to forget about all of the hopes she had for Shafana if she ends up wearing a hijab. Shafana doesn’t think this has to be the case, but Sarrinah dejectedly says that she knows what the world is like. She then goes on to say that, because of the state of the economy, she’s going to have to ask Shafana’s parents to finally pay back the money she has loaned them. Shafana is shocked and says that her parents don’t have the money to do this, Aunt Sarrinah says matter-of-factly that Shafana will have to take a leave of absence from school.
Aunt Sarrinah has gotten wrapped up in the heat of the moment and, as a result, threatens to demand repayment for a loan she gave Shafana’s parents. The implication here is that she wouldn’t do this if Shafana decided not to wear a hijab, though she never actually says this. When she says that Shafana will have to leave school as a result, it feels as if she’s trying to suggest that wearing a hijab will place limitations on her niece. In this case, though, the limitation Shafana would face has nothing to do with wearing a hijab and everything to do with Sarrinah’s inability to accept such a decision.
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Shafana can’t believe that her aunt is willing to put her in such a difficult financial position just because she wants to wear a hijab. Aunt Sarrinah unconvincingly says that the two issues are unrelated. But then Shafana says that if that’s really the case, then her aunt wouldn’t mind helping her put the hijab on right now. Aunt Sarrinah tries to avoid this, pointing out that Shafana is indoors and doesn’t need to wear it. But Shafana says that since Aunt Sarrinah hasn’t explicitly told her that she doesn’t think she should wear the hijab, it would be nice if she helped her put it on for the first time.
It has been fairly obvious throughout the play that Aunt Sarrinah disapproves of Shafana’s inclination to wear a hijab, but this is the first time that Shafana bluntly challenges her aunt, trying to get her to admit the way she really feels. Aunt Sarrinah’s previous comment about the loan she gave Shafana’s parents escalated the tension between the two women, so it makes sense that Shafana now tries to goad her aunt into doing something she doesn’t want to do.
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Aunt Sarrinah avoids helping Shafana put on the hijab by pointing out that her niece will suddenly have to have an opinion on anything vaguely related to the Islamic faith and Muslim people—including, of course, the many insensitive, racist, and prejudiced things people will say about terrorists and the restrictive extremist practices of a small group of Muslims. She will, Aunt Sarrinah believes, become a symbol of the Islamic faith instead of an individual.
Aunt Sarrinah now voices her concerns in a much more direct manner, effectively trying to scare Shafana out of her decision to wear a hijab. She worries that her niece will have to bear the brunt of western culture’s Islamophobia. What she fails to take into account, though, is that Shafana has surely already considered these things and has still decided to move forward with her decision—a decision that, because of its spiritual and personal nature, transcends such concerns, even if it’s also true that Shafana will most likely face more prejudice and ignorance once she starts wearing a hijab.
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Shafana says that she will simply answer people’s questions and will tolerate the occasional insensitivity. None of this, she believes, is a good reason to keep her from wearing a hijab. She criticizes her aunt for downplaying her faith as a way of fitting into Australian society, but Aunt Sarrinah takes issue with this characterization, reminding her niece that she knows exactly what it’s like to live in a society run by religious zealots. In Afghanistan, she says, zealots destroyed supposedly blasphemous art in the museums with hammers. They shot and killed civilians and then refused to give them proper burials. “You do not reason with fanatics,” she says. “You do not argue with zealots.”
In many ways, Aunt Sarrinah’s inability to accept Shafana’s decision to wear a hijab is a failure to recognize how important her niece feels it is to express her religious identity. At the same time, though, Aunt Sarrinah’s viewpoint is understandably influenced by her personal history—she has witnessed so much pain and destruction as the result of religious zealotry, so the idea of such a complete devotion to religion puts her on high alert. And yet, Shafana’s desire to wear a hijab is obviously very far removed from the violent fanaticism of the fundamentalists who drove Sarrinah out of her country.
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Aunt Sarrinah tells a story about escaping Afghanistan through Pakistan. She had to wear a chador as a way of hiding herself, since they were traveling on a bus intended for Pakistani people. It was dreadfully hot on the cramped bus—so hot that Sarrinah could barely breathe. At one point, she was sure she was going to suffocate, so she pulled the chador off her face. Immediately, a Pakistani guard yelled at her, telling her to get off the bus right away. She and her family were put in a Pakistani jail and then taken back to Afghanistan. Fortunately for them, the people they had paid to get them out of Afghanistan found them at the border and took them back to the bus, allowing them to finally reach India.
When Aunt Sarrinah tells this story about wearing a chador (which is a religious head and upper body covering worn by many Muslim women), she provides some insight into the nature of her aversion toward wearing religious garments. It’s clear that she associates the chador with this traumatic experience of fleeing Afghanistan, especially since the chador itself felt as if it was suffocating her on the bus. There’s some symbolic resonance to this memory, too, as Sarrinah now seems to associate head coverings with suffocation, restriction, and an overall lack of freedom.
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Shafana asks why Aunt Sarrinah never talks about the hellish experience of leaving Afghanistan. Aunt Sarrinah says that it’s painful to bring up—plus, she doesn’t need to talk about it. The pain of this experience is always with her, and speaking dramatically about it as if she’s on the Oprah Show won’t help. Nonetheless, Shafana thanks her for opening up. As Shafana goes to leave, Aunt Sarrinah says she will come see her tomorrow before Shafana goes to get her new ID—to see, Sarrinah says, what Shafana has decided about wearing a hijab.
Because Aunt Sarrinah’s story about wearing a chador provides some context for her aversion to head coverings, Shafana is better able to understand her aunt’s strong reaction. In this way, the play subtly suggests that having open dialogues about difficult issues often makes it easier for people to better understand each other, even if Aunt Sarrinah herself mockingly disparages the idea of speaking openly about her trauma.
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Once Shafana leaves, Aunt Sarrinah directly addresses the audience, saying that moving to a new country places new emphasis on a person’s religion, since the surrounding society projects its ideas about an immigrant’s religion—ultimately allowing these ideas to inform how society sees and thinks of that person. 
The play has already highlighted the many difficulties of migrating to a new country (especially as refugees), but Aunt Sarrinah now explicitly spells out how religion—and the perceptions surrounding it—can influence how people view migrants and refugees. Her general point, it seems, is that Australians already make ill-formed assumptions about Muslims, which is why she’s worried that wearing a hijab will make Shafana more vulnerable to prejudice and ignorance, since it’ll call even more attention to her religious identity.
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In a flashback to September 12th, 2001, Shafana rushes into Aunt Sarrinah’s house. They’re both flustered and talk about what they’ve heard on the news about the attack on the World Trade Center in New York City. Listening to the news is unnerving, since the newscasters keep talking about “Islamic extremists.” Shafana has watched them go on at length about what has happened, and as they continue to speak about the attack, their words get “jumbled” and they seem to forget about the distinction between “Islamic extremists” and ordinary Muslims.
The play implies that the phrase “Islamic extremists” is problematic because it risks equating the religion itself with the violence carried out by a very small minority of Muslims. Nonetheless, Shafana and Aunt Sarrinah are horrified to hear newscasters implicitly draw parallels between terrorism and the Islamic faith, thus exacerbating Islamophobic sentiments already circulating in the wake of the attacks.
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Aunt Sarrinah tells Shafana to be careful. She says that she has already started experiencing some discrimination at work as an engineer. Because of this, she has decided to resign, despite the fact that it has taken her so long to get the Australian government to recognize her credentials. Nonetheless, she’s going to quit her job and go back to school to earn a PhD. Of course, she already has a PhD, but getting an engineering degree here in Australia will enable her to teach. Shafana can’t believe her ears—she thinks her aunt is overreacting and that she won’t actually experience much discrimination in the wake of the terrorist attacks. But Sarrinah disagrees, insisting that everything is different now.
Aunt Sarrinah’s experience at work sheds light on the ignorance many non-Muslim people showed in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Needless to say, Aunt Sarrinah had absolutely nothing to do with the terrorist attacks, nor do her religious beliefs align with the terrorists’ use of violence. And yet, she still finds it impossible to escape ignorance and bigotry in her workplace. Her experience is a good illustration of how quickly non-Muslim cultures vilified the entire Islamic faith after 9/11, instead of recognizing that there are violent extremists in every religion.
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Back in the present, it’s the day after Shafana and Aunt Sarrinah had dinner together. Shafana is in her laboratory, singing a song in Dari while putting on her hijab. Aunt Sarrinah enters and starts crying. She gives Shafana a jar full of shriveled shrimp and explains—through tears—that she bought them for Shafana’s presentation, though she couldn’t find long tube worms. Shafana tries to get her aunt to stop crying, but this only prompts Sarrinah to plead that her niece reconsider wearing the hijab. She can, she says, just take it off. But Shafana doesn’t want to do this.
This is perhaps the most pointed objection Aunt Sarrinah makes in the entire play, as she begs Shafana to change her mind about wearing a hijab. She’s no longer pretending to be neutral while offering up underhanded reasons not to wear a hijab—instead, she actively wants Shafana to change her mind. What she fails to grasp, however, is that the decision is Shafana’s to make, and it’s clear that her niece has already decided that wearing a hijab is something that’s important to her developing religious identity. 
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Although she’s sad that Shafana has decided to wear a hijab, Aunt Sarrinah starts joking around with her a little bit, much to Shafana’s surprise (and delight). As they make up, though, Aunt Sarrinah admits that she’s going to miss Shafana. When Shafana says that she’s still here, Sarrinah says she’ll miss her hair. She then asks if Shafana said anything to her parents about the loans. Shafana says that she hasn’t and asks if Sarrinah still needs her money back—but Sarrinah is ashamed. She never truly intended to force Shafana’s parents to pay her.
Aunt Sarrinah now acknowledges that she overreacted by threatening to collect the loan she gave Shafana’s parents. Even though she doesn’t want Shafana to wear a hijab, she still cares deeply for her niece and doesn’t want to do anything to make her life harder. In this moment, she makes an effort to show Shafana that she still loves her, regardless of what she has decided.
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Aunt Sarrinah apologizes for threatening to collect the loan, and Shafana forgives her, saying that she’s glad her aunt was able to practice how she responds to such news. After all, she says, Aunt Sarrinah’s daughter recently told Shafana that she’s considering wearing a hijab. Aunt Sarrinah is shocked. Her daughter, she says, is far too young to make such a decision—a sentiment Shafana agrees with, which is why she told her cousin that she has to wait until she’s at least 18 to start thinking about such things. Aunt Sarrinah agrees, but then Shafana adds that at the same time, she can’t truly bring herself to dissuade her cousin from wearing a hijab. Hearing this, Aunt Sarrinah forbids Shafana from seeing her daughter.
Given that Aunt Sarrinah reacted so intensely to Shafana’s decision to wear a hijab, it’s unsurprising that she’s shocked and troubled by the idea of her own daughter making the same decision. And though Shafana agrees that Sarrinah’s daughter should wait to decide, she also says that she can’t in good conscience stop her cousin from following the same religious path that she herself has followed. Her attitude emphasizes the idea that everyone is on their own religious and spiritual journey—an idea that Aunt Sarrinah has trouble accepting.
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Shafana asks her aunt why she’s acting so hostile, and though Aunt Sarrinah says she doesn’t want to be this way, she also says that—starting today—she and Shafana are now “opponents.” Shafana doesn’t want to be Aunt Sarrinah’s “opponent,” but this doesn’t matter. By deciding to wear a hijab, Aunt Sarrinah says, Shafana has highlighted a fundamental difference in the way they each see the world. They can pretend to still be close and aligned, but the fact of the matter is that Aunt Sarrinah strongly disapproves of the worldview Shafana has now embraced. Having said this, she kisses her niece on the forehead and leaves.
This is the play’s final exchange between Aunt Sarrinah and Shafana, and it’s both emotionally tender and rather heavy. It’s clear that Aunt Sarrinah cares very deeply for Shafana, but she also can’t change the fact that she and her niece now stand in opposition to each other in terms of their religious worldviews (or, for that matter, their worldviews in general). Of course, this doesn’t necessarily have to mean that they’re “opponents,” but Sarrinah uses this word to highlight what she sees as a very noticeable difference between them—a difference that is at once spiritual, personal, and cultural, since Aunt Sarrinah strongly believes that religion should only be one part of a person’s life. Shafana, on the other hand, has now embraced a worldview that places religion at the very center of her life. And though Aunt Sarrinah doesn’t intend to hold this against Shafana, she can’t help but acknowledge the difference that has now come between them.
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Alone, Shafana returns to the monologue she has prepared for her presentation. She talks about mussels that “live in total darkness” and “cling to the edges of pools that would kill them in an instant.” She admires their “precarious determination” and their ability to prosper even while undergoing a constant “balancing act.” In the deep sea, Shafana says, impressive creatures like these mussels exist in multitudes, and this astonishing hidden ecosystem is full of unfathomable “impossibilities” that are just waiting to be discovered.
The play ends on a rather symbolic note, as Shafana’s interest in the precarious environment of the deep sea represents her determination to thrive and be herself in a world that is hostile toward Muslims. But just because wearing a hijab might make her everyday life a little more complicated, she thinks, doesn’t mean she shouldn’t embrace her new religious identity. After all, although it might seem inconceivable to somebody like Aunt Sarrinah, Shafana believes in a future in which society doesn’t villainize people simply because of their religion. 
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