Shafana & Aunt Sarrinah investigates what it’s like to migrate to a new country, spotlighting the many complexities of assimilating into a new culture. Both Aunt Sarrinah and Shafana fled Afghanistan during the Afghan Civil War, but they’ve had different experiences assimilating into Australian culture. Shafana was young at the time, so she quickly learned English and fit in rather easily. Aunt Sarrinah, on the other hand, had a thick accent, struggled to learn English, and was forced to work a low-paying job in a factory (even though she’d been a leading engineer in Afghanistan). Shafana showed very little empathy for her aunt’s situation, perhaps because she herself had a comparatively easy time assimilating into Australian life. She even seemed embarrassed of Aunt Sarrinah, telling her aunt that she was above factory work. Shafana’s unkind and elitist comment suggests that she wanted her family to simply pick up where they left off in Afghanistan, thus hinting at a certain naivety about the specific challenges of her aunt’s refugee experience.
However, when Shafana gets older and considers wearing a hijab, she actually disapproves of how much Aunt Sarrinah has managed to assimilate into Australian culture. Shafana’s views on assimilation, it seems, have drastically changed, as she now criticizes Aunt Sarrinah for her hesitancy to fully embrace a Muslim identity in a predominantly white society. “Assimilate,” Shafana says, mocking Sarrinah’s worldview. “Disappear into the masses. Never speak up, never stand up.” Shafana wants to express her identity however she sees fit, which—at this point in her life—means wearing a hijab despite what other people might think about such a decision. And yet, although her views on assimilation have reversed, it’s arguable that her disapproval of Aunt Sarrinah comes from the same place as her earlier frustration regarding Sarrinah’s slow assimilation process. In both cases, Shafana fails to recognize the many hardships her aunt has undergone. In the same way that she originally overlooked how difficult it must have been for Sarrinah to leave her country after decades and find success in a new place, she now overlooks how counterintuitive it would be for Aunt Sarrinah to do anything that might threaten the hard work she has put into establishing herself in Australia. Simply put, Shafana has a much different perspective on the experience of assimilation—one that doesn’t necessarily account for the fact that such experiences are different for everyone. In this way, the play suggests that forced migration can impact people in many different ways, even when those people share a number of experiences and are otherwise quite close.
Migration and Assimilation ThemeTracker
Migration and Assimilation Quotes in Shafana and Aunt Sarrinah
SHAFANA: Just. Just wait till you get your qualifications…accepted.
SARRINAH: My engineering degree.
SHAFANA: Well, what are you going to tell the teacher? That you work in a factory now? [Pause.] She says, ‘Hello Mrs. Obaidullah and what is it you do?’, and you say, ‘I work packing hardware supplies’?
SHAFANA: Your solution is just to hide? Fade into the background.
SARRINAH: That’s not what I’m saying.
SHAFANA: Assimilate. Disappear into the masses. Never speak up, never stand up. Well, maybe if you’d spoken up in Afghanistan the country wouldn’t be in the mess it is in now.
In a new country your religion becomes the main focus of how you are being seen, we all go a bit deeper into who we are and where we belong. The society we are living in, we are thinking about how we are going to protect our children, we want it to be in a direction that they are not going to be hurt, not going to be victimised.