In my five years as a Thespian, I’ve met exactly one other person at competition who looked like me, another hijabi at State competition who I chased through the convention center to tell her I loved her scarf. Over many auditions I’ve heard the words, “Sorry, you just don’t look the part,” for both modern and period pieces alike. I’ve only ever read two plays about Muslims, one of which featured no Muslim women, and the other that centered around a hijabi, but could never be played by someone with the real-life experience because she takes her hijab off in the play.
I’ve been in love with theatre since I was twelve years old, but unfortunately, the fine arts have not always been so fond of me. Growing up, I never saw someone who looked like me in media; the only Muslims on television were horribly stereotyped as terrorists or alien people, abnormal and to be avoided. Even in children’s shows that prided themselves on diversity, Muslims were noticeably absent. Within my community, I was told that the arts weren’t for us. When I first joined theatre, someone close to me told me, “You don’t want to be a part of drama. We aren’t those kind of people.” I suddenly felt that the arts were an exclusive club I hadn’t been invited to.
The theatre has traditionally been a place of acceptance for those who are ostracized and don’t fit in, but I’ve often felt like I don’t belong, that the arts are only for the type of people you watch onstage or on a screen. Sometimes I feel that the piece of clothing I wear on my head actively excludes me from participating in the thing I love most in the world. This is a critical failure of all of us. The arts are the best avenue to express oneself and showcase different, uncomfortable, and even painful perspectives. But when the arts fail to include a minority, it goes against what the arts fundamentally stand for. The world has always been changed and shaped through art, but right now, the arts do not fully represent the world.
Though I stand by all this, I’m able to say this from a privileged position as a longtime Thespian and as President of my Troupe. I’ve had opportunities to act onstage; ironically, I played Mary Warren in my school’s fall production of The Crucible, and with the aid of clever costuming, I blended in as a moral Christian woman. I’ve written, produced, and published my own play at the Orlando Shakespeare Theater, creating opportunity for myself when I felt like none existed. Collaborating with fellow Thespians and pushing our creative boundaries together through that production continues to be the most enlightening and wonderful experience I’ve had in theatre thus far. I competed in playwriting at Thespian Festivals for three years with my sister, winning Best in Show last year, and I received the technical scholarship for playwriting at my last District Festival. And in March of this year, I was invited by Jim Palmarini and the wonderful people at the Educational Theatre Association to read this essay in front of an entire convention in Washington D. C., and for the first time I felt like I could help not only myself, but every student participate in theatre if they want to. Even though there is currently very little media representing Muslims, I find myself at the cusp of a new age in which people like me can write their own stories, and those stories are heard. I can create those stories for the little Muslim girls who come after me, so they won’t feel quite so alone in their experience, and can be welcomed into this community with open arms.
There is an abundance of opportunity for me in theatre, and more importantly, I can make that opportunity. The theatre continues to be a place where minorities, those rejected, ostracized, and even feared by society, can express themselves, showcase their true identities, and find other people who will give them a place to come home to. Through wonderful teachers and the International Thespian Society, I’ve been given opportunities to be part of something bigger than myself: a community of individuals who don’t mind that they can’t see my hair, as long as I share my heart. As long as arts education strives to ensure that students can share themselves in a supportive space, it will continue to be a place of belonging, for everyone.
This piece was chosen as one of the Education Theatre Association’s 2016 Democracyworks Essays, the prompt for which asked high school to answer: “Why is it important for all students to have arts education opportunities?” In their writing, essayists considered how theatre and other arts education has been of value to them, and why it’s important that all students should be able to engage in arts education opportunities that are relevant to their own cultural and personal experiences. For more essays, click here.