“Shafana & Aunt Sarrinah: soft revolution” by Alana Valentine (2010)
I was lucky enough today to be part of a group discussing and offering feedback to the DEC on the BOSTES Senior Secondary Review and Evaluation of English. As part of the discussion we were considering ideas around the flexibility of text choices in the Prescriptions and the reasonably widespread attitude that the list lacks a certain breadth of cultural alternatives. I’m not sure I agree, personally, but it’s certainly not the first time I’ve heard it said.
A new text on the Prescriptions from 2015 that certainly offers an alternative to the ‘anglo-celtic canon’ (not my words) on the list is the play, “Shafana & Aunt Sarrinah: soft revolution” which I first heard about at last year’s ETA conference. The opening pitch in the presentation was, “Standard students will love this, it’s only 44 pages long.” And what a deceptively simple and speedy read those 44 pages are! But I’ll come back to my comment on its length.
This play is prescribed for Standard, Module C – Texts and Society, Elective 2: Exploring Transitions. It is an obvious choice. The play is set in 2002, and is an exploration of university student, Shafana’s, decision to start wearing the headscarf, as one of her university assignments has presented her with a reconnection or awakening to her faith. Her Aunt, to whom she is devoted, can make no sense of her decision. The play is a non-chronological collection of conversations between the two women. In it, we learn a lot about both of them and their contextual differences. Aunt Sarrinah came from Afghanistan to Australia as a qualified engineer, but had to work hard to re-accredit herself in the Australian context. Shafana, the first-born grandchild in the family, a role model to her 26 siblings and cousins, and the poster-child of the family for freedom and education, has never even heard her Aunt’s story about her journey to Australia before making her decision. In this context, Sarrinah is horrified that Shafana would choose to invite the “…endless, unexpected, irrational incidents”, the “tiny, tiny sneers, and full-throated abuse” that will follow if she wears the headscarf in a post 9/11 world. Their discussions are filled with emotion and conviction. In the end, their differences of opinion can not be resolved.
In recommending this play to the right school with the right cohort, I promote it as a play with a deep complexity that will inspire a real connection and engagement with the concept of the elective and the ideas it presents. And I recommend, strongly, the investment in a book called “The Rugmaker of Mazer-e-Sharif” by Najaf Mazari and Robert Hillman as a really appropriate related text.
On the flip side, I can’t recommend this play as a good choice for plenty of schools. The ‘politics’ of the headscarf and the concept of ‘choice’ will be far too complicated for a lot of teachers to consider in the context of their cohort. And I worry that it’s length gives it an unhealthy appeal as an ‘easy’ text for struggling or unmotivated students when it is going to be so far from easy to teach well.
In the end, it’s going to take a teacher about 30 minutes to read the play, at most, so the decision doesn’t need to be based on my, or anyone else’s, review. But I hope it is a decision made for the right reasons, and a well-considered one at that.