Production talks about Muslim female experience

Masuma speaks to Tahera (played by Schindler). (credit: Theodore Teichman/Assistant Photo Editor) Masuma speaks to Tahera (played by Schindler). (credit: Theodore Teichman/Assistant Photo Editor) Akber (played by Hawkins) banters with Masuma (played by Mohamed) and her son Khali (played by Chickering). (credit: Theodore Teichman/Assistant Photo Editor) Akber (played by Hawkins) banters with Masuma (played by Mohamed) and her son Khali (played by Chickering). (credit: Theodore Teichman/Assistant Photo Editor)

Over the weekend, senior Iman Mazloum, a BXA in International and Political Science and Directing, joined the chorus of voices that have been raising awareness about sexual assault and relationship violence in recent years. The production Mazloum adapted and directed, The Zahra Center, is designed to spark discussion about the reaction to sexual assault and abuse in Muslim communities.

What came through loud and clear in The Zahra Center is the tension surrounding discussions of sexual assault and relationship violence (SARV). As pointed out in the play and reiterated in the talk back after, the community can fall into the trap of victim blaming and treating sexual assault as juicy gossip. It can be difficult to discuss issues of SARV, but as Mazloum said during the talk back, “through art we can find our way, instead of it being an upfront conversation or a lecture at a mosque.” Mazloum’s art managed to navigate this complicated territory by cloaking the issue in humor.

When you decide to go to a play that “discusses the culture of silence surrounding domestic abuse and sexual assault in North American Muslim communities,” you don’t expect to spend most of the show laughing. But that’s exactly what happened. The show, which was an adaptation of Fatima A. Jaffer’s novel Surviving Zahra, follows the week leading up to bride-to-be Tahera’s wedding. Tahera, played by Alia Schindler, an administrator at Chatham University, attempts to set her best friend Masuma, played by senior computer science major Alaa Mohamed, up with her uncle Akber, played by Russell Hawkins, a sophomore electrical and computer engineering major. This, of course, leads to plenty of comical moments as the well-meaning bride and her matchmaking aunts gossip and plot. The highlight of the script was the banter between Schindler, Mohamed, and Hawkins when they sassed each other, their elders, and their society. These were the moments when the actors seemed to relax into their characters and come to life.

The conversation of SARV is introduced from two angles. Akber is the head of a support center for Muslim men and women who have experienced abuse or assault. The center works to help survivors find inspiration and support through their faith and the Koran. Masuma was a victim of rape when she was nineteen, and has a six-year-old child from it. Their two stories run as an undercurrent in the play, bubbling up in charged monologues delivered straight to the audience. The monologues recounted the fear, self-loathing, and sense of isolation many women and specifically Muslim women experience in the aftermath of SARV.

While these monologues and the other comments on SARV worked into the play were true and important, they were not necessarily new to the viewing audience or the Carnegie Mellon community. That is not to say that Carnegie Mellon doesn't have a long way to go with SARV, or that the university has not silenced or ignored cases of assault. But we have been having campus discussions for several years now, and as Mazloum herself mentioned, the climate surrounding discussions of SARV has improved. The ideas that women are not simply commodities and are not goods that can be “spoiled,” that SARV can occur anywhere in any community, and that victims of SARV deserve to be listened to, supported, cared about, and believed have all been touched on on campus through lectures, seminars, gallery shows, hackathons, and more. It is an important message to get out to people who aren’t aware of SARV and the impact it has on thousands of lives a year, but the people who experienced The Zahra Center this weekend were, for the most part, not those people. They were people who were interested in the content the play was discussing, most likely because they were already engaged in the subject matter of abuse, assault, or Muslim communities.

The difficulty The Zahra Center faces is by no means limited to this show. It’s an issue most initiatives and projects on campus have to deal with. Those who are already engaged in a subject are significantly more likely to show up to an event, while the people who are less exposed to an issue and, therefore, need the information most, go elsewhere.

However, Mazloum has some impressive plans for the play that would circumvent this problem. Already, she has started building the play into something that transcends its two-hour running time. The show included a table of resources, both on campus and around Pittsburgh, for victims of SARV. Mazloum also partnered with local Pittsburgh organizations such as the Pittsburgh Muslim Women’s Association, the Carnegie Mellon Office of Title IX Initiatives, and Pittsburgh Action Against Rape. These community organizations came together with students and staff from Carnegie Mellon to form a panel discussion at the show’s talk back.

For me, the talk back was perhaps the most interesting part of the whole experience. Instead of focusing on the specifics of The Zahra Center as a work of drama, the panelists used it as a jumping off point for a larger discussion. Akber’s role as a man starting a survivor support network gave rise to a discussion about the role of men in working towards change in how SARV is handled, while the focus on an issue in the Muslim community by a Muslim adapter and director gave rise to the question, “How can the general community help Muslim women in these situations?” In all of the discussions about supporting SARV survivors and creating larger change the idea of listening and being an ally, not a savior, was reiterated time and time again. The discussion that expanded from the play was nuanced, and created a dialogue that was applicable to our community.

Mazloum has some exciting hopes for the play in the future. She is in discussion with the Office of Title IX Initiatives to get the play screened at CMU’s Qatar campus as, in Mazloum’s words, “a gateway to starting these conversations.” Beyond that, she hopes to offer it as an educational tool for mosques, Islamic schools, and Muslim communities that are grappling with these issues so they can use this piece of art to facilitate a tough discussion.

I am unsure of how much of an impact The Zahra Center will make on Carnegie Mellon’s Pittsburgh campus. As a campus we have been engaging with the issue of sexual assault for several years, and while we still have a long way to go, the play’s focus on beginning a dialogue and building basic support was perhaps a bit outdated. But there are many communities that have not been forced to address these issues yet, and The Zahra Center offers a great place to start. It is wonderful to have a powerful, intelligent, and talented voice discussing issues of SARV, but it is exponentially better to have that voice heard by those who need it. Mazloum, with her charismatic speech and strong sense of direction, seems to know how to be heard.