Sabina England: Deaf, Muslim, feminist punk playwright
- Published: 13 November 2010
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Writer and performer Sabina England doesn’t let adversity stand in her way. The fiercely feminist creative spoke with Katrina Fox.
14 November 2010
Sabina England is a Deaf, Muslim, feminist playwright who grew up in England and the US.
When she was 21, she landed her first playwrighting opportunity with Kali Theatre, which read her one-act play Chess for Asian Punks, Greek Losers and Dorks at the Theatre Royal Stratford East in London.
Her first professional theatrical production was How the Rapist was Born which was produced by Theatre Waah! and Talawa Theatre Company, in association with the Arts Council of England.
In addition to her stage plays, Sabina also writes short stories and screenplays. Her first film Wedding Night will be released in 2011. Sabina has a Youtube channel, on which she performs as VelmaSabina in short videos, such as the controversial Allah Save the Punk, and also makes short experimental feminist videos.
Much, if not all, of your work appears to have a feminist ethos. Why is this important to you as a creative maker?
Women make up half of the population on this planet, yet there is so much rampant sexism and misogyny toward females. People don't realize this but even the slightest comment or joke they make is very misogynistic and can be damaging to females. Even women themselves suffer from internalized sexism.
This needs to change. I believe that sexism is considered much more acceptable than racism, because sexism knows no racial or cultural bounds. We live in a society where anything associated with women, feminism, or feminity, is constantly vilified, mocked, and degraded.
Notice that when females and males are compared, it's considered humiliating if a man is considered feminine, but it's considered a compliment if a woman is associated with male traits.
Or how about such remarks such as "Don't be such a pussy," "You fight like a girl," and so on – not to mention the widely accepted idea that the female sexual organ is considered to be weak and lowly, while the male sexual organs are considered strong and aggressive. How many times have we heard "take 'em by the balls"?
I'm proud to be a woman, I'm proud to be a feminist, and I won't hesitate to invoke feminism as many times as I want with my works.
Tell us about your play How the Rapist was Born, which premiered in London last year.
The play is about an Indian Muslim woman who was kidnapped by a notorious white rapist, who kept her in his place and raped her every day for two years. She eventually got the courage to kill him and escape for her life. She was also pregnant with his baby.
In the play, it is 14 years later and the woman is now living in a mental hospital because she's been so mentally traumatized. We meet her daughter, who happens to be the child of the rapist (and also biracial).
This daughter is quite proud of the fact her father was a notorious rapist. She hates her mother and often yells at her with hurtful remarks. The play explores theme of internalized sexism that females have toward other females, misogyny, misanthropy, hatred, alienation, loneliness and rage.
It has a very non-linear structure style, partially inspired by ancient Greek plays. There is a chorus of schoolgirls who sometimes go into a maddening chant that drives the protagonist to the brink of insanity.
My goal was to make the audience feel uncomfortable and alienated, to feel the pain and rage.
What were some of the responses to it?
On the opening night of in London, the audience was mostly American, and none of them clapped during the curtain call. The following night, the whole audience was British, and they loved it. There was rapturous applause. The audience reception was always very different every night.
You're no stranger to controversy – for example, your Allah Save the Punk short video. Were you worried about and were there any strong/hostile reactions from the Muslim community?
Nah, I wasn't worried about it. I thought it was hilarious that some Muslims (and even non-Muslims) have no sense of humor. I was even called a "whore" and "prostitute" because of how one of my characters dressed.
I just think it's so funny. These people can't laugh at themselves? Well, I feel sorry for them. I just laugh at them and then do my thing
Allah Save the Punk is billed as the 'world's first Taqwacores mime'. Tell us about this genre and your choice to use it.
Taqwacores is an Islamic punk movement that was inspired by a novel of the same name. It's gaining steam with Muslims in the United States and other Western nations.
Muslim kids, Muslim punks, Muslim immigrants, who feel alienated from the white majority community, are able to connect with each other.
There is a very general feeling of anger and frustration that many Muslim youths feel because they don't feel belonged to their local Muslim communities that tend to be conservative and closed in, but then again, these youths don't also feel accepted in the white punk (or any other alternative) scene, either.
Taqwacores is just an idea to encourage Muslim youths to embrace their cultural backgrounds and also instill punk rock and a big Fuck You attitude to their elders and to racist people who look down at their cultures and backgrounds.
I wanted to make a charming comedy video that uses the concept of Taqwacores and create a character that many Muslim youths could relate to. And many of them had very enthusiastic responses to my video.
How has being deaf influenced the type of work you do?
As a deaf child of non-white immigrants growing up around hearing white people, I was always very angry, alienated, lonely and outcasted.
Those feelings led me to reading a lot of books, watching many movies, studying many plays, and because of my obsession for the arts, I became a playwright and found myself making videos and putting on stage plays.
As a deaf, Muslim feminist with Indian heritage, what are some of the challenges you've encountered in getting your work produced and how have you overcome them?
When I was starting out with writing plays, I was really angry that people wouldn't produce my plays because my plays had very little white characters and featured prominent leading characters who were not white.
It seems that many theatre companies and producers are really interested in producing "white" plays, even though they'd never tell that to your face. But it's so obvious.
Now I just don't care anymore. I make my own stuff and put it out online. I'm hoping that I'll have enough money and interest to produce one of my own plays in New York City at one point in the future.
We've seen the rise of Islamophobia in the west and arguments that Islam and feminism are poles apart. What are your thoughts on this, and of writers such as Irshad Manji, a lesbian and feminist Muslim who call for reforms of Islam?
I think it's great there are Muslims like Irshad Manji and others who are calling for a reform of Islam, but I think it's pointless.
I am Agnostic-Atheist and I think organized religions are pointless. All major religions are just social tools of oppression being wrought by religious authorities and the state, in order to exercise control and fear over people.
I think it's fine if one has a very personal belief in Allah or any other divine beings, but it's not necessary to align yourself with a religion that commands a rigid structure of beliefs in order to be a "good Muslim." Why? What's the point?
What are your thoughts on the notion that anyone, including Muslims, who criticises Islam is merely fuelling Islamophobia?
I think more Muslims, whether progressive or religious, need to criticize Islam. But this is true for every major organized religion.
"Islamophobia" is such a poor choice of word to describe anti-Muslim racism. "Islamophobia" sounds like a phobia of Islam, but really, it means a racist phobia of Muslims as a whole group.
I wish there's a better word to describe anti-Muslim racism. But when it comes to criticizing Islam as a religion or ideology, I encourage more people to speak out against Islam.
Tell us about your short story ‘Islamic Orgasm’, in the anthology Sex Scene: An Anthology.
I was asked by Robert James Russell, a great writer based in Detroit, to write a piece specially for the anthology and he gave us one month to write it. I came up with the story about a Muslim man (he is Iranian American) who goes to visit a dark-skinned prostitute and they have amazing sex. Later, he discovers that she's Muslim just like him and he feels horrified.
He is a hypocrite because he thinks its fine for him to have sexual desires, but not ok for a Muslim woman to have sexual desires. When he comes back to the brothel to try to "save" her, he is shocked when he watches her having sex with another Muslim man and the Muslim man is reciting 99 names of Allah.
After they're done, the prostitute speaks of how having sex with humans is her way of having sex with Allah.
You were born in the UK and I believe now live in the US. What are some of your observations on the differences (if any) in the way your work is received in the two countries?
Americans are less responsive to my works because my works have a very European feeling, while I've had better reception from Europeans on my works.
I think that I've had better luck in Europe than the United States.
You have a film coming out next year called Wedding Night. The trailer is definitely a 'teaser'! What can you tell us about the film?
The film is a short story that explores arranged marriages in South Asian cultures.
It's about a Pakistani American man who marries a woman who has just arrived from Pakistan. They meet for the first time on their wedding night and their secrets come pouring out. The man is shocked when he discovers his new wife had a "reputation" back in Pakistan. She was known as a whore. It disgusts her husband.
He then becomes aggressive toward her and demands she takes her clothes off. She refuses. There is a very explosive scene toward the end of the film.
It's a sad story. I was inspired to write the script after hearing a lot of real-life stories about arranged marriages for Indian-Pakistani women. It's hilariously pathetic that a lot of Desi Muslim guys in the Western world think that women from India and Pakistan are more "modest" than Desi American women, so they'd rather marry a "nice, good woman" from the motherland.
And then they act so shocked when these women are just like Desi American women – women with real feelings, women who are strong and independent and women who have had experience in the sack.
Finally, you've made a series of short experimental feminist videos including Saint/Slut. What is the aim behind these?
I really like to make videos and tell stories because I'm an artist, I'm a playwright. I feel that if my videos can make someone laugh or make them think, then I've done my job as an artist and entertainer, and I'm happy with that.
Visit Sabina England’s official website, her blog Dead American Dream, her Youtube site (VelmaSabina), and her Facebook fan page.
Images from top: Sabina England; How the Rapist Was Born flyer; Jahannam (Hell) short video; Saint/Slut short video.