‘Where Are You Really From’—Rabiah Hussain’s ‘SPUN’ Tackles British South Asian Identity

[Photo Credit: Alex Brenner]]

Rabiah Hussain’s debut play “SPUN” explores British Asian and Muslim identities in London. Currently showing in London’s Arcola Theatre, Hussain brings compelling, gripping and emotional moments in this production.

The story is current and relatable, about two best friends from Newham, who struggle with their identity growing up as British Asian girls. They are trying to conform with being ‘British’ but still magnetise towards their culture and religion.

The story begins after university, where both characters Safa and Aisha choose different career paths. Safa sets her eyes on the hustle and bustle of London. However, Aisha decides to stay in the town of Newham. The story develops as both disagree with the attitude and life choices of the other on the pressures of coming to terms post 7/7 London bombings of what being a Muslim is.

South Asian women have all been guilty of trying to conform with social pressures to be accepted as being British such as choosing not wearing a hijab, drinking alcohol and agreeing with passive-aggressive racism on immigration. However, often we are also trying to rush home and help in the kitchen while celebrating a religious festival.

The performances of Humaira Iqbal as Safa and Aasiya Shah and Aisha capture the friendship. I personally become emotional when, without thinking, Safa pulls Aisha’s scarf off her head. Although some scenes were stronger than others, they were all a joy to watch. The writing is refreshingly honest and can lead you to feel uncomfortably guilty. Which really means the themes of social struggle, identity and conflicts in attitudes are on point for current times. Brown Girl Magazine spoke exclusively to the some of the cast and writer Hussain.

[Read Related: Brown Boy Saagar Shaikh on Acting, Refusing to Play the Role of a Terrorist, and How he Dissects Bollywood Movies]

Aasiya Shah

Tell us more about the play?

The play is a story about friendship and the microaggressions that people of colour face. Like, the feeling of people trying to fit into a social group or working your way up the ladder at work or trying to integrate or work your way from a community. But hopefully what you get from the play is the friendship of Aisha and Safa.

Do you relate to Aisha?

Absolutely. I think with every character I play there is always a bit of me in them. We can all behave certain ways when put under different pressures. I like to do timelines for each character and work my way back from there. Aisha’s feisty, pretty funny, but also warm. I identify with the themes of the play of struggling with identity, loss, grief and keeping the friendship strong when choosing different paths in life.

So, how relevant is this play?

Very. I feel people of colour’s voices have been unheard for a long time. We’ve always been here. I think people of colour haven’t been given enough opportunities, I think people feel it’s too risky especially with the themes the play may explore.

What was your family’s reaction to you being in “SPUN?”

Very supportive. I think they’ve always known I am a bit of drama queen. I’ve never really had struggles of my career choices with my family. I’ve not grown up with the traditional Asian family struggles. My sister works in the NHS and my brother is a rapper. So, he’s into music and producing. So, if anything they are probably my harshest critics.

[Photo Credit: Shazad Khalid]

How much opportunity do you think there is for women of colour?

I think there’s still a long way to go. I think people do outreach programs and think that’s enough. It’s about maintaining and nurturing up and coming talent. I think particularly women of colour are still typecast. There’s so much great writing out there and Rabiah is a great example of that. I just don’t understand why doing a production by South Asian women is not taken seriously as any other play. We don’t have the same opportunities as our white counterparts so people need to do more.

What advice would you give to aspiring women that want to be an actress?

Get yourself into outreach programs and build relationships with theatres. Read plays and make your own work.

Humaira Iqbal

What made you become an actress?

My parents put me in a stage school when I was young and it introduced me to drama, dancing and performing. I took a break from it whilst in secondary school. However, when I joined The National Youth Theatre I was involved in a production that was also a social infusion course. From this, I can honestly say the experience made me the woman I am today. We were people from different working-class backgrounds. We were one big family. We performed here at The Arcola and The National Youth Theatre gave me the opportunity to meet people in the industry and gave me my first big audition. So, I’ll always be grateful.

How was the process of “SPUN” for you?

I previously lacked confidence from being told I would never play a lead role at the end of my journey in drama school. So, as this is my first professional job I feel this has been a hard process, especially as I’m severely dyslexic. I believe in Rabiah and Rabiah’s story. I remember when I first met Rabiah and Richard back in January and they told me ‘you are Safa.’ That was amazing. So, coming into this process and being told that was a culture shock.

What struggles can you relate to Safa with?

It was amazing to play a character I am. Even though I am British Gujarati I seem to have been type cast as being more Pakistani and get put forward for Arab roles too and I’m not even Arab. So, this is the first time of playing a South Asian woman and a Londoner which is an amazing opportunity and something I’ve wanted for a very long time.

Humaira Iqbal
[Photo Credit: Shazad Khalid]

What’s the next step for you?

Just like Rabiah I would love to open the doors for others. The fact she’s not from a theatre background and she’s here is amazing. Speaking to Rabiah we have so much in common. I’m writing my first play so I can help others like people have helped me.

What do you want the audience to take away with them after seeing “SPUN?”

I think the friendship more than anything. Events happen in the world which we talk about like terrorism and radicalisation. I feel the industry only represents this.  Why can’t we talk about the more mundane things? I want to represent my friendship with my girls back in East London. I want South Asian girls to come and see this play and leave feeling they’ve actually felt represented. There’s been no other plays about South Asian people living in London apart from ‘Diary of a Hounslow Girl’ that relates to current women. Why can’t we have plays about South Asian girls being Londoners?

[Read Related: Being the ‘Coconut’ – London Playwright Guleraana Mir Breaks the Brown Girl Stereotypes]

[Photo Credit: Alex Brenner]

Rabiah Hussain

What inspired you to write the play?

“Spun” is some little anecdotal things from my life and people I have known. It’s about two British Asian girls from a Muslim background. I wanted to write a story, not just about extremes, it’s more of the day-to-day lives of these two girls who we meet, just as they finish university and about to embark on their careers. One goes to Central London and the other stays in Newham to become a teacher. It’s about a number of subjects from; Race to class to friendship. I wanted to highlight different areas of London and the disparity and the microaggressions in the workplace. I wanted to look at how when something tragic happens in London it can affect someone sense of self. Which I’ve experienced. I wanted to highlight how that can affect friendship and how people start seeing themselves differently and how that can impact friendship.

Do you think we are stepping too far away from our traditional values to move forward?

I think that’s one of the themes of the play. I think whenever something terrible happens in a city, people ask the question of consideration. Why do people stay in their community? Why don’t we integrate? Actually, it’s a two-way road. If we think about the history of immigration of Bangladeshi and Pakistani people who were invited here to rebuild England after the second world war. They came and lived in the places that were falling, places that had nothing and they had to rebuild. I remember walking into a shop in Karachi, India a couple of years ago and feeling like I was in a shop in Green St, Newham. It’s so amazing to understand how that community and the generations before us came over and literally took what they knew and transported it over and built a community in England for themselves. They weren’t given anything and told to work in factories, all the jobs that no one wanted. No one asked them to integrate and they lived in the most deprived boroughs in the country. So, it really fascinates me this argument of integration. I think what I’ve realised in these areas is a sense of community in these boroughs. However, when you step out of these boroughs into ‘privilege’ you start to feel very cautious. So, what can sometimes happen it becomes a complex, so you can go through stages in your life trying to brush off that identity, sometimes you come back to it and you realise it’s your place. But where is your place? As, if you feel like that then, how do you feel when you go into the workplace particularly if it’s a middle-class place?

Will British Asians particularly, first-generation women, see themselves in the play?

Yes, I do. I have really tried to reflect those microaggressions, they way they can affect you and how you respond to them and the world around you.

What obstacles did you overcome?

My family were very supportive and I was very lucky. The challenges I faced was breaking into the industry and my confidence within. I always felt like an imposter and I think even to this day it still feels like that.

What advice would you give others?

It’s always a collaborative process. I was very lucky to be involved with The Tamasha playwrights program. It’s a very unique, different structure and there’s an ongoing support network. All the doors that have opened up for me have been in some way through Tamasha Theatre Company. You need that support, especially if you haven’t grown in theatre. That’s why I think these programs are very important. Especially for women of colour it’s too difficult to do on your own. I also believe this needs to come from more mainstream theatres. People need to know there is a space for us.

By Sharan Raju

Terms such as 'not appropriate' and 'that's not our culture' were all too common growing up - almost tedious. Therefore, … Read more ›

Indo Caribbean Actress Saheli Khan Lands Role as Young Anna in Disney’s Musical ‘Frozen’

Saheli Khan, young anna in disney frozen
Saheli Khan

From singing and acting to drawing immaculate figurines, Saheli Khan, 11, has made her debut in the North American Broadway tour as young Anna in Disney’s musical “Frozen.” As a first-generation Indo Caribbean, with roots in India and Pakistan, she continues to pave the way for young people with similar backgrounds.

[Read Related: Rebecca Ablack: The Guyanese Actress Talks Netflix’s “Ginny and Georgia” and Indo Caribbean Representation]

Khan has always enjoyed entertaining those around her and she continues to have the motivation to pursue her passions. In school, she always sought to lead her class in songs and she was encouraged by her parents and teachers to enroll in music and acting classes, even at a young age. These ventures fueled her passions even more.

Continue reading to learn more about her journey!

What do you like about acting the most?

I like to portray different characters. Specifically, I like playing characters who have strong personalities and those who portray a sense of bravery, especially during problematic occurrences.

As a first generation Indo Caribbean actress, how do you feel about your journey as a young Disney princess? Do you feel that you are paving the way for other Caribbean and South Asians who want to pursue similar paths?

Diversity has always been important to me, but in today’s society, I feel that most people would like to be accepted and encouraged. As a Disney Princess, I am simply helping to broaden the field for all young people to see that skin color should not matter.

Saheli Khan
Saheli in Hidden Folk outfit| Photo courtesy of Saheli Khan


What do you like about your character, Anna? Is there anything that you may dislike?

Young Anna is a ball of sunshine! She is happy, funny, and a delight to be around. Despite having a troubled childhood, she grows up to be just as joyous, but she is also courageous as she goes on a journey to find her sister. I love everything about young Anna and she truly embodies who I am as a person.

Who is your inspiration and why?

My parents are my inspiration. My mom is beautiful, loving, and she works hard without ever giving up. No matter the task, she finds a solution and keeps on going with a smile on her face. She always tells me, “Whenever you feel overwhelmed, remember whose daughter you are and straighten your crown.” And my dad is my best friend. He’s insanely funny, caring and knows all the best places to eat! My parents are exactly how I want to be when I grow up.

If you had a magic wand, what show would you do next?

I would love to be Annie on Broadway or play the lead in a series or movie. 

What is the one last thing that you do before you step out on stage and the curtain goes up?

There are many things I do before I step on stage. I do fun and silly things quietly with my “Frozen” sister, Mackenzie Mercer, and play with my Anna pigtails for good luck.

What are your other passions?

I love to sing, act, and spend time with my younger cousin, Ayla. I also love to draw and color since it makes me feel relaxed. I was told I have a great ability to draw and make figurines ever since I was a child. And I love exploring new cities and eating at great restaurants with my family.

Saheli Khan
Saheli dressed in her “Young Anna” costume | Photo courtesy of Saheli Khan

What advice do you have for young people who are just starting their careers, specifically within the field of musical theater?

To have a positive mindset, practice diligently, and enjoy every moment within the journey. I have learned that there may be some occurrences that may not take place the way that you want them to, but there’s always an opportunity to learn from them.

 Aside from your career, how do you balance your schoolwork and acting?

I attend school virtually, which is essential when I am on tour. Each day I have scheduled school hours that allow me to focus and complete all school assignments. Once that is done, I have most of the day to work on extracurricular activities, go on outings, and hang out with my friends. Though performing takes a large chunk out of my day, it helps that I enjoy it, so it doesn’t feel like work.

What types of roles do you see yourself playing?

I love to play humorous characters such as young Anna from “Frozen.” I truly enjoyed this role as it captures who I truly am.

What are your plans for the future?

To be the best version of myself regardless of what career path I choose.

[Read Related: Nadia Jagessar Talks Finding Love, Not Settling and Shines Light on her Indo-Caribbean Roots]

Khan’s debut marks the start of a budding career. With her array of talents and future goals, we are bound to see more of the young actress in the future and more representation of Indo Caribbeans in mainstream media. If you would like to purchase tickets for Disney’s “Frozen,” click here

Feature Image Courtesy: Saheli Khan

By Anita Haridat

Anita Haridat is the owner of the wellness website, Healthy Spectator, which is a platform to help people find inner-balance … Read more ›

Op-Ed: An Open Letter to President Biden in Light of Prime Minister Modi’s Visit to the States

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state visit
The following open letter is written by Hindus for Human Rights, an organization advocating for pluralism, civil and human rights in South Asia and North America, rooted in the values of Hindu faith: shanti (peace), nyaya (justice) and satya (truth). They provide a Hindu voice of resistance to caste, Hindutva (Hindu nationalism), racism, and all forms of bigotry and oppression.

Dear President Biden,

As Indian-Americans, human rights organizations, and concerned allies, we are writing to urge you to engage publicly and meaningfully to push back against the Indian government’s escalating attacks on human rights and democracy, especially ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state visit to the United States.

Despite objective evidence that India’s democracy is under critical attack, you have not spoken out about this crisis. In early 2023, Indian authorities conducted retaliatory raids on the BBC’s Delhi and Mumbai offices for releasing a documentary about Prime Minister Modi. The week before the Summit for Democracy, the Indian government made three successive attacks on Indian democracy. First, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party expelled Rahul Gandhi from Parliament. Second, the Indian government shut the internet down in Punjab, severely impacting the rights for Sikhs to peacefully organize and protest. And third, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that Indians can be found guilty by association for terrorism. And yet, not one representative from the Biden Administration said anything about even one of these developments. Instead, while Islamophobic violence gripped India in late March, you invited Prime Minister Modi to speak at the Summit for Democracy. Mr. Modi visits DC at a time when the state of Manipur has experienced heavy communal and anti-Christian violence after Modi’s ruling party pushed an initiative to undermine Indigenous rights in the state.

Even when confronted with questions by Indian reporters about human rights in India, your administration has only had private two-way conversations about how both of our governments can always improve. Quite frankly, we find it unacceptable to see such equivocation on Indian democracy from an administration that has been strident in its defense of American democracy and the rule of law. 

India is one of the fastest autocratizing nations in the world, mostly thanks to the current government. Freedom House has rated India as a “partly-free” country for the past three years, and has blamed Prime Minister Modi’s government for a rise in discriminatory policies, including persecution against Muslims and caste-based violence against Dalit and Adivasi communities; harassment of civil society, protestors, academia and the media, and the targeting of political opponents. It has also rated Indian-administered Kashmir as “not free,” citing violations of human, civil, and political rights after the Modi government revoked the territory’s autonomous status. In Reporters Without Borders press freedom ranking, India has dropped to 161 out of 180 countries in 2023. India has appeared in the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Impunity Indexwhich examines accountability for unsolved journalists’ murders — every year for the past 15 years and currently ranks in 11th place worldwide. According to PEN America’s Freedom to Write Index, in 2022, India was one of the top 10 countries that jailed writers globally. The Varieties of Democracy Institute characterizes India as an “electoral autocracy” and blames India’s descent into autocracy on Prime Minister Modi. And the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has said India has been one of the top 15 countries at risk for a mass atrocity event every year since 2017, which reflects the toxicity of Indian politics under Modi. 

Given the magnitude of this crisis, we ask you to engage directly with Indian-American and human rights civil society leaders to explore solutions to address India’s human rights crisis. We also ask you to employ the tools at your disposal to ensure that the Indian government cannot attack Indians’ human rights with impunity. As the 2022 Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor report details, several government individuals have committed human rights violations that, under U.S. law, would qualify them to be sanctioned under the Global Magnitsky Act. Indian security forces that have engaged in human rights violations should have security assistance rescinded, under the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961. 

Finally, we urge you to publicly call on the Indian government to honor its commitments to human rights, including calling on Prime Minister Modi and his cabinet to halt the use of anti-terror laws to arbitrarily detain political critics. You can publicly denounce the rising numbers of political prisoners and the weaponization of the rule of law in India to shut down criticism. Even if you are not willing to personally criticize the Prime Minister, you have ample opportunity to criticize the Indian government’s misuse of public trust and public institutions to consolidate power and undermine the will of the Indian people.

As President of the United States of America, you hold a unique position to lead the fight against authoritarianism. Prime Minister Modi will listen to you when you speak. But he and his allies will only change if you take a stand publicly. We urge you to listen to those of us who care about India and ensure that one man cannot steal the futures and the rights of our loved ones in India.

— Signed by countless organizations and individuals leading the charge (linked here).

Joyland: A Film Rising Above Unacceptability With a Story of Acceptance


Haider wades his way through Karachi’s expansive beach, climbing and tumbling over rocks, in Mumtaz’s memory. The vast landscape is perfectly encapsulated in the 4:3 aspect ratio — an unconventional yet welcoming choice. He vanishes into the sea, leaving his storyline open-ended. The screen fades to black. The film comes to a close. The gentle humming and lapping of the waves disappear. However, I stay put. Stumped, and unable to comprehend the masterpiece that Saim Sadiq, director of “Joyland”, has blessed Pakistanis with.

[Read Related: Pakistan Had its First-Ever Trans Pride Parade in Lahore]

The winner of the jury prize at the Cannes film festival, as well as Pakistan’s entry for the Academy Awards 2023, “Joyland” has been marred with controversies (and subsequent bans) from the onset of its win. Ironic, since the film’s core message promotes tolerance and acceptance. Tolerance for unconventional norms, sexual/gender identities, and human emotions and desires.

“It’s so important to narrate these stories in today’s world, where we’re often divided and seldom united,” says producer Apoorva Charan during an exclusive chat with Brown Girl Magazine.

It’s her feature film debut as a producer, and she’s justifiably beaming with pride.

Joyland is such a win for South Asia, but particularly, Pakistani storytelling. Every person I met, I felt like there was some characteristic or quirk about them that mirrored our characters in the film.

Set in the depths of androon Lahore, “Joyland” primarily revolves around Haider (Ali Junejo) — a meek, unemployed house husband in a borderline, passionless marriage. He’s happily helping Saleem bhai (Sohail Sameer) and Nucci bhabi (Sarwat Gilani) raise three kids, while the fourth one breaks Nucci’s water in the opening scene. Another girl is born, despite the ultrasound’s previous declaration of a baby boy. 

“If I were to receive an award based on my character in “Joyland”, it’d definitely be for “best at single-handedly increasing the population of Pakistan,” says Gillani, as we howl with laughter during our spoiler-riddled chat with the cast of the film. “I think that, combined with the ‘coolest bhabi’ — those two will have my name on them.”

But Nucci’s wasn’t just a bhabi who pumped out a new baby every year. Sarwat’s character was given some level of agency — a woman who reminisced about a career in interior design before marriage and kids while smoking a cigarette in secrecy.

I think my philanthropic work plays a part in how I started saying no to bechari roles. How can I be a role model to these women I’m trying to help, while playing the same characters? The change came about with “Churails” and I vehemently stuck to it. My characters need to have a voice; a backbone.

On the other hand, Haider’s wife, Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq), works as a beautician at the local salon, busy dolling up brides in Lahore’s unpredictable load-shedding.

Both Haider and Mumtaz seem to have a relatively stable marriage based equally on societal expectations and gender-flipped roles. While Haider stays home, helps in the kitchen, and attempts at searching for a traditional job, Mumtaz carves autonomy and independence for herself. This is in spite of an oppressive family life characterised and dictated by Haider’s overly conservative, traditionalist father and patriarch, Rana (Salmaan Peerzada), who wishes for the couple to procreate a cricket team of just boys. 

But Rana, known as Abba Jee, is also layered with his own 50 shades of grey, struggling with loneliness and a lack of intimacy, mirrored in his relationship with next-door neighbour Fayyaz (Sania Saeed). His emotional desires are symbolised by his physical impediments — the former handicapped with “what will people say”, and the latter with a wheelchair. The rules that he has for his children are the same that his children have for him, bound by tradition, norms, and society. They are not allowed to stray from what is considered “normal”.

The film’s women are strong which is pretty much a reflection of the women in Sadiq’s life. While Abba Jee shuns the love and companionship that Fayyaz offers, she stands her ground until firmly asked to leave. The complexity of each person’s emotions versus expectations is what makes “Joyland” relatable on a human level.

Rasti Farooq channels Mumtaz’s apprehensions and predicament with the utmost believability.

Alternatively, Mumtaz’s relationship with Haider is based on convenience and habit, where two people share the same bed but sleep facing away (partially because one of Saleem and Nucci’s young daughters crashes with them every night, illustrating the confined space both Haider and Mumtaz are allowed to be themselves in). The dynamics of their marriage drastically evolve once Haider’s eye catches Biba (Alina Khan), covered in blood as she walks numbingly into the hospital where Nucci gave birth. The introductory scene mirrored the brutal reality of violence inflicted upon Pakistan’s trans community; one of “Joyland’s” most haunting moments. 

Mumtaz is asked to quit her job once Haider lands a gig as a “theatre manager” — a cover-up for his job as a background dancer at the nightclub Biba coincidentally performs at. The film portrays the traditional Pakistani marital social dynamic; men must work, and women must housekeep. Even when some level of independence is allowed to a married woman, she must forego her right to a career later in life. Understandably, it leaves Mumtaz devastated.

“It’s so strange how that’s just an acceptable act in our society,” Farooq chimes in, voicing Mumtaz’s thoughts. “Even if a woman is good at a 100 things, ultimately, she’s expected to quit her job to be a homemaker because that’s ‘her job’.”

With time, Haider falls into a routine and rhythm of working at the theatre and spending more time with Biba, allowing him an insight into the widespread transphobia she’s regularly faced with. Biba confides her innermost desire to be what she termed as “a complete woman” in order to land the same dancing opportunities as her counterparts.


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Haider’s daring closeness to Biba leaves Mumtaz — who at this point is reliant on him as a best friend more than the physical intimacy he fitfully provides her — alone, isolated, and depressed. For Haider, it is liberating to leave problems at home and escape into a secret world centred around his deepest desires. He doesn’t want to be a bad person. He doesn’t wish to hurt or leave his wife. But his happiness now seemingly lies in dancing and exchanging stolen kisses with Biba. Farooq agrees:

I think Mumtaz and Haider were best friends at this point. They had an unspoken love for each other, which stemmed from the sanctity of their relationship. They might not be in love but they did love each other. In the eyes of our society and otherwise, they were married, but they’d drifted so far apart. There was love but it wasn’t possible to return from how distant they were.

This point of no return brings Haider to a crossroads — one where he is torn between his loyalty to Mumtaz and his love for Biba. Ultimately and ironically, in a particularly passionate moment, it is his curiosity pertaining to Biba’s sexuality that drives her to throw him out of her life. Defeated and guilt-ridden, he comes face-to-face with a pregnant and non-confrontational Mumtaz, who, by now, is aware of what Haider has been up to but doesn’t have the mental capacity to verbally digest his infidelity alongside a child she doesn’t want.

Her apprehensions about bearing and raising children are indicated throughout the early days of her pregnancy. The clutching of her stomach, the tightening of the rollercoaster belt during a visit to Joyland park, and her unease during the ultrasound are just a few examples of Mumtaz’s angst. 

Abba Jee’s 70th birthday was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Mumtaz, surrounded by family and friends and feeling emptier than ever, takes her own life. A tragic full circle where one life ends as the other begins. Her suicide is harbingered by Rana’s birthday speech as he recalls a palmist once saying his bloodline would end with Haider. 

[Read Related: #JusticeforJulie: Pakistan’s Failure to Protect its Vulnerable Trans Population]

“Joyland” is replete with polarity. There is a seamless hand-in-hand flow of happiness and devastation, longing and antipathy, birth and death. Pakistani society’s struggles with misogynistic gender roles are depicted in the most gentle, sensitive, and nuanced ways. The struggle is also ironic, considering Pakistan has one of the most progressive transgender legislations in the world. Trans people have the right to self-identify their ­gender in Pakistan – a right still denied to the trans community in many progressive countries, such as the UK.

A deeply reflective film with memorable and emotional characters doing justice to their performances. It’s currently running in cinemas here in the UK, and we highly recommend watching this poignant piece of art.

Photos Courtesy: Studio Soho/Khoosat Films

By Queenie Shaikh

Desk bound by day and travel bound all other times – Queenie thrives on her weekly dose of biryani and … Read more ›