Aisha Zia, Playwright, Sahar Speaks: Voices of Women from Afghanistan
As part of the run-up to our production of ‘Sahar Speaks: Voices of Women from Afghanistan’ we are interviewing each of our team members. Starting with our playwrights. Each of our talented playwrights has been tasked with adapting one of the true-life stories from the Sahar Speaks project for our production at Theatre 503 in October. We spoke to Aisha Zia, who lives in London and is one of Theatre 503’s resident playwrights; to ask her about the task in hand, the concept of ‘childhood’ and how playwriting is a form of activism.
Aisha Zia, Playwright, Sahar Speaks:
"I’m quite comfortable writing about difficult subjects because I feel it’s important to bring them to mainstream attention. It’s a form of activism and if we don’t raise awareness then these human rights violations will continue. We can’t live in a world where we turn a blind eye to other people’s issues." Aisha Zia, Playwright
Had you heard of the ‘Sahar Speaks’ project before you were asked to be involved in this production?
I hadn’t but when I was approached I read some of the stories on the Sahar Speaks website. The project sounded like it had lots of scope for adaptation for stage. The voices were authentic and urgent, and I was drawn to the fact that this was giving real people a platform to share their stories. I work a lot with testimonies so felt this was a very well placed project for me.
The play is called ‘Spengul’s Mum’. It’s a short play about child marriage based on one of the stories from Sahar Speaks. Which I built on with some interviews with 7-year-old girls and my own research.
What excites you most about adapting this story?
I always enjoy playing with an idea, making theatre in a way where you can use light and playfulness to show the dark.
How did you approach adapting the original text?
I wanted to explore what being seven years old means to most of us. What are our fond memories of childhood? I spent some time speaking to 7-year-old girls in the UK about their experiences of being 7. Once I had done this, I was able to weave this with the experiences of a 7-year-old girl from Afghanistan, highlighting similarities and differences.
I then wrote about the experiences of child-brides, in particular focusing in on the Sahar Speaks story to draw our attention back to the violation of childhood and what that actually means in real time.
Is there any resonance with any personal experience for you in the story?
I feel fortunate to have had a privileged upbringing as a second-generation migrant I am a British citizen. It did make me think about how different my life could have been had I been brought up somewhere like Afghanistan, or Pakistan. I also wanted to write the play for third or fourth generation migrant children who might not quite understand what it’s like in other parts of the world, for children their age as they are so far removed from their cultural heritage. So it’s for them really. I liked the idea of connectivity.
Your play is adapted from a true story about a 7 year old girl being married to an adult male. Sensitive and controversial subject matter. How did you feel about that?
I’m quite comfortable writing about difficult subjects because I feel it’s important to bring them to mainstream attention. It’s a form of activism and if we don’t raise awareness then these human rights violations will continue. We can’t live in a world where we turn a blind eye to other people’s issues. They are all of our issues and just because we don’t see it, and it hasn’t happened to us, it doesn’t mean that we are not affected by it. Real people being heard for the first time and the need for change inspire me.
I think it’s important for people who have direct experience to speak up about their own experiences so that we are not stereotyping or creating cultural appropriation. We need authentic voices, and genuine representation.
Has working on this play changed your worldview in any way?
It made me think a lot about the value of childhood, and how precious it is. Also how fortune we are, and most of our problems (as adult parents and children) are first world problems.
What are you most looking forward to about the production of Sahar Speaks at Theatre 503?
I’m really looking forward to rehearsals and working with a cast and directors to see how we can bring the play to life.
Aisha is currently working on a play about teenage pregnancy for Curve Theatre in Leicester and a play about honour based abuse for Contact Theatre in Manchester. She is an associate artist with Common Wealth and a resident writer at Theatre 503.
Each performance is followed by AfterWords: A Post-Performance discussion with a panel of specialists on Afghanistan.