Sameena Mustafa: Taking My Seat at the Table

Sameena Mustafa is a stand-up comedian and actor named in The Chicago Reader’s “Best of Chicago 2016” issue. She has been featured in The Onion videos and performed on world-famous stages like the Laugh Factory. A Northwestern alum, she recently founded Hand Her the Mic, an organization dedicated to empowering women of color. In 2015, she founded Simmer Brown, a diverse comedy showcase praised by the Chicago Sun-Times. In addition to her creative work, she advocates for nonprofits and small businesses as a commercial real estate broker and serves on the WBEZ/Vocalo Advisory Board.

The New Agenda and MALA are proud to launch the “Women of the USA,” a campaign to showcase Muslim women’s stories and voices.  Our goal is to spotlight the diversity and accomplishments of Muslim American women.  If you would like to share your story as part of this series, please submit your information here. Join the conversation by using #WOTUSA, and share your voice with us.

 

The Sunday before the 2016 presidential election, my husband and I stood in line for two hours to vote early. I tried not to let my worries diminish the excitement of voting for a woman candidate for President for the first time.

A few weeks earlier, I had the fortune to be cast in a play that created a rich narrative of the diversity of Chicago set in a mall during Christmastime. My South Asian Muslim character wore hijab and hewed to tradition, but transcended the Muslim woman stereotype of being invisible and silent. She could be brash, judgmental, and opinionated, but also funny, compassionate and tenderhearted.

I got in my car after rehearsal on election night with a knot in my stomach as I read my husband’s text: “It’s time to get scared.”

My character would not be the same just as I would not be the same. I knew we had to change my character’s monologue and worked with the playwright (an Egyptian Muslim man) to illustrate her struggle. Before the election, she could travel easily between intersecting worlds, but now mourned how life changed in an instant through angry tears shed night after night.

I rarely shed tears off stage, but channeled my grief through her. After one of my shows, an Israeli woman approached me in tears saying how much my performance moved her. Art could bring people together.

However, I realized that my fate and the future of Muslims, immigrants, and other marginalized groups would be decided by those hardened by fear and bigotry. It would not be enough to portray inclusive stories and demand representation on stage and screen. We needed to have a seat at the table when laws got drafted to restrict our entry and criminalize our institutions.

The election compelled me to switch gears and led me to pursue elective office. I have already been told to start hyperlocal and expect to be targeted as a Muslim woman. Thinking small and fear of attacks has kept women especially from achieving parity in government. My response: “If you tell me to stay in my lane, I’ll build a highway through your house.” I’ll create a path for myself and others regardless of what stands in my way.

To that end, I’ve sought out local and national organizations and elected officials that support progressive candidates. I’ve knocked on doors to understand the concerns of my community. My artistic focus has also shifted from producing a comedy show to creating programs and platforms for women of color and women pursuing higher office.

One of my favorite quotes when I want to motivate myself and others is from Alice Walker: “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.”

Instead of bracing for the next Executive Order, I’ll be harnessing the power within myself and bolster it by seeking out training and mentoring the next generation of strong women performers and advocates. Together, we’ll form a “brown wall” of power, heart, and determination.