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Last Updated: Wednesday, 3 May 2006, 11:37 GMT 12:37 UK
'I want to open people's minds'
Sara Kohal
Sara's aunt is an actress in Iran and inspired her
Sara Kohal is no ordinary aspiring actress. The 20-year-old wears the hijab, the traditional head-covering worn by many Muslim women.

She freely admits she is a wannabe, scrambling to get a foothold in a notoriously difficult profession.

But as a practising Muslim, she faces all sorts of obstacles when she portrays a character. She does not drink or smoke, she must be careful about touching men - and obviously she cannot show anything other than her face and hands.

She contacted the BBC News website because she was frustrated by the lack of opportunity and because she wants to see greater representation of Muslim women on stage and screen.

Watch an interview with Sara Kohal

At the age of 13, Sara joined the Junior Television Workshop in Nottingham and has performed on stage, both at school and at university, since then. She was also selected for a part in the ITV children's series Dangerville.

In her gap year, she auditioned for Rada and got through to the final interview. Now she's studying genetics at Bristol University - the fall-back plan, she calls it - but is still approaching agents and directors for work.

If you are going to walk in and most of your head is covered and you're not going to remove your scarf, that is your blank canvas
Jean Rogers, Equity
The response has not always been encouraging. One agent replied saying there would be no scope for someone who wore the hijab.

"If you wear your headscarf all the time I would also advise you that a career in acting would not be suitable," it reads.

"Not only are actors required to be flexible with their image you may also find yourself compromised in terms of content in scripts."

Sara says her image should not be the only thing a director sees.

"I've never seen it as a restriction, for me it's a creative challenge how I can make it believable and yet get around it," Sara says.

Sara Kohal
Sara sees the constraints of her religion as creative challenges

She points out that she knows some parts would not work -"I would never put myself up for the part of Juliet, I will always go for the nurse" - but says there are few parts she doesn't think are open to her, providing the director has the imagination.

But surely that's the problem? She is asking a director to limit his or her creative freedom. Jean Rogers, vice president of Equity, says Sara is limiting herself because drama is a visual industry - and so there is always going to be an element of discrimination.

"People make suppositions on what they see. Unless you get the chance to be told what they are after, most actors try to play down anything they think will put people off. You try to be a blank canvas.

"If you are going to walk in and most of your head is covered and you're not going to remove your scarf, that is your blank canvas.

Sara points out that she can wear a wig or a hat to cover her head. And she's hardly alone in creating restrictions for herself: plenty of actors have nudity clauses in film contracts, for example.

Sara Kohal
A career in genetics beckons if acting does not work out

Sara's views go beyond her own career though. She wants to see a broader representation of Muslim women on stage and screen.

There are female Muslim detectives, nurses and office workers in modern Britain, she says. "That's not represented at all.

"I've never seen a Muslim woman in a drama or anything, playing a part other than either a terrorist, a drug smuggler or a woman being abused at home. I think that's wrong - that's not what Muslim women are about. It's a minority image of them."

She wants to see a nurse on Casualty wearing the hijab, for instance. "The first one you will see will be 'Wow, we've never seen this before', but people will get used to it."

Opening minds

Ms Rogers points out that we have a tradition of experimental theatre in Britain - but that commercial TV, for instance, will not branch out.

But she believes Sara has a point about ethnic minority representation. "A lot of ethnic minorities could say the same. There's got to be a 'token black person'."

The BBC says it is committed to reflecting diversity.

We see lots of women adopting traditional dress and yet very rarely represented within drama both in terms of TV or live theatre
William Harris, lecturer

Sara says: "I do want to start opening people's minds about it because even if the roles are small, you can catch people's eyes. Even if you're in the background, people are going to say: 'oh?'.

"Once people start accepting they will see you in bigger roles.

"I do want the bigger roles and open their eyes to what could be. It will happen."

Fine actors

William Harris, senior lecturer in drama at Middlesex University, says it is important students like Sara are encouraged. "Otherwise, we are missing out on a large section of the community we need to understand."

He points out that drama makers are not there to change society - they are there to entertain. "Thinking beyond the archetype can be difficult because you've got your audience in mind.

"The audience has to believe what it's being offered. It's possible to change attitudes in society but it's not their first port of call."

Aspirants like Sara are in a double bind, he says: we need them to portray an under-represented part of the community, and yet they cannot receive the full professional training because of the limitations their faith puts on them.

"We see lots of women adopting traditional dress and yet very rarely represented within drama both in terms of TV or live theatre," he says.

But he thinks there is hope, citing the way young black actors 10 or 15 years ago were chosen to play parts because of their colour; now they are chosen simply because they are fine actors.

"There's a possibility that change could be made," he says. "It takes young actors and playwrights and film-makers of courage to make the change."

Your comments

If you insist on strict rules it is difficult to play different characters
John Hooper, Southampton
I am an aspiring actor. However I don't wear a hijab so I don't receive press attention. I think that it would be good to see a Muslim character in something like EastEnders, with positives and negatives like all the characters, but if you insist on strict rules it is difficult to play different characters.
John Hooper, Southampton

There is considerable controversy in Islam whether the hijab is part of the religion or not. Perhaps Sara is unnecessarily limiting her scope as an actress.
Kevin Straw, London

As an actor, you have to be flexible to almost ANYTHING a director wishes you to portray - some of the greatest actors are so because they can portray such a wide scope of characters. If Sara cannot adhere to that, which it appears she can't, she is in the wrong business!
Helen, Bedford

I am sure she has an artistic and creative mind. But why does she have to subordinate to her faith to such an extent that it would prevent her from an acting career? Perhaps a role as nun would be ideal for her.
Kamath, Ottawa, Canada

Sara makes a valid point, but she has no chance of making it, because a non Muslim actor can don a hijab a play the role, whereas she will not be able to play a role of a non Muslim. Shed be advise to find another career, doctor?
Abdul, UK

I think she can certainly play a role in dramas where there is a representation of the Muslim community. Producers and directors should look into this and get the aspiring actors/actresses casted for programmes which will not only help bridge the gap between the societies but also will make awareness about the religions.
Larik, London

For all we know we may see a great number of Muslim actors on a daily basis on TV and in films - but they may not be playing Muslim characters. Just as a "Christian" or "Hindu" or whatever actor will be asked to play parts which may not reflect their own religion, a Muslim actor must be willing to be the blank canvas for the director to paint a character onto. If Sara is going to insist on wearing a scarf which marks her out immediately as Muslim, then she will find it hard to be that blank canvas. Incidentally - why is it acceptable for a Muslim woman to wear a wig to cover her natural hair?
George, Scotland

The hijab should not prevent her from achieving her goals
Sarah Pond, Hitchin
I also agree with Sara and look at her, she is gorgeous. With a lovely face like that and good acting ability then she should get parts. The hijab should not prevent her from achieving her goals in life.
Sarah Pond, Hitchin

Given how many young people want to be actors, and the paucity of work for even those who manage to get through drama school, it is hardly surprising that someone with such a limited range of roles available is unable to break into the industry. On the other hand, Sara's point about the general representation of Muslim women in the media is a very good one, and William Harris' comments about the purpose of drama in society would not, I think, win widespread approval.
Kasimir, Oxford

The point of an actor is to be a blank canvass which can take on the persona of whatever the story requires. Playing a Muslim woman solely is a huge restriction, on her dress, and what she can portray. So, basically she wants to play herself, a very rewarding career....not.
Kate Wingate, London

All power to her. At least she's not kowtowing to what people expect of celebrities. She seems a strong person who expresses herself fearlessly, and that's a good quality for any actor or actress. I hope people in this country soon start becoming less narrow-minded.
Tamzin, Leeds, UK

I think she's deluding herself - television and film is a visual medium, and if she's restricting herself in how she looks, then no casting director will choose her over a more moderate Muslim actress. There's always radio plays, of course...
Christopher Teague, Wales

I think Sara is right in that we don't see may Muslim women in everyday roles on TV or films and that should change to be more representative of our society. Not all Muslim women wear the hijab at work it is personal choice. However, as an actress she is portraying characters, people other than herself and in order to do so she needs adopt the costume and mannerisms of that persona. So she would have to loose all aspects of herself in order to pretend to be someone else, which all actors do regardless of their personal preferences.
Louise, UK

Sara says she would play the nurse in Romeo and Juliet - every time I have seen this part played the actress has worn a scarf. There are loads of period dramas where women wear scarves. And that picture of Sara with a wig on... She is covering her hair creatively there. Give the girl a chance... If she feels actiing is in her then why not. All this nonsense about blank canvases - every actor is chosen because they bring a certain something to the part. Let her bring her will, determination and calm to the parts she plays.

To my mind, this is a clash between two completely different cultures. Sara seems to want the best of both, and I wouldn't be particularly sure that can be done at all times. Anyway, good luck!
Florentina, Sinaia, Romania

What's this about actors being 'blank canvas'? If there'd be nothing distinguishing one over the other (all blank canvasses), then why do directors have preferences? And isn't acting world bigger than directors alone? I believe someone like Sara could play almost any role, except where it involves nudity etc of course...why always focus on what hijabi women CAN'T do instead of what we CAN do?! Everyone has his boundaries. Good for Sara to stand up for her ambitions, without sacrificing her beliefs!
Rianne, B'ham, UK

I have one question for Sara. Do Muslim males, whether they aspire to be actors or not, have to cover their hair when in public? No? Enough said I think.
Pat Weyman, Kingston, Ontario,. Canada

It's her choice to wear the hijab and she is perfectly free to make that choice. She needs to recognise that she is deliberately limiting her acting opportunities though.
Simon Murphy, Amsterdam

I somehow find her stand for 'modesty' and the choice of her career are repellent to each other.Let muslims start their own film making and make films relevant to their culture.She might look into finding jobs in the Egyptian film industries.
Truman, -

After reading your comments, I am very surprised, as artists, you are so closed-minded. I am a thriving muslim actor and I adhere to muslim dogma and get a lot of work. The hijab can be easily masked or incorporated into the role using modern make-up. We all need to start thinking openly in order to change our restrictions, because, remember, in Shakespeare's days, men played the women!
Doc, Los Angeles,CA


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