• The Challenges and Rewards of Playing a Muslim Character

    by  • February 1, 2013 • Essays • 7 Comments

    The NWoD game “Geist:  The Sin-Eaters” is a difficult game to summarize.  It’s essentially a game of ordinary people who almost die, make a bargain with a “geist,” (a type of spirit or force of nature) and return to life with supernatural powers.  However, in exchange for this second chance at life, they are permanently bound to this “geist” for better or for worse, for pretty much the rest of their lives.  My last character, Lucy, committed suicide because she just couldn’t deal with the situation and I wanted to create a more emotionally stable character this time.  I also wanted a character who was different from Lucy, yet still challenging.  I like developing characters that I can learn from as well as enjoy in the course of play and story development.

    Last spring, I created  Yasna Osmani, a Pakistani-American Muslim who came to the US when she was two years old.  Her father died when she was 8. Yasna recently survived brain cancer by agreeing to be bound to a child Geist that herself died from a deadly illness in the early 20th century.

    My views of Islam have changed radically since I started playing this character.  If anything, I think it takes tremendous courage to be Muslim in the United States, despite our self-perception of tolerance.  As I prepared for this character, I had no idea how my ideas would change, particularly in wearing Muslim dress and in deciding in front of whom I was comfortable wearing Muslim dress.

    Even though Yasna is a Muslim, I find that I subconsciously created a character very similar to me.  I was raised a Portuguese-American Catholic in the Central Valley of California.  It’s a pretty conservative Catholicism, about a step removed from Rome and Ireland, if even that.  I became a liberal Catholic in my late teens and an atheist in my 30s.  Now, I’ve slowly re-approached organized religion from the very liberal Congregationalist angle.  Yasna was raised in a conservative religious household as well, but finds herself challenging the strictness of some of those beliefs.

    Yasna has a mother with whom she has some serious issues.  Her mother wants her to stay at home and take care of her.  My mother certainly never wanted me to leave home either.  Yasna is an only child and I’m an only child as well.  She is fighting her way to pursue higher education which is something her family never wanted.  I had to fight to leave home and go to college rather than staying home after high school.

    I play Geist as a LARP (live-action role-playing game).  I decided that I wanted to have the full experience of playing my character so my costuming involves the headscarf and modest American dress (long sleeves and long dresses or loose-fitting clothing).  I’m very lucky because I am ethnically Portuguese, dark-haired and olive-skinned.  While not a prerequisite, it helps me to get into character and, hopefully, makes me a bit more believable for my fellow players.

    Does dressing like a Muslim woman in the United States make a difference in my role-playing?  Absolutely.  Why?  Because it makes me visible.  It’s easy to say “I’m a Muslim,” but to look like one is very different.  It emphasizes the role that I am playing every time I play it.  And this is great if I am with players that do not have an issue with that, but I have found that I hesitate when new players or new faces appear because I don’t know who they are or what their beliefs are.

    For a long time, especially during my atheist phase, I had an extremely negative view of most religions.  Like many Americans after the September 11 attacks, I had a particularly negative view of Islam.  One rarely hears anything positive about Islam, between the violence and misogyny in some Muslim countries, such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, that regularly appear on American news.  I’ve known very few Muslims as well and, sadly, this lack of social contact reflects the experience of many Americans.

    So, why would I choose to create this particular character?

    I chose to create this character for the very reasons stated above.  I don’t know much about Islam or the Muslim world.  I live in a country where we have an increasing Muslim population and a city where Muslims are very common (two women wearing hijabs work at the Starbucks of all places and I see more and more working at my own place of employment) and it is one of the three major monotheistic religions.  I have heard estimates of 1 billion Muslims in the world now.

    But I also have to admit that I was also inspired by something rather silly….the Canadian show Little Mosque on the Prairie.  I thought it showed Muslims as very ordinary people, while still being Muslim.   It was a comedy and, I thought, very funny.  It humanized Muslims and, particularly, Muslim females.  One of the main Muslim female characters owned her own restaurant while another one was a doctor.

    I admit I started my research by trying to read the Qur’an, but was told by a friend who had served as a diplomat in Pakistan that I wouldn’t learn much about actual Muslim culture through the Qur’an alone.  So I’ve been reading other books by conservatives, liberals, Muslims and non-Muslims.  I started watching Al-Jazeera with my husband (a long-time viewer).  I’ve noticed Muslim women around me.  How they act, how they dress, etc.

    Oddly enough, the greatest challenge thus far though has been trying to reconcile Yasna’s religious beliefs with her life as a Sin-Eater.  My husband plays a Catholic priest in the game (and, no, there isn’t a Jewish character so no jokes!)  Our characters are both, of course, religious, but he is a Jesuit and she is a University student.  Neither is a fundamentalist or a literalist, and yet we are struggling on developing the concept of our krewe ( a “krewe” is essentially a street gang of Sin-Eaters, but when you form one, you get benefits…..long story.)  We need to more or less agree on a mythology of life, death, the Underworld, and ghosts.  We need to agree on what each of our Geists actually is and what it stands for.  We need to also develop an ethos, what we will and will not do.  It’s hard, even for two people who are married outside of the game!

    And I’m aware that there are some people who would have issues with the choice I’ve made and not want to play with me.  This has been the biggest eye-opener for me.  I was privy to  a conversation once prior to creating Yasna and in-between games.  A psy ops army officer bound for a second trip to Afghanistan was triggered by a statement I made, as just plain old Anna, that I didn’t want to occupy Iran.  He became quite….animated.  He started circling the table, discussing his experience in Iraq, how Arabs were a blade culture, how he had seen someone being skinned alive for being an interpreter, how the only way to defeat these people is to take them over and remake them in our own image.  A Desert Storm and a couple of Bosnia veterans joined in and no one spoke in my defense.  Sadly, I felt targeted for being a) a woman voicing an opinion and b) being a liberal.  And, remember, this was before I even conceived of my character Yasna.  It left me pretty rattled.

    My foreign diplomat friend and a psychologist friend both counseled me to avoid this individual, as he may have seen one too many tours of duty.  He’s gone for now, but other military types remain.  Now, I make sure that I yank off the headscarf before anyone from this subsequent game appears.

    I also worry because Geist may not continue for much longer in our club.  If it does, it will be combined into a cross-venue with werewolves, vampires, etc.  This could lead to interaction with particular military veterans and aficionados. It worries me to appear as a Muslim woman in front of these people I’m sorry to say.  So, I think the end of Yasna may be very near.  It is unfortunate, but it’s made me aware of what a long way we have to go as a country if I find myself intimated during nothing more than a role-playing game.

    I do believe though that I have at least tried to do her justice by playing her responsibly and respectfully.  She is and will always be one of my favorite characters.  Essentially, one can portray any ethnic or religious group for what they fundamentally are.  And that is a human being.

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    About

    I was always interested in D&D from the time I found Basic and AD&D at my local hardware store while in junior high. I bought both and found out that only boys played and I wasn't allowed to play with boys :-(. At the age of 38, I joined a group with my husband and played tabletop for 2 years. Now we LARP together in World of Darkness games. We are also working on some Call of Cthulu, Mouseguard and Savage Worlds tabletop games. I'm probably the odd person out having come to the hobby so late in life compared to others. My special love is plot, character development, interaction, and DRAMA!! In real life, I'm a tax auditor and an animal shelter volunteer.

    7 Responses to The Challenges and Rewards of Playing a Muslim Character

    1. avatar
      vickeya
      February 1, 2013 at 20:22

      I hadn’t thought I’d be interested in this article, but after reading the first couple of paragraphs in the e-mail, I ended up reading all the way through.

      The real-life interaction with some vets is disheartening. I’m inclined to think the responses were more based on the “you weren’t there, you don’t know” attitude I’ve seen out of other military folks, including at least one relative. It’s much like the “you’re not a parent, you aren’t entitled to an opinion on child-rearing” statements lobbed at those of us who aren’t parents, but who have to contend with those folks children’s behavior. Regardless, the feelings you were left with won’t change even if that was the case. Being targeted isn’t fun or comfortable. That it happened with fellow gamers is particularly saddening.

      I’m glad you shared this story. I’ve only ever LARPed once, but I can appreciate what you did and the results of it. I find it fascinating that it caused a change in your real-life understanding. Those are the most noble aspects of gaming: when gaming results in real-life positive experiences.

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    2. avatar
      khayankh
      February 3, 2013 at 00:37

      I’m kind of curious about what “dressing like a Muslim woman” entails or entailed for you, beyond apparently wearing hijab. There is a degree to which, as LARPers, I feel like it’s important for us to be careful about appropriating the religious imagery of other people/cultures, especially already marginalized cultures. Yes, every person is fundamentally human, but not every ethnic and spiritual tradition belongs equally to all humans. If you use my religious rituals or symbols in your game because you think they will make the game more ~interesting~ and ~exotic~ and give you a better insight into my culture, I am intensely suspicious of you and I may not want to LARP with you. This is ten times more true for Christians interacting with minority religions in this way, because there has been a lot of appropriation and disrespect along those lines, and some of it was extremely violent.

      I’d also be aware that whatever your understanding of an identity through LARP might be, it’s an understanding *through LARP* and not reality. Seriously, my understanding of the experience of being a non-USian person or possessing any other identity in a LARP is filtered through the ways the GMs/writers build that identity (hey, if you think the representation of Silent Striders as Romani isn’t at least a little fucked, I think you don’t have two clues to rub together), filtered through my understanding of the identity, and filtered through the understandings of the rest of the player group. A lot of player groups are either a) more liberal than the general culture and/or b) reluctant to play bigotry to the hilt, because they’re reluctant to act in bigoted ways towards people they know are out-of-game members of their own culture and not Other.

      Your LARP community sounds like it’s full of racist assholes. This makes sense to me, as my experience has been that WoD is full of racist, ableist, generally clueless assholes, and that WoD writers are really comfortable using spiritual imagery that is not theirs (see also: “voodoo” and the Loa in the source books) in really damn gross ways.

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      • avatar
        Dani
        February 3, 2013 at 22:05

        Anna, do you think your experiences at games would have been the same if everything about your character was identical except for wearing hijab?

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      • avatar
        Graham
        February 4, 2013 at 11:40

        It’s a delicate balance, isn’t it? You’re right to call attention to the way WoD has used various religions and cultures. It has often smacked of appropriation.

        To me, Anna’s article seems to come from a different place. The article was published on World Hijab Day, which encourages women to wear the hijab as an expression of solidarity and religious tolerance.

        http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-21283301

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    3. avatar
      Anna
      February 4, 2013 at 19:42

      @Dani. I think that my experience would have been different because I wouldn’t be so self-aware of the character I’m playing. I could be just about anyone with just about any background. The only thing that makes Yasna “different,” is the hijab which reflects her religious belief. So, without her saying anything about it, her religious identify is declared and on the table immediately upon first sight.

      Hope that answers your question.

    4. avatar
      Richter_DL
      February 5, 2013 at 19:18

      Now, I apologise if this feels offensive to readers, but:

      You had a rare experience. You had the rare experience for an American to see the face of your country and culture as it presents itself to most of the world.

      I don’t think your LARP community is significantly more racist or aggressive as American culture in general is. In my experience with the writers and fanbase of Shadowrun, I have seen the same casual racism and arrogance – and not from the known jerks in the community, but from people who are convinced they’re liberal, worldly educated, and tolerant. But bring up a sourcebook about any country that is neither in North America or Britain and the prejudice flies. And don’t dare touch topics like Africa or Muslims. And Shadowrun traditionally has attracted a more liberalm than average crowd of fans and writers, probably due to the inherent criticism of free market and religion in everything cyberpunk. It’s a lot wore in the Fantasy realms, at least to my limited experience in those communities (which are mostly limited to a game of D&D on Mythweavers, but I’Ve heared rather discouraging things).

      It’s a larger problem than the local WoD LARPer community, at least.

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    5. avatar
      Paul
      February 6, 2013 at 20:29

      Thanks, Anna. I have long argued against using real religions in our fictional settings because one from outside will invariably get something wrong, perhaps to an offensive degree. Your article has forced me to reconsider. While I still hold as a general opinion, you have demonstrated that, while difficult, sufficient research will enable an exception.

      I will make a small quibble: the hijab is not worn by most Muslim women – more confining garb such as the burka, or no particularly different dress than the surrounding culture are more common, and its extensive use is fairly recent. Indeed, I find it ironic that the hair covering was mainly a military uniform of the Expansion, and the male equivalent in that period was to wear white or yellow. When I see photos of men enforcing the head (or more) covering while in black robes, I wonder if they are really motivated by religion.

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