Salwa Meghjee moved from Orlando, Florida, to Berkeley in the fall of 2016 and was immediately met with the challenge of trying to find a community where she could belong. Meghjee came to UC Berkeley not knowing anyone, uncertain of her major. At home, she was a passionate member of the local theater community and had spent significant time advocating for diversity in the arts, so she began to look for spaces — in both extracurriculars and coursework — that would support those interests, initially to no avail.
When the communities at UC Berkeley didn’t seem like they were fitting her interests and needs, she took matters into her own hands; with the help of two friends last year, she founded Golden Women, an all-female theater company right here on campus.
“All through high school and middle school, the place that I found community and family was in theater,” said Meghjee in an interview. “And you come to Cal, and it’s this big huge school — it’s really hard to find that sense of family.”
Meghjee had heard that Harvard University had a theater company composed exclusively of women, and she was immediately inspired — she had lived on an all-girls floor in a residence hall during her freshman year and had fallen in love with the experiences she had there, as well as with the friendships she had formed.
“I knew that I enjoyed being around cool women doing cool things,” explained Meghjee. “I believe that there is a special bond between women who perform with each other, and that’s something to be fostered. And there’s a lot of love that can be found in communities like that.”
After spending time drafting a constitution and following the process for founding a student organization, Meghjee and her co-founders Lillian Avedian and Laure Barthelemy officially opened their doors to about a dozen new members.
The choice to focus exclusively on women was not done purely out of an eagerness to encourage female bonding in an artistic space — Meghjee feels strongly about the lack of support for women in the arts, and she wanted her club to counteract that.
“Even in high school I would have a lot of trouble finding opportunity, not only as a woman but as a woman of color, as a Muslim — I wore a hijab for 10 years. If you look different in this industry, then nobody pays attention to you,” said Meghjee. “There’s so few women directors and writers, the parts aren’t as good, they’re male-focused. … If there’s a hole there we can fill, my God, let’s fill it.”
Meghjee’s history of supporting diverse creative spaces is inspiringly long. During her senior year of high school, she wrote an essay detailing her experiences as a Muslim woman being told both by theater and Muslim communities that she didn’t belong near the stage and submitted it to a competition run by the Educational Theatre Association, after which she was invited to speak in Washington D.C. with the Americans for the Arts’ Arts Advocacy Day. She felt empowered in her ability to motivate tangible change and brought her passion to different conferences and panels, as well as to the ASUC on campus and to an internship working at the Lincoln Center in New York City.
During its first semester, Golden Women produced a comedy, written by Meghjee (who also co-directed with Avedian) and related to topics in mental health, titled “Who Wants To Be Mentally Stable?” The show focuses on a woman struggling to find a therapist — a frustrating experience Meghjee herself encountered at UC Berkeley.
“Freshman and sophomore year had a lot of mental health struggles. I did all the things you’re supposed to do — I went to (the Tang Center) to use my five free counseling sessions; in the first week of freshman year I went, and not to go into gruesome detail — I had a pretty bad experience.”
Meghjee avoided therapy for quite some time after finding the process unhelpful. Therapists often wouldn’t listen, were too expensive or were simply bad at their jobs. It’s a problem, Meghjee notes, that resonated with her friends who were similarly looking for support from therapy.
“It was a struggle — a struggle that I found really frustrating because, regardless, it would have been really hard, but it was really hard when it didn’t have to be really hard,” explained Meghjee, who then decided she wanted her comedy to focus on mental health but wasn’t initially sure how to frame it. “At its core it’s not funny. But I knew if you take three steps back and look at my stories and all the stories of people I know, they’re a little funny.”
With a completed script in hand, Golden Women set about to producing the show. It was a process not without its fair share of challenges. The “grassroots-y” organization received no money from the ASUC and booking rehearsal spaces proved difficult, so production was financed out-of-pocket and rehearsals would often take place in members’ apartments.
Now, Meghjee is looking ahead to the next production and to the future of Golden Women, which she plans to expand to about 17 or 18 members this semester. When asked how she sees the club growing over the next few semesters, Meghjee beamed with pride.
“It’s so much more big and alive than I ever thought it would be. … It started as an idea in my head,” began Meghjee. “And then all these new girls joined, who I never would’ve met otherwise, because we’re all so different. … They’re all some of my greatest friends at Berkeley and it’s definitely family/community-oriented.”
This semester, all of the club’s members will be writing a script together, and Meghjee hopes to encourage members to try anything they think they might be interested in — whether it be writing, directing or acting. In addition, she imagines Golden Women organizations starting on other college campuses, so that “women-centered arts spaces” can be accessible for more students than just those at Cal. But no matter what lies ahead for Golden Women, the group has already exceeded Meghjee’s wildest expectations.
“It’s not mine anymore; it’s not the three of ours anymore,” she said. “It’s all of theirs and what they’ve made it to be. It’s so much more — I had high hopes for it, but this far exceeded them. This is everything I wanted.”