The Hijabi Monologues
A Public Conversation Made Private
By Dilshad D. Ali
The hijab itself features as a prop, Sahar Ullah said, rather than as the central thing that shapes the monologues.
Standing on the darkened stage in Chicago in 2007, after the first-ever performance of the "Hijabi Monologues" was over, Sahar Ullah, a co-creator and writer of the drama fielded a question from an audience member who said something that made for the quintessential "aha" moment-- that defining moment when all the hard work Ullah and her friends had put into the drama elicited a defined light of clarity about what it was like to be a Muslim woman in America.
"He stood up and said 'I’m a black man, and people used to think black men are all bad,'" Ullah recalled. "And then he said, 'but you Muslims have it bad. When I’m at the airport and I see a woman who’s covered, I think, what does she have under there? Does she hide a bomb under there?' It was really telling, what he said.
"And then he said the real truth: 'I just realized that you’re people, and you’re good people.' The whole audience was quiet. It was pretty amazing what he said. It highlighted for us who are involved in the project why we do this," Ullah said.
That project, "The Hijabi Monologues" was conceived by Ullah and her friends, Dan Morrison and Zeenat Rehman in 2006 while the three were studying at the University of Chicago. The drama production is a series of monologues that relate unique and individual stories coming from the lives of real Muslim women.
The monologues are not meant to represent Islam or tell everyone’s stories. In fact, the hijab itself features as a prop, Ullah said, rather than as the central thing that shapes the monologues.
To have the audience members leave with questions, not answers. To not talk about why women wear or don’t wear the hijab, but rather what are the stories that Muslim women are living, and how do these stories weave themselves into the fabric of daily living?
"We debated the title of this production a lot but ultimately went with 'The Hijabi Monologues.' But one thing I wanted to make clear that we’re not telling everyone’s stories. We don’t represent everybody. We represent the stories of the people who are telling them.
These stories are about women who wear the hijab, but they don’t talk about their hijab all the time," Ullah said.
The show, which cut its teeth on university performances, is facing a milestone as it gears up to hits the famous Millennium Stage, an open-air theater at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. But behind the scenes the goal remains the same: To have the audience members leave with questions, not answers. To not talk about why women wear or don’t wear the hijab, but rather what are the stories that Muslim women are living, and how do these stories weave themselves into the fabric of daily living?
It’s All About Telling A Story
One monologue is called "Hitting on a Hijabi," and is a hilarious riff on all the different pick-up lines men use with Muslim women. Another is "The Football Story," which relates the story that started "The Hijabi Monologues," about when Ullah, as a hijab and niqab-wearing undergraduate at the University of Miami, struggled to find a place to pray while attending a college football game. Then there’s "I’m Tired," to which many minority groups and Muslim women are drawn: It’s a lonely dialogue by a hijab-clad woman who relates how she’s tired of being exposed and put up as a representation.
The medium of storytelling is what makes "The Hijabi Monologues" accessible in a way that bridge-building or dialogue sessions or "Islam 101" presentations cannot, says co-founder Zeenat Rehman, director of strategic partnerships at the Interfaith Youth Core. "Take the story of the African-American man who saw the program and what he said. You can’t get that reaction through eight hours of dialogue."
"One thing Zeenat and I talk about a lot is how the media always wants to put Muslim women on display as a good or bad representation." Sahar Ullah said.
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May Alhassen, a performer and organizer for the Monologues, said that the power of storytelling is "both timely and timeless. Oral tradition is a practice enshrined in the history of our faith. There is no better time than now to revive the spirit of storytelling and oral transmission of information of our experience as Muslims."
Alhassen came to "The Hijabi Monologues" not through auditioning, but through a correspondence with Ullah and after she saw the Los Angeles production in 2008 at the Islamic Center of Southern California.
Impressed by Alhassan’s drama experience and enthusiasm for the project, Ullah, though she had never met Alhassan in person, agreed to send her some of the monologues to perform. Alhassan ended up putting on a performance in Los Angeles. The two finally were united when they met later in Washington D.C. for a performance there.
Alhassen and Ullah agree that the one-woman storytelling aspect fosters a direct relationship with the audience, which in turn creates a walloping impact in a way that a traditional play or informative presentation on Islam cannot. It makes the "hijabi" stories relatable to everyone watching because the performers seek to create a meaningful relationship with viewers by focusing on the human aspects of each story.
"Simply, even as a non-hijabi," said Alhassen, "I relate to all the monologues on four levels—as a Muslim, an American, a woman, and a human being. That is how I, as a twenty-something single woman, can perform the role of a mother of four grieving the loss of her eldest son (in "My Son’s Wedding Feast") and as an unmarried, love-scorned pregnant teenager (in "Light on My Face"). I find the point of universal understanding and common human experience, because each [monologue] contains these elements."
People don’t want to be told what to think, Ullah added. They don’t want to be lectured at or preached at. "But when you hear a story, it’s so powerful because we say these are true stories. And when you tell a story, you allow a person to live that experience at that moment. They step into your shoes at that moment.
"Ground Zero is where we all agree that we are human beings," Ullah said. "After that we talk about ideas--I believe this, you believe that. But if people don’t even have the beginning point where we’re both human beings, then it’s very difficult to have a conversation. That’s what ‘The Hijabi Monologues’ is trying to achieve—that baseline where we are just human."
"There is no better time than now to revive the spirit of storytelling and oral transmission of information of our experience as Muslims."- said May Alhassen, a performer and organizer for the Monologues.
Why the Hijab Matters, and Why it Doesn’t
It’s called "The Hijabi Monologues," but it’s about Muslim women living their lives, and it’s about the humanness that everyone shares even though they don’t realize it, according to Ullah.
The hijab itself, the whole issue of how Muslim women dress or don’t dress is what can be the barrier against that basic human understanding. The hijab is how the creators and organizers of "The Hijabi Monologues" draw in the audience, but it’s the stories beyond the hijab that make the connection.
Alhassen, said though the production seeks to elevate the conversation beyond the hijab, Muslim women’s choice of dress has been and will continue to be a media magnet. Where as many Americans look upon the freedom of choice to be a right, with the hijab "the freedom of choice has been reduced down to clothing choice, which is in turn, is falsely perceived as a lack of choice," she said. "Why would anyone choose to wear a headscarf if it isn’t forced?
"It’s the imposition of this perceived standard of beauty … that holds Muslim women to such ludicrous interpretations of liberated womanhood—both covering and non-covering Muslim women," Alhassen added. "Because I don’t cover, people assume that I adopt a stock laundry list of liberal values that include drinking, smoking, and a disregard for salat [prayer]."
It’s these notions that "The Hijabi Monologues" seek to dismiss. That wearing the hijab, or not wearing it, is not a representation of the whole Muslim woman. That one must dig deeper. With that stance, the production takes on a symbolic role as well—dispelling myths and breaking down stereotypes.
With this thought in mind, Ullah plans to take the Monologues to Portland, Oregon, where a group of girls asked her to come and perform the production because there’s been talk of trying to ban the hijab in public schools. "Sometimes we’re called in for damage control," Ullah said.
The performance a few months back in Florida came on the heels of a situation where a mosque in Miami was vandalized a few times, and the culprits turned out to be Latino. "So the people who asked us to bring "The Hijabi Monologues" to Miami were Latino, and one of those women said she was hurt to see what some in her community had done to the mosque because they were a minority group as well," Ullah said.
So even though the organizers strive to make the hijab a prop in the production, it does become a flash point to opening up a deeper conversation on the problem of representation. "One thing Zeenat and I talk about a lot," Ullah said, "is how the media always wants to put Muslim women on display as a good or bad representation. And it shouldn’t be necessary that people should to expose their private lives.
"But if we need to expose our hijab stories, our Muslim women stories, our life stories just to get other people to realize, ‘Hey, we’re all human beings,’ then I’m willing to do it," Ullah said. "And the most rewarding part is when a Muslim girl who sees the show says to us, ‘I know that story. Now I know I’m not alone.'"