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'The Hijabi Monologues': An Inverse Vagina Monologues Lifts Muslim Voices

"The Hijabi Monologues" is steeped in hip-hop, campus feminism and the American love of self-expression.
 
 
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A young girl wears an American flag headscarf to a parade. Courtesy AFP.
Photo Credit: AFP

 
 
 
 

“Do you know what it's like to represent a billion human beings every day you walk out of your house?” Kamilah Pickett asks.

Looking around the audience here at the University of Chicago, it seems like plenty of them do: the Muslim Students Association has done a good job with turn-out, and the wood-paneled, portrait-lined room is packed with hijabi women and their friends. Scattered in the crowd are a number of students who also turned out for last week's talk on “homo-nationalism” by the queer theorist Jasbir Puar. Heads nod; we are a sympathetic audience. 

“Do you know what that's like? It's exhausting,” she continues, “and it feels so...heavy. Sometimes it makes me angry, and I'm tired of it.”

Last Monday night marked the return of The Hijabi Monologues to its home campus, the University of Chicago, where it was founded in 2006 by three masters students at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies. The Monologues has ventured a long way from its origins, fanning out across North America and picking up new material as it goes. It's been performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington, at the American Embassies in Cairo and Ottawa, at community centers and college campuses acoss the country. It's been written up in Voice of America and the Los Angeles Times and featured on Inner Attainment Television.

It's hard not to see the appeal: a funny, frank show about Muslim visibility that emphasizes humanity through the airing of frustrations, large and small. The title and even the format are a nod to Eve Ensler's Vagina Monologues, down to the cast of three performers and the rotating set of skits. Sahar Ullah, the co-founder and creative director of the project, explains it as “the inverse” of Ensler's project: it takes the most obvious and public aspect of a hijabi woman's identity and uses it to “let the whole woman have a voice.”  

The tone of that voice ranges widely, from gentle humor to profanity, and so does the content of the stories, which cover teenage pregnancy, street harassment and father-daughter relationships. About half of the monologues were written by Sahar Ullah, a hijabi who grew up in southern Florida and culled these stories from her own experiences and those of other women in her community. “The Story of the Shy, Subdued and Not Very Sociable Hijabi” is about the kind of girl so plain, dull and lacking in charisma that she would be an object of pity if if she didn't ruin the curve with her excessive studying. One day, a man on a street corner calls out something rude, and she turns on him and beats him until he begs for mercy, thereby earning the respect of the entire neighborhood. 

But the respect of the neighborhood can be just as easily lost. Another of Ullah's monologues, performed by Heba Khalil, tells the story of another “not very sociable hijabi” who, deeply lonely and cut off from her peers, agrees to have sex with the Muslim boy next door. When she becomes pregnant, he stops returning her calls. Ridiculed by classmates, scorned by her community, she ends up deciding to remove her hijab. Gesturing to her ribcage, she shouts, “It's hell in here.” And she has a message for the boy who got her pregnant: “All you self-righteous boys, you're so full of shit.”

The monologue belongs next to jazz as one of the few genres Americans can claim to have invented. Where else would people sit around listening to women talk on stage for an entire evening? The Hijabi Monologues knows better than to squander this attention, and it aims to give us a little bit of everything to keep us entertained: comedy, tragedy, melodrama, and snappy come-backs.

 
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