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

“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.

The actors, two of whom are real-life hijabis, offer up monlogues in the classical American confessional, introspective mode, always protective of the dignity of their characters, as though they don't yet fully trust their audience. The pleasure of hearing multiple voices issuing from the same person recalls the work of Sarah Jones in Bridge and Tunnel, in which Jones dazzles with her ability to inhabit a dozen different bodies and voices – including a Chinese mother, a Dominican-Puerto Rican girl, an MC named Rashid, an 80-year-old Jewish woman, and a middle-aged Pakistan man. But where Jones dazzles with her range and the risks she takes in inhabiting these different voices, The Hijabi Monologues comes off as a bit demure. 

Perhaps surprisingly, one theme largely absent from these monologues was spirituality—the interior experience of religious belief or wonder, rather than the physical manifestations of religious observance. Perhaps the authors feared that audiences wouldn't be able to connect. Yet the only monologue that spoke to the inner experience of prayer was also one of the best. Written by an anonymous author, “Inside My Hands” describes learning to pray as a child: “The prayer police were very concerned about my posturing, but they didn't seem to care that my heart didn't bow with my body.” Instead, she does her real praying in bed, with her fists clenched in anger against her father. As an adult, she learns to open her hands to pray, and achieves rapprochement with her father by praying together. The skit captures the beauty of religious ritual and its power to bind people at a level words fail to reach. 

More often, the focus of these monlogues is the social world inhabited by American-born hijabis, and the sheer poundage per square inch of social pressure that weighs on them: the pressure to, in Ullah's words, look “approachable yet modest, rather than withdrawn and oppressed,” to reassure others and put them at ease when confronted by people who regard her with hostility and others who look past her completely. That pressure gives rise to a deep anger that sometimes boils over into aggression.

In the opening act, Pickett gives voice to Ullah's frustration at the gall of people who ask, “Where are you from?” and then insist on knowing where she's really from. “But when I do break and say, 'You know what? Fuck you. What the fuck is your problem, asshole? Where the fuck are you from?' – it has nothing to do with my religion.”

The raw aggression is refreshing, and you can't help wishing Ullah's characters would break more often. Instead, the anger simmering beneath these stories gets siphoned off into comedy, or else transmuted into fantasy—a split between the hijabi's actual behavior and what she'd really like to do or say.

The skit “Yasmin,” written by Komita Carrington and beautifully performed by Rafiah Jones, slyly splits the difference between social and magical realism. The narrator, who wears a black niqab and introduces herself as “Awesome,” describes her friendship with another hijabi called Yasmin: “She brings the sassy, and I bring the cool... She don't have time for the okey-doke, but I'll sit and listen.” Awesome describes their adventures together around town, from the state women's penitentiary to the local sandwich shop. Wherever they go, Yasmin is aways on the brink of saying what Awesome won't dare to. When one woman asks her, “You don't have a bomb on you, do you?” Awesome blinks politely while holding Yasmin back from saying, “Don't you know? I am the bomb.” The urge to catch the beat of the latest R&B track and boogie down the corridor of the local mall belongs to Yasmin, and the inclination to notice she looks like “a Flying Nun” and stop her belongs to Awesome. “And every time I put on lip gloss, she's singing, 'My lip gloss is poppin', my lip gloss is cool... Whatchu know 'bout me, whatchu whatchu know 'bout me?'”

That quote from Lil' Mama's 2007 hit “Lip Gloss” offers an important clue to what hijab means to the American women who wear it. More than a form of religious observance, it can be a source of pride, a cultural marker and a kind of social shield. There are approximately 1.3 million Muslim women living in the United States today. The Hijabi Monologues wants to help its audience get to know the woman behind the hijab, but plenty of skits warn the listener away from presuming too much.

Right now the jokes in The Hijabi Monologues are funny, but they often pale in comparison to the Muslimah humor available on the Internet: every day more Web sites, videos and hashtags crop up: #youknowyouareahijabi and #badhijabday, “Stuff People Say to Hijabis,” “Sh*t Hijabis Say” (don't miss Part 2, featuring an excellent riff on Nicki Minaj: “That's the kind of hijab I was lookin' for/And yes you'll get slapped if you're lookin' bro/I said excuse me you're a hell of a brother,/I mean I think it's about time you met my mother," etc.), a swelling underground of hijabi comedy that makes The Hijabi Monologues look tame at times. Thanks to the YouTube efforts of these hijabi teenagers, we may never again have to endure a film like Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World.

Eve Ensler wrote her first draft of The Vagina Monologues in 1996, and it took years to grow from a fringe piece of performance theater to a staple of college campus repertoires. The Hijabi Monologues is headed in that direction, and the wheels are greased: the performers headed to Princeton this Saturday, and to Dublin in March for a two-day workshop and performance. Meanwhile, their Facebook page continues to field inquiries from student groups across the country. As the show continues to grow and gain fresh material, hopefully it will be increasingly willing to take risks, including the risk of trusting its audience.

What really stands out about the Monologues are those rare moments of unbridled aggression, and it's hard not to want more of them. Muslim anger remains a strict taboo in American public life, and Muslim spirituality likewise rarely surfaces, leaving the floor to Christians, Buddhists, Jews and those agnostics with their endless questing. The monologues that directly addressed their spirituality, whether happy or fraught, were the most compelling ones, along with the stories that tapped into their rage. Hopefully a fresh round of monologues will dive deeper into these enduringly touchy subjects. After all, taboo is the stuff that great monologues are made of. Just ask Eve Ensler. 

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