CAIRO: “Do you know what it feels like to represent a billion human beings every day when you step out of your house? To be looked at as a representative of an entire world religion. Do you know what that s like? It feels exhausting, and so heavy.
These are the emotionally charged opening words of one story of the “Hijabi Monologues , words any Muslim woman who portrays her Muslim identity through her dressing, can relate to. Although “Hijabi Monologues (HM) is modeled on the popular “Vagina Monologues , there s an inverse aim. While the latter made something from an intensely personal realm public, the HM seeks to make what is visibly public, personal.
The image of a veiled woman has been used over time to portray seduction, with a hint of dangerous intrigue. Post 9/11, it s become almost synonymous with terror. The dress code of Muslim women has been hijacked, and the women who wear it held to ransom. But the seductive element remains, and curiosity is invariably piqued.
One such inquiring mind was Dan Morrison, a non-Muslim white American male who constantly questioned his female Muslim friends on their lives. In the summer of 2006, he suggested the idea of HM to fellow graduate students and friends, Zeenat Rahman and Sahar Ullah, who became the creative force behind the conception of HM.
Ullah says, This is not about hijab itself, which is already over-analyzed. This is about the stories of Muslim women.
HM s Facebook page describes it as a space for Muslim women to share their voices; a space to breathe as they are; a space that does not claim to tell every story and speak for every voice.
When you speak for everyone, you silence other voices, explains Ullah.
Through sharing stories, strangers touch and connect. Through stories, we are challenged. Through stories, we are humanized.
This humanity is evident in the kaleidoscope of stories. They reveal the multi-dimensionality of women who are as complicated as others, and who do not exist solely within a religious bubble.
The stories told vary in depth and emotion, from a woman who contracts the HIV virus from her husband, and the comedic lines used to hit on hijabis, to the heartbreaking story of a young woman with self-esteem issues, who falls pregnant.
While any girl would be judged for falling pregnant out of wedlock, the censure a hijabi faces is magnified.
Ullah poignantly points out, Women in hijab are tired of being judged, of being put on a pedestal we didn t ask to be placed on, and then criticized harshly if we fail.
Since its inception, the one-woman storytelling act was performed across the US. Last Wednesday, via a video teleconference organized by the US Embassy, Ullah performed for a standing-room only audience in Cairo. The monologues she narrated were of American women, but many could be seen nodding their heads in empathy.
Not all were in agreement. Heba, a 19-year-old Cairo University student, differed, These stories have nothing to do with Egyptian women. We don t experience the same problem of being discriminated against because of hijab.
That is why HM is now expanding its reach. It wants to collect the narratives of local women around the world, making their stories global. Ullah is aware of how different each woman s context is, dependent on numerous factors.
The burden of representation and judgment is raised again in a skit where a woman is sworn at by a man in public. In anger, she wants to return the verbal abuse, but her hijab is a deterrent.
“I’m a hijabi by choice, but I did not choose to wear hijab because I wanted to represent Islam. That is a responsibility that’s way beyond me to handle. I make mistakes and I’m far from perfect. The mistakes I make should be a representation of me, and not my beliefs.
Ullah possesses a strong, warmly engaging personality and she reveals how she learned about herself and America only when she was outside of the US. Of Bangladeshi origin, it was while studying in Cairo that she became cognizant of how much of her identity is that of a minority, and how different it was to be in a country where she was mistaken as Egyptian, making her a part of the majority.
She narrates how the issue of ethnic identity was powerfully demonstrated in one performance as co-performer Rafiah Jones, who s African-American, responded to a question from a Caucasian-American asking where she s from. Do you really want to have this conversation? Do you really want to talk about history? Because we can have this conversation if you want to know how 300 years ago, my ancestors were forcibly removed from a country in Africa I don t know the name of.
During the audience discussion, a pertinent point was raised. Non-hijabis in Egypt can feel just as judged as hijabis in non-Muslim countries. Assumptions abound on all sides. It s through listening to the stories that stereotypes are broken, and understanding forged.
Interested individuals and organizations can purchase the scripts from HM, and stage their own performances. EmailHijabi.firstname.lastname@example.org