As interest in the show grows, organizers look to promote its future
Washington - An idea conceived by three friends in Chicago continues to challenge stereotypes about a group of women who have often been defined by others.
In its third year, The Hijabi Monologues has been telling the stories of female Muslim Americans - from their perspective - to audiences across the United States and in Cairo. As interest in the show grows, organizers are thinking about how to best continue its message in the future.
Performers from The Hijabi Monologues at the Kennedy Center
Created by University of Chicago students Sahar Ullah, Zeenat Rahman and Dan Morrison in 2006, The Hijabi Monologues grew from an exchange of experiences that strengthened their friendship. Morrison was fascinated by Ullah and Rahman's everyday stories as Muslims in America and thought they needed to be heard by a wider audience.
"Among our friends, I was the storyteller in the group, and Dan really encouraged me to write my stories and share them with others," said Ullah, founder and creative director of The Hijabi Monologues. "Dan kept insisting that 'you don't understand the power these stories have had with my own life.'"
Drawing its name and performance style from the American theatrical hit The Vagina Monologues, The Hijabi Monologues is about an hour long and ends with a question-and-answer session. Dozens of monologues have been held since the first show in April 2007, and a recent performance at the Kennedy Center in Washington drew more than 500 people.
While the original thrust of the project was to reach out to non-Muslims in America, something unforeseen has happened.
"The initial idea was to go to communities of non-Muslims. We never thought Muslims would be interested in these stories because they already know them," Ullah said. "The unexpected result we got is that many Muslim women and men were eager to hear the stories and share them with their community."
Muslim Americans might be interested because the performance provides a forum of expression for their community that is unavailable elsewhere. Lina Hashem, who organized the Hijabi Monologues presentation in Washington, said a combination of factors in the American Muslim community attracts its members to the show.
"Older-generation Muslims don't want certain things to be discussed because they are taboo," Hashem said. "Then you have the younger generation, who go through these same feelings but believe they can't share it with anyone, or they just feel that they are going through it alone."
Of the 12 monologues, the first 10 were written by Ullah and cover a range of experiences, from the comedic to the controversial.
Ullah said content in the monologues sparks exchanges between performers and audience members in the question-and-answer session. Sometimes, as in the case of a show at Nova Southeastern University in Florida, statements and questions stun performers.
"The first person to raise their hand was an African-American man, who is not Muslim, and he began by saying that 'whenever I would see a Muslim woman covered, I would think she had a bomb under there,'" Ullah said, pointing out that the man expressed how he, too, is the subject of stereotypes. "But he said seeing The Hijabi Monologues dispelled his view. 'I just realized that after sitting and listening to these stories that you are regular people,' he said."
One of the challenges for the monologues is generating new stories. Most have focused on the experiences of young Muslim women from similar ethnic backgrounds. A recently added monologue discusses the experience of a mother, but Ullah said narratives need to reflect different generations as well as various ethnic and racial backgrounds.
Kamilah Pickett recently added to the monologues from her perspective as an African-American Muslim. Pickett, who performed her story at the Kennedy Center, wrote "Ten Things About Me."
"I figure that my viewpoint would be different than the other stories simply because I am African American, so there is a different perception that goes along with that," Pickett said, explaining that most Americans see the hijab as a foreign concept. "As an African-American who wears a hijab, I kind of turn that whole viewpoint on its head."
Not all performers in The Hijabi Monologues wear the hijab in everyday life. Los Angeles-based performer May Alhassen, for example, wears the headscarf on stage and to get into character before performances.
Although most people involved in organizing the monologues are Muslim, some are not. After two young Latino men vandalized a mosque in south Florida, Latina women asked Ullah to have the monologues performed in their community.
"The women were really disturbed by the incident because here they are, minorities, doing this to another minority," Ullah said, adding that Muslims and Latinos have similar struggles in facing prejudices. "They thought the best way to help people understand and connect with each other would be through storytelling."
Everyone involved in The Hijabi Monologues is a volunteer. Hashem helped organize the Kennedy Center performance in Washington, and performers such as Pickett learn of events through word of mouth, through media coverage or through the Internet on social networking sites like Facebook. Performances are free, and no money is spent on marketing them.
Morrison said The Hijabi Monologues is reaching a crucial juncture.
"We are trying to figure out how fast and how aggressively do we want to go," Morrison said, stressing the need to promote the monologues at marquee venues around the country. "We already have licensed the monologues to some other groups - for example, Portland University, who contacted us, and they paid a small fee."
Like Morrison, Ullah believes the performances will continue to grow and attract more attention, mostly because of the content, which dispels stereotypes of Muslim-American women by showing how American they really are.
Ullah said a playwright who attended one of the Hijabi Monologues auditions in New York City said it best:
"This piece is really about America. It is the American narrative by people who are often not seen as the face of America."
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