“Do you know what it’s like to represent a billion human beings every day you walk out of your house? To be the representative of an entire world religion? Do you know what that’s like? It’s exhausting. It can feel so heavy. Sometimes it makes me angry. And sometimes, I feel so tired of it.”
The young woman on stage knows what she is talking about. The Western world is her home, where she grew up. Yet she is still perceived as someone different, as a stranger.
As a Muslim.
That entails some daily challenges, she tells the audience: “I’m tired of not going to class because I didn’t read my assignment. And if I don’t say something incredibly brilliant, my silence will be attributed to being inherently oppressed by my religion, men, clothing. Rather than the fact that I didn’t do my homework because I was screwing around on Facebook the previous night, like 90 percent of my class.”
There is no sound of reproach in her voice; rather, it is surprise. People often ask her where she is from, she says. She had to be one of “those religious freaks”, she heard them saying behind her back. “Do you not see me?” she asks. “I’m not just a representation. I’m a human being.“
These words are part of the core message of The Hijabi Monologues. The short, often funny monologues performed by women who wear hijab have reached a broad audience in the United States since 2006; they have also been performed in Indonesia and Europe. In 2012 the piece premiered in Dublin and was performed in several Irish cities, followed by performances in the United Kingdom. The Dutch version went on stage in the Netherlands this month. Upcoming countries on the tour are France, Belgium, Spain and Germany.
Liz McBain of the British Council Ireland and her team helped to put The Hijabi Monologues on European stages. McBain has been coordinating actresses, theatres and touring dates for the European versions since 2012. For her, it is highly important to give Muslim women space to express themselves during these days when skepticism and distrust against Muslims are rising in Western societies due to news on Islamist terrorism and extremist movements in countries such as Syria and Iraq.
“Like race, the hijab has become a physical marker of difference, and identifies a woman as a Muslim at a time when Muslims are subject to a number of stereotypes, public scrutiny and discrimination,” she says. “Many Muslim women in Europe share the experience of facing an entire set of assumptions about their faith, politics, preferences, education, class and so on, based on whether they choose to wear a headscarf.”
This experience was also familiar to Chicago-based students Sahar Ullah and Zeenat Rahman. Together with fellow student Dan Morrison they started to write down their encounters, experiences and feelings, and The Hijabi Monologues was born. The title is an allusion to a famous play, The Vagina Monologues, written by Eve Ensler in 1996.
Ensler made the most private part of a woman’s body the subject of her monologues, turning it into something public. The writers of The Hijabi Monologues turned this idea around: starting with the clearly visible headscarf (the subject of countless public debates) then moving away from it, they let the audience discover the individualities of the various women on stage. The piece is not about hijab; it is about different human beings.
“The Hijabi Monologues aims to see beyond the stereotype to the particular, to the individual and to demonstrate that Muslim women – like all people – have diverse identities, diverse beliefs and diverse views,” explains McBain. This diversity also includes taboos: One monologue deals with the anger and desperation of a young Muslim woman who feels excluded from her peers at school and from society. She feels like an outsider. In her loneliness she lets the boy living next door seduce her, resulting in her pregnancy. The father-to-be does not want to take responsibility, and the girl faces trouble in school. After initial desperation, she soon grows angry about her environment, which judges but does not help her.
It is a story that can happen to any woman – Muslim or otherwise.
Anger is another thing many people living in Western society do not expect from a veiled Muslim woman. The cliché of the submissive, will-less woman has been alive and vibrant in European cultural history since the 18th century. The performers of The Hijabi Monologues show that they react to discrimination not only with silence, patience and humour, but with anger too.
One of the hijabis on stage tells the audience what she sometimes feels like saying when asked again and again where she is from – and when people don’t accept her answer of Brooklyn. “You know what? F*** you. Where the f*** are you from?” When she reacts like that, she points out, it has nothing to do with her religion.
Yet The Hijabi Monologues is not about mutual reproaches. To the contrary, explains McBain, “Audience members reflected that their perception of identity and specifically Muslim identity was challenged. They began to move beyond the stereotypes and instead saw Muslim women as complex human beings.”
There are some useful things for non-Muslim members of the audience to take home. McBain experienced that too while working on the piece: “I learned many things; a couple of examples include washing in preparation for prayer, halal – what it is and how it works, fashion – particularly the multiple ways to wear a hijab, and that women everywhere have the same issues with matching outfits…”
The Vagina Monologues debuted in 1996 on small campus stages before the piece conquered Broadway and finally stages around the world, with stars like Whoopi Goldberg and Melissa Etheridge performing the monologues. Let’s see who will perform The Hijabi Monologues in upcoming years.