Seeing the woman, not the headscarf


‘IT’S a tired subject . . . we’ve had enough of the ‘lifting the veil’ articles,” says Sahar Ullah, the 29-year-old writer of The Hijabi Monologues. Despite the eye-catching title of the American work, which has its European premiere in Dublin tomorrow night, the true stars of the show are the stories told by Muslim women and not the headscarves worn by many of them.

Ullah, a student and hijab-wearing Muslim, says the project aims to “unsettle” the stereotypes, moving beyond the politically charged debate about the hijab and whether or not Muslim women should wear it.

“Some people can’t get past the hijab as a symbol of politics or identity, which means that the woman’s experience as a human being can be ignored, she becomes invisible,” she says. “After the show we’ve had audience members say things like, ‘It was the first time I found myself looking at the woman and not the hijab.’”

Hijabi is an informal term used to describe Muslim women and the show’s title was directly inspired by Eve Ensler’s hit play about female genitalia. Ullah, who is also one of the three performers, describes the project as an “inverse” Vagina Monologues. “Ensler’s show took something very private and made it public; we are taking something very public, the headscarf, and allowing the woman wearing it to speak in a deeply personal way.”

The idea came about six years ago when Ullah was a graduate student in the University of Chicago. She and a Muslim friend used to regale Dan Morrison, a fellow student from an Irish-Catholic background, with stories about what it was like to be Muslim women in America.

“During one conversation Dan said we should really have The Hijabi Monologues,” she says. It was a joke at first until the three of them began thinking how such a concept might be a way to challenge stereotypes and create a better understanding of Muslim women. The show has since been performed to acclaim across the US and in Cairo.

Ullah wrote the monologues from her own experiences and over the years collected stories from other women. She says that the confessional-monologue format forces people to listen. “This woman is going to tell you her story even though you are assuming things about who she is and what she is going to say.” These assumptions, she says, can be everything from the belief that all Muslim women are submissive and oppressed, to the notion that they are uneducated or somehow exotic, “like a character from the Arabian Nights”.

The stories are by turns funny, angry and moving, covering topics as diverse as the way men flirt with hijabis, and, in one of the most affecting monologues, the experience of a Muslim teenager who becomes pregnant. The experience of wearing the hijab is occasionally touched on but is never the main focus of any story. Sahar says the production doesn’t claim to speak for all Muslims and these are “human stories with a universal resonance”.

The show is being brought to Dublin by the Immigrant Council of Ireland and the British Council (Ireland). In addition to the performance, there will be a weekend-long workshop with Muslim and non-Muslim women from Ireland and across Europe, which Ullah hopes will inspire an Irish-based version of the show.

One of the participants hoping to explore that possibility is Niamh Ní Chonchubhair, programme manager of the Axis theatre in Ballymun, Dublin.

“It’s hard to admit you have assumptions and preconceptions about a group of people but before I had Muslim friends I did,” she says. “I was very hung up on the hijab. The feminist in me considered it to be a visible representation of control or an absence of freedom . . . having women friends who are Muslim, my mind has been opened.”

She doesn’t believe the estimated 20,000 Muslim women in Ireland have much of a voice. “I think the monologues are a good way in to these women’s stories, and I am looking forward to learning more.”

Another participant, Muslim woman Yameema Mitha grew up in Pakistan, has an Irish husband and says her family background is “religiously, socially and culturally mixed”.

While temporarily based in Boston, she lives in Ireland and does not wear the hijab. “But I know hundreds of women who wear the hijab. By far the majority wish to wear it, sometimes against the wishes of their families. Yes, some women are forced . . . I would say it is a small minority.”

Why did she want to get involved in the project? “I think people need to know each other. People need to discuss difficult things with each other.”

She describes the hijab as “a very public action” that people think it is rude to talk about. “Irish people need to talk to hijabi women and explain why many of them think the hijab is a negation of women’s struggle for equality. Hijabi women need to explain that for many of them it is an assertion of their right to demand equality for their opinions and culture.”

She also believes Muslims need to laugh at themselves and “have the confidence to let others laugh at us . . . we need to look at our own contradictions”.

The Hijabi MonologuesThe Irish Times