The clothing is simple, the reactions complex
To get into character for a play she was doing in L.A., actress May Alhassen wrapped a black pashmina around her thick, dark hair and tied the loose ends into a bun at the back of her head. Then she stepped out onto the street.
She stopped for coffee at Starbucks. She purchased a binder at Office Depot. Everywhere she went, Alhassen felt self-conscious and a little on edge.
“I think the thing that surprised me the most was how angry and paranoid it made me: Are they looking at me because? Are they not looking at me because?” said Alhassen, 27, who does not normally wear the hijab. “It really gave me a chip on my shoulder.”
Later that night, Alhassen drew on the wide range of emotions she experienced to help her slip into three characters in “Hijabi Monologues,” a little-known play by three University of Chicago graduates about women who wear the Muslim head scarf.
There is no central theme; rather, the play focuses on individual women and their stories. One monologue addresses the types of men who hit on hijabis, another tells the story of a mother who loses her son in a car accident. The one that draws the most reaction is about a teenager who gets pregnant -- a taboo subject in Muslim communities.
“Hijab is not the centerpiece,” Alhassen said of the play, “it’s the background.”
The name “Hijabi Monologues” is a takeoff on the “Vagina Monologues,” Eve Ensler’s discourse on the mystique of female genitalia. But other than similar titles and formats, organizers like to say the “Hijabi Monologues” takes something so public and makes it personal whereas Ensler’s play does the opposite.
The intent is to challenge notions about the women who wear the hijab, but not in a direct, I-am-hijabi, hear-me-roar kind of way. Instead it is a subtler presentation of simple stories about ordinary lives that are juxtaposed against more stereotypical narratives about such women -- as objects of mystery or oppression.
It is the unexpected but universal elements of these stories that convinced Dan Morrison in 2006 that they needed to be shared with a broader audience. His friends and fellow classmates in the University of Chicago Middle Eastern master’s program, Sahar Ullah and Zeenat Rahman, would tell him about going to a college football game dressed in school colors and full niqaab (face covering) or having high school friends designate themselves as Ullah’s hijab protectors.
“I think that’s why it’s so powerful, because it’s taking something that is seen as very Muslim and going, well, wait, these aren’t really Muslim stories,” Morrison said. “They’re human stories that everybody has experienced or will experience in their lives.”
Morrison, Ullah and Rahman have written about 10 monologues -- some of them Ullah’s personal stories and others borrowed from people they know or stories they’ve heard -- and are hoping that as they have more performances, they can collect more.
The grass-roots production has been staged at small venues fewer than a dozen times nationwide -- the first was in 2007 at an interfaith event at DePaul University in Chicago -- and once in Egypt. Its following is mostly word-of-mouth and through their Facebook site.
Performances are organized according to where a couple of the performers happen to be, and the group is still centered on the three creators and a handful of people -- organizers and performers -- allowed into the fold. The creators admit the project’s growth has been slow, in part because of hectic schedules and also because of a fear of growing too quickly and losing sight of the original message.
But in recent months, a handful of amateur performers, including Alhassen, have started chapters in Los Angeles and Washington. A workshop was held at Georgetown University to recruit more performers, organizers and writers. There are plans for a national tour this summer or fall that would target community or religious venues where the group could recruit more members.
The most recent performance was held in late January in Los Angeles at the Lebanese restaurant Pi on Sunset Boulevard. It drew an audience of about 45, mostly women.
In one of the monologues Alhassen performed, she told the story of Leena Al-Arian, who threw on her hijab early one morning in 2003 when law enforcement agents came to arrest her father, Sami Al-Arian, a former University of South Florida professor and a longtime Palestinian rights activist, and search their Tampa home.
“They took humanitarian awards, plaques my parents hung up on the wall,” she said as Al-Arian. “They took cheesy Egyptian film operas my mother followed with a passion; they took virtually every shred of paper that contained Arabic writing; they took my father.”
Standing before her audience, Alhassen’s oversized earrings swung back and forth as her anger rose. She spoke of Leena’s father but, in a separate interview, said she was thinking about what it would be like if this happened to her own parent.
That, the creators and performers believe, is the strength of the play: the familiar story lines and problems that allow audiences to connect with the characters as people and not religious figures. In November, at a performance in Chino at LionLike MindState, the monologue “I’m Tired,” performed by Aisha Nouh, 24, resonated with the mostly black audience.
“Do you know what it’s like to represent a billion human beings every day you walk out of your house?” Nouh asked as part of the monologue. “It’s exhausting. . . . I’m tired of wanting to curse but don’t every time some idiot . . . asks me and my friend when we’re standing in line waiting for ice cream, ‘Where ya’ll from?’ And when my friend responds, ‘Miami,’ he says, ‘Listen, don’t . . . with me.’ ”
Soon the group hopes to increase the number of performances. On its Facebook page, several people ask when the show will come to their cities: Pittsburgh, Miami, Houston, New York.
“A couple of contacts in Europe e-mailed us and asked us, ‘Are you coming here?’ ” Rahman said.
There is talk of a possible spring performance in Abu Dhabi. It’s that type of reach the group aspires to.
“In five years you go to a university and there’s the ‘Hijabi Monologues’ club, and it’s a movement and it’s growing,” Morrison said. “Everywhere we go people say, ‘Man, you’ve got to go to rural America.’ ”