BY SAHER KHAN
A petite woman, dressed in black save the white silk scarf wrapped around her head takes her place at the center of a stage.
“Do you know what it’s like to represent a billion human beings everyday you walk out of your house?” she asks the audience. “To be looked at as a representation of an entire world religion? It’s exhausting…I’m tired,” she goes on. “I’m tired of not going to class because I didn’t do the reading, and if I don’t say something brilliant, my silence will be attributed to being inherently oppressed by my men, religion and clothing, rather than the fact that I was on Facebook the previous class for 90 % of the time.”
The audience laughs. “I’m not another angry Muslim, I’m not a bad example, a good example, I’m not a representation, I’m just a human being,” says Sahar Ishtiaque Ullah, closing her monologue.
Ullah is the co-founder of the Hijabi Monologues, a project she helped launch 10 years ago. The Hijabi Monologues, “hijabi” being a term used to refer to Muslim women who where the head scarf, is a live theater show featuring monologues written by Muslim women and about Muslim women’s experiences. It is performed all throughout the country and internationally.
Ullah, a PhD candidate and teacher at Columbia University who is originally from Florida, was a speaker at a panel of storytellers at last month’s U.N. Commission on the Status of Women. Ullah and the other panelists discussed various platforms of creative expression taken on by Muslim women in an attempt to empower themselves and to change the discourse around what it means to be a Muslim woman.
“I think Muslim women have always been in charge of their own narratives,” says Ullah. “Growing up, it was our mothers, our aunts, our sister’s who shared stories in our communities, the rest of the world doesn’t see that.” Ullah explains that’s why when she crafts a show it’s important for her to have a range of emotions, and to produce a collective experience with the audience that’s a shared experience.
“So not just the tragic, which I think people are more accustomed to hearing about Muslim women,” says Ullah.
There are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, more than a fifth of humanity, but in a time where Islamophobia is on the rise and the dialogue around Muslim women is either tied to radicalism or oppression, Ullah and the other panelists talked about how storytelling is a powerful tool in relating the realities of Muslims, especially Muslim women. Ullah’s Hijabi Monologues does just that.
She started the project with two friends while as a student at the University of Chicago. For Ullah, a Muslim woman who wears the hijab and grew up involved in theater since childhood, the Hijabi Monologues was a way for her to address the problems she saw in how Muslims were represented in media, society and academia. Those portrayals bore no resemblance to her own experiences. Ullah said she has come to love live theater as a better way to relate to an audience of all people, men, women, Muslims and non-Muslims.
“I loved theater and was very involved when I was young, but as I grew older I felt like there weren’t roles for me in a theater space,” says Ullah, “so this allowed me to tell these stories and get back to a space that means a lot to me.”
While the Hijabi Monologues aims to share lived experiences, other platforms highlighted at the panel have different functions.
Aisha Al Adawiya, of Women in Islam, an organization that focuses on human rights and social justice, said the organization began after 1992 in response to genocide and gender based violence against Bosnian Muslim women during the war.
Al Adwaiya talked about how in the early stages of the organization’s work to touch on issues important to Muslim women, they began creating co-ops that talked about reclaiming their religious heritage in relationship to how women access the Mosque and other Islamic organizations.
“We no longer want to be seen as second class citizens in our spiritual spaces, we wanted not to reform Islam, or to crate a “new” Islam or an “American” Islam, but rather we wanted to reclaim the legacy of the Prophet Muhammad and to garner that example which was very inclusive of women in the Mosque. So we root our work in our Islamic tradition,” said Al Adwaiya.
Women in Islam began the initiative, Muslim Women’s Story Lab, in an effort to provide new tools for women to access spiritual spaces, discuss Islamophobia and encourage Muslim women leadership.
Maha Marouan of the Muslim Women’s Story Lab discussed how their workshops are always full of different perspectives and how not one experience or view point is universal. But the opportunity to have a space to talk through issues important to the community is what she feels is empowering.
“I feel that when women are empowered, it’s always good for the community,” says Ullah, citing Islamic history during the time of the prophet when women in the community were empowered to own property, to defend their own bodies and to choose whom they wanted to marry.
“I sometimes get annoyed when people are like ‘well Islam gave us all these right all these hundreds of years ago’…I mean, there’s the abstract, but how do we live it? I can draw inspiration, but I also have to live it and practice it and that’s what’s needed today.”
Ullah said that panels like the one at the U.N. are important in that they are an opportunity to highlight voices that are not being heard and change the stigma about women in Islam.
“When people talk about Muslim women’s oppression they think, over there really far away in the mountains of Pakistan or among tribes in different countries in Africa,” says Ullah. She explains that those structures that enable that type of oppression are different then what enables a certain type of lived experience in the United States. “There’s a specific matrix of our own oppressive structures here. Like the way Islamophobia effects Muslim women in the United States, Islamophobia leads to a particular type of oppression, from inside the community and outside the community.”
Ullah gives the example of sexual harassment cases in Muslim communities in America. “When Muslim women want to speak out, there’s a reaction from within the community that says, ‘think about representation, think of what people will say, this will feed into Islamophobia’” so that’s another level of, what do we do then?”
Ullah and the rest of the panel touched on how the structures that enable oppression are different in each country but that is why it is important to have experiences expressed.
“Story telling is transformational,” said Cailey Cron of StoryCorps, “through sharing these stories we are humanizing important issues and creating a more just and compassionate world.”