Perspective and Performance: Hijabi Monologues at USF

Antara Murshed
Staff Writer

A large projection of Beyonce defiantly raising her middle fingers in her music video for “Formation” was displayed above the stage. The musician’s “Diva” filtered through McLaren as background noise to the audience’s casual conversation while they waited for the performance to begin. Junior Diana Kalaji took the stage to briefly welcome the women who made up the cast of the Hijabi Monologues. During her introduction, Kalaji said, “The arts can be used as a tool to empower our communities.” The lights dimmed and three women dressed uniformly in black, except for the matching green color of their headscarves, rose from different sections of the audience. Together they began their performance with a declaration of how they were not here to take on the burden of representing the experiences of all Muslims.

The Hijabi Monologues was slotted as the third event at the 15th annual Global Women’s Rights Forum, which took place on campus on March 8. Following two panels hosted by female professors regarding the decolonization of feminism and the empowerment of women through media, the monologues created a change of pace in the forum’s program. The 12 monologues covered a variety of experiences, from praying at college football games, to teen pregnancy, to dealing with violence against the Muslim community.

Sophomore and current Muslim Student Association president Sabrina Arsalane said, “This event was extremely important because the stories that were told highlighted circumstances that are, more often than not, taboo to speak of in the Muslim community despite their prevalence.”

The Hijabi Monologues were created in 2006 by three graduate students at the University of Chicago: Sahar Ullah, Daniel Morrison and Zeenat Rahman. Sahar Ullah, a self-proclaimed “South Floridian of the Bangladeshi variety” and current PhD candidate at Columbia University, is one of the three performers who visited USF. Rafiah Jones, who joined the group in 2009, has performed with the DC Black Repertory Theater and concurrently works with young students in an after-school drama program. The third performer, Kamiah A. Pickett, received her law degree from Georgetown University and is currently a writer and performer for the Hijabi Monologues.

Co-founder Sahar Ullah describes the monologues as “the inverse of the Vagina Monologues.” She explains that the Vagina Monologues take a private aspect of women’s lives and makes it public, while “The Hijabi Monologues, instead takes something public, which everyone seems to have an opinion about, and gives it a personal voice.” The monologues attempt to create space for personal expression without the pressure of having to represent the experiences of all Muslims.

Theology professor Aysha Hidayatullah said, “Hijabi Monologues is a signal contribution to the emerging genre of Muslim-American performance art. Its narratives resist the pressure to defend Islam, to paint an idealized portrait of Muslim-Americans, or to portray them as politically docile. The monologues unapologetically criticize race and gender politics in both the Muslim-American community and broader American society. In doing so, they manage to speak deftly to the politics of the moment while refusing to be bound by the representational anxieties of Muslim-Americans.”

While the Hijabi Monologues make the distinction of not representing all Muslims, they still want to share the experiences of Muslims who break stereotypes. “There is not a space for a Muslim in theater and film, unless you want to play a refugee, so seeing work about hijabi Muslim women, written by hijabi Muslim women, was incredible. Even though I am a Muslim who doesn’t wear the hijab, I still have a personal relationship with hijab, because I pray with it on daily,” said Kalaji.

Hijabi Monologues creates a distinctly Muslim-American space for artistic expression without trying to speak for others, and audience members were pleased that the performers of the group chose to commemorate International Women’s Day at USF. “I may not know the full experience, but what was said in their monologues, when it came to the Muslim and American community treating you differently because of how you live your life really resonated with me,” said Kalaji.

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