Have you heard of the Hijabi Monologues? I vaguely recall hearing about it some time back, and never bothered to check it out. It’s name is modeled after another live show, and since copy-cats are usually just pale imitations of whatever they’re copying, I didn’t bother reading up about it. Well, today, the LA Times had an article about this show, and had a fairly detailed description of the philosophy and background behind it. The show was conceived by a group of well-intentioned young Muslimahs with the purpose of describing to a live audience the trials and tribulations of women in hijab (and niqab). It mainly deals with the kooky things non-Muslims might say and do when faced a covered up woman.
There exists a huge dirty secret surrounding our communities and the hijab. Pre-9/11, there was a very small group of women covering up. Those who did, generally wore it properly: with loose, modest clothing that matched the idea behind the hijab. Post-9/11, there is a huge group of women who cover up. Except that they really don’t cover up, because they might mix a loose shirt that stops where their jeans start, and the view from there becomes exceedingly repulsive: the tightness of the jeans leave nothing, and I do mean nothing, to the imagination. These are usually the Muslimahs who desperately need Hijab Rehab, and it’s anyone’s guess when they are going to sign up. The sooner the better, because if you’re going to be complaining about how non-Muslims look at you, then you might as well do it right while you’re complaining.
I’ll say, not entirely unfairly, that this show disturbs me. It makes many assumptions about American society, and they are all based on post-9/11 experiences. If you did not wear the hijab before that catastrophic event, you have no idea how accepting Americans really will be of it and of you. We have to realize that the majority of reactions that are negative come from a place of intense fear. As such, they are not necessarily accurate depictions of American society and thinking. In addition to that, they are based on the premise of wearing the hijab for the sake of a) making a political statement; b) making a fashion statement; and/or c) testing how Americans of the non-Muslim persuasion treat us. To me, these are not good enough reasons to don the hijab; alhamdulillah that they have made the step to cover up in the Islamically appropriate way…but the intentions are not purely Islamic. I really do believe that you get back what you put out. One of the girls in the show said,
“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.
And to this I say, “Are you sure the chip landed on your shoulder after their reactions to you? Or did you, in wearing hijab to see how Americans treat you, in fact prejudice your own perceptions of the reactions?” Because, honestly, as a life-long hijabi, I have no chip on my shoulder. I get positive reactions, as well as negative reactions. Both pre and post-911. Your reality is not something I can relate to, except maybe in very insignificant ways which I can’t think of right now.
These Monologues also hide one big, foul secret about being a hijabi/niqabi: there was a time when being a covered Muslim woman in America meant non-covering Muslims would revile us while non-Muslims would accept us with both arms. Not only did they accept us, they also encouraged us. It was not just a few times that I was told, “Don’t ever change how you dress. It’s beautiful! You make America richer.” And I know many hijabis/niqabis who had the same experience. Both my mother and I have had random people approach us requesting us to sit for a painting. This was not done with the intent to exoticize us. It was done for the sake of sincerely seeing the beauty of hijab. (No, we never took them up on it LOL!) And while Americans were busy encouraging us, Muslims were telling us what, you may wonder? They were telling us, “If you want to dress like that, you’ll never make it here. You might as well go back to Africa if you want to be all backward.” And, lest one think this was a problem with just Muslims in America, I might as well disabuse anyone of that notion. Because when we were in Africa, all we’d hear was, “If you want to dress like that, you might as well go back to India, purdah Bibi*.” Did we see negativity from Americans? Of course. But it was relatively infrequent, especially when compared to Muslim-on-Muslim harassment.
Finally, this part, going back a bit to the idea of a chip on the shoulder, really annoyed and baffled me:
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 [mess] with me.’ “
When someone asks where you’re from, you don’t necessarily know what they are asking about: your ethnic origin or what city you’re from. I’m willing to place bets, though, that they are wanting to know your ethnicity. This is usually a sign of a healthy curiosity. Encourage it, don’t slam it down with a snippy comeback about which city you live in. If the dude wanted to know your address, I’m sure he would have asked, “Where do you live?” I’m presuming he knows English as well you do. Again, this is a question that we’ve been answering as Muslims in America since before 9/11. They don’t mean to be offensive. Believe me, if he wanted to be offensive, he would have just told you, “Why don’t you go back to where you come from if you want dress that way!”
And, as a last bit of commentary to finish off this very long post, I’d just like to advance the notion that rather than merely throwing back America’s insensitivities during this difficult period in our American existence, maybe they could mix in some positivity. Talk also about the beautiful reactions that Americans have demonstrated in solidarity with us. Every coin has two sides, and nobody just likes to hear about how evil they are. Enough of that and they may start wondering, “If we are so bad, what are you still doing among us?”
*derogatory term meaning “curtain lady.” It’s a cuter way of saying towelhead! Sweet, right?