SuperSisters Interview

Interview with Hijabi Monologues founder Sahar Ullar

 Back in September, the Hijabi Monogloues, a US-born show involving a series of performers sharing their minority experiences as hijabis, came to London’s Bush Theatre. The show was a sell out success and we were fortunate enough to speak to Sahar Ullar (twitter.com/saharishtiaque), who helped to co-found the show ten years ago, and currently works as the Creative Director and Head Writer on its national and international tours.
 
How did it go in London? 
The cast and crew at the Bush Theatre did an amazing job. They had a sold out run theresponse was overwhelmingly  positive with over half being first-time attendees at the theatre;and the show received a number of thoughtful reviews including five stars from The Stage. We selected three monologues written by local writers to be weaved in with six of my own works.
 
Because London has such an old Muslim community with so much history tied to the city, i twas really wonderful to hear Muslim audience members talk about where they thought the characters were from–meaning what part of London. They got really specific about neighborhood and ethnicity,  which was incredible..An audience member said to me after one of the shows,”This character must be from East London!” and I was like “No, but cool!” I think the only place you could see audience members doing that in the US might be New York City.
Are there a lot of long-standing Muslim communities in New York then?
Yeah, there are long-standing Muslim communities in New York,  and like London, every neighbourhood has a very specific culture with local references that people get within the neighbourhood.
 
What prompted you to start Hijabi Monologues in the first place?
This a question I’ve answered many times before by telling the origin story of the Hijabi Monologues, but I’ll give a personal for Super Sisters and tell you why I have remained committed to the production for so long.For me the choice to use theatre and performance as a way to convey these stories was really important, because I felt like there was a great need for Muslim women, especially those who happen to wear the headscarf, to have central roles in American theatre spaces that aren’t just based on visible tokenism or a need for an exotic character or to fill roles of victimisation. As somebody who loves and believes in the power of the arts, and who was involved in theatre as a kid and then left theatre,  was a way to create that space — both behind the scenes and on stage, right? So to have creative control by writing those stories and then to be able to direct and perform them and see them performed by others is incredibly exciting.It’s also important to provide other artists an opportunity to push their talent and not feel  like they are asserting boring stereotype that already exists.
 
So it’s been running for ten years now. Where out of the places it was performed do you think there was the greatest need for it?
That’s a really great question. Our core production team is small and we run on a tight budget. Wherever my team performs, the shows are free and open to the public. So we cover all of our costs and we get our performers, writers and producers paid, but we haven’t really spent much in the way of promotion or advertising. People reach out to us. This is not the case for licensed productions staged by other theatres.
 
It’s hard for me to say where there was the greatest need because almost always people reach out to us because the local organisers felt a need in their community. So for example, one of our earliest shows was staged in Miami, Florida.  Local organisers were troubled by an incident in which a mosque was vandalised. Some young people had spray-painted racist symbols on the walls .Local women, who weren’t all Muslim but identified as women of colour and/or Latina, were really troubled by it. One Cuban-American organiser who read about the show in a newspaper contacted us asking “How can we bring the show to our university? I think it would be a really great conversation starter.” They felt there was a need for us. And that all happened in a place like Miami, a diverse city that also witnesses a lot of hate crimes.
This year and last year, the show went to North Carolina where three Muslim Arab American students were killed in their homes. The man, Craig Hicks, had come into their home and shot them point blank in the head. Two of the women, who were sisters, wore headscarves, and the third was the new husband of one of the sisters. They were really young, the younger sister was 19, and the married couple were in their 20s and just starting dental school after getting married a few months before. To pretty much every person of color I spoke with, it was clear that it was a hate crime although the idea of a parking dispute was raised early on in the coverage of the incident. The women were Arab-American;  if the weren’t wearing headscarves, they may have passed for white. Hicks confessed to the murders and said that he had killed them. As Muslims continued to read about it, it became traumatising on a number of levels. It fed a fear that maybe there’s somebody that you don’t know that hates you that much, right? And that somebody could be a neighbour. This man was.

So we were invited to perform in two universities located in close proximity to where that happened. In both cases, we were invited by Chaplains of the universities. They wanted to include the show as part of a week of interfaith conversations on their campuses. It was truly heartwarming — and heartbreaking to be among their communities.

All three performers wrote and shared how she reflected on that incident and how it hurts us in different ways, especially when we think about the very long experience of black women in the United States with violent racism and misogyny.

 

Was that the place you were most nervous about running the performance then?
I think our nervousness depends on the political climate. Sometimes we’re nervous and sometimes we’re not as nervous, but I think just to be smart, we’re always a little bit nervous. We’ve gotten smarter because we’ve had ten years under our belt.
 
Have there ever been any kind of incidents?
Well…a few times, we’ve had audience members attend shows and we know that they’re there just to instigate, they’re not really there to be a normal audience member. During the talk-back after one show in Chicago, one person raised his hand after a few questions were asked and asked us what we think about Isis. The audience became silent. At that time, it was the eighth year we were performing, so we were like “were you not listening to any of the stories?” I think if that happened to us early on I would have been more nervous but by that point it was just like “Boring.” and “Alright, we got this…” One of our performers also happens to be a lawyer, so I was like “Kamilah can answer this question,”and she handled it — and of course she rightfully received  a round of applause.
We’ve also had experiences where the audience shut down that kind of question. Kamilah once performed in a small New England town and somebody asked her,“Where are the real stories? Where are the stories about terrorism?” She didn’t have to say anything because the audience was just like “Were you not here listening to the stories?”
 
It’s nice to be in an environment where the audience are very supportive of what you’re doing. What’s been your favourite response so far then?
My favourite response is when an audience member decides that they love the show so much that they want to bring the show to their community, their city, their school. That really tells us we are doing good work — because that person is willing to vouch for us with their time, skills, and resources in their own community. And it’s always great to work with local organisers and theatres who care about the neighborhoods in which they are situated — like the Bush Theatre which is located in an incredibly diverse neighborhood with so many Muslim-run businesses. We operate under the assumption that you know your community best.
 
I also sometimes love talking with audience members, especially if they don’t know who I am because that’s when they are most honest. In London, during one of the shows, I sat between two women. I watched them watch the show. At one point, the woman on my left started bawling and crying but the woman on my right had no reaction to that same story. During another story, the woman on my right laughed hysterically. As she laughed, I noticed the woman on my left was so angry. It was brilliant. After the show, I turned to the woman on my right and asked her what she thought as we picked up our things. She was very honest and told me with a big smile. “I’m here for this, I’m here for it all, I love it.” She then asked me, “What did you think?” So I said I liked it, too  and then she asked me how I heard about the show. I always feel like by that point it would be too weird to say who I am so I said I heard about it through work. It’s happened a few times.
I will always remember this one young guy, maybe 18, 19. He looked like a deer in headlights, and he was just standing where the audience was after the show for a good 30 minutes. I went up to him and was like “are you ok?” and he said he grew up in a really small town, everyone was white, everyone was Christian, and this was really eye-opening, “but I just don’t understand something…” And I was like “ok…” so I thought maybe he was having a deeply transformative moment or something, and he earnestly said “I just don’t understand why anyone wouldn’t like football….” He was so sincerely shocked by that. And I was like, “you know what, there are just some people in the world that are just so different from us.” I think that might be one of my favourite moments because he wasn’t actually fetishizing the idea of a hijabi on stage, his deepest concern was the character not liking football.

 
How have you dealt with negative responses to the show?
We circulate feedback forms for the audience to fill out and return which we read through together as a team after every show. During that time, I sit with my team and ask for their own critical feedback not only about our own performances and the audience’s response but about how we felt about the organizers’ treatment of us as artists before, during, and after the show. On the occasion that an organizer is particularly disorganized and disrespectful, we make sure we support and hold each other up as artists, as Muslim women, as women of color.

If we get a negative, racist, condescending, or even violent comments online, I make sure to reach out to certain people including our producer. For example, before Hijabi Monologues London was even staged, someone tweeted something like “you mean Jihadi Monologues.” I didn’t respond (although Kamilah definitely clapped back) but I do make it a point to reach out to friends and speak with them. That’s really important to me.

 
What do you hope people take away from the show? 
Well I always say the show isn’t meant to answer or help people to be better informed, but it is supposed to lead us to ask better questions that lead to more rather than less understanding. What I also hope people take from the show is that storytelling is a really powerful way of connecting strangers and communities. For strangers it’s a way of not only empathising but living in someone else’s shoes and also learning how many experiences we share. But also for a community it’s so important to know that there are others experiencing similar things. Sometimes we’re just stuck in our heads, or we think that if I say this someone’s going to think I’m crazy — and gaslighting is real — so it’s a really great way to strengthen a community and to know that you’re not alone and to see yourself represented.
 
Who’s been your favourite person you’ve worked with so far? 
That’s a tricky question. There’s so many talented people I’ve loved working with, butI would say that one of my favourite people to work with is our producer Avery Willis-Hoffman. She’s a powerful, brilliant woman who is creative talented, and deeply insightful. Her vision for production development is nuanced and sensitive to the needs of artists,  production teams, and investors. I consider every organizer who works with her to be lucky.

I’ve also adored working with our two performers who also have written monologues and been with us since 2009 — Kamilah A.Pickett and Rafiah Jones. We are all very different personalities — and that makes us a powerful mix onstage.

 
Where would you like to take the show next?
So every other year we get a request from a different person to come to South Africa. The women who have contacted us are usually women who work for women’s rights organisations, especially on issues related to domestic violence. I think every time the person making the request realises the cost of bringing us to South Africa, it doesn’t go anywhere but all of us would be grateful to make that a reality someday.

The show is often billed and marketed as a show about Muslim women’s experiences, but more specifically, it’s about the minority experience — about visibly identifiable Muslim women who are minorities in the contexts in which they live because the show comes from America. How we experience being minorities in the United States often resonates with how other minorities experience being marginalized. And it is important to take the show to where xenophobic and racist discussions about Muslim immigration and historical Muslim communities  is prevalent because it’s Muslim women who bear the brunt of that xenophobia and racism. So Australia is one place that I’m thinking of as another destination. They had that senator who wore a veil to parliament and took it off to make a cliched xenophobic point I saw that and was like, “This is an awful performance. We could certainly show you a better one.”

In terms of Europe, the show has been staged in the Netherlands and Ireland. We haven’t been to Germany or France, but there’s always another latest hijab debate in France, and in Germany discussions about the place of Muslims and refugees is ongoing.The troubling thing is that conversation is not ending anytime soon. So again, we go wherever people feel there’s a need, and I like to be in a place where people feel and understand there’s a need for us.

In terms of Muslim majority contexts, the show has been staged in Indonesia. The organizers were keen on having their majority Muslim audience reflect empathetically on their own relationships to local minority communities. I learned from that experience that if the show were to go to another Muslim majority context, it is important that the Hijabi Monologues’ characters are performed as American Muslims living in the United States.

 
Yeah, because it’s very different when you are growing up in an environment where everybody around you shares the same sort of identity as you, because then it becomes quite a different sort of show, then, doesn’t it?
Yeah, absolutely. I asked the production team in Jakarta if they wanted to perform the show in Bahasa or in English. They decided to perform it in English, and they wanted the women to perform the characters as American characters. When I asked them why were they interested in bringing the show, their answer intrigued me and Avery, and it is the reason why we ended up working with them. The U.S. Embassy articulated their interest in cultural diplomacy, but the local organization represented by a young Indonesian hijabi articulated her concern about the political conversations about ethnic minorities in Indonesia and how minorities were being discussed and treated. They thought that the show could be a way of conveying empathy if Muslims saw what it’s like to be a minority. We were impressed by their way of entry into the production.
 
You made a point to say in another article we read online “we’re not saying that these stories are representative of Muslims, and not even of hijabis”. How do you feel about that experience of hijabis being expected to act like representatives of the entire religion and communities?

I mean, it’s not just outside the Muslim community, even people in the Muslim community sometimes have that expectation. A very simple answer to that question is my monologue I’m Tired

I also think I could answer that question with a story from the road.

I usually place that monologue at the very beginning of the show to set the tone. At one of our early shows, a young Arab-American woman stormed out after that monologue. She was furious. One of the ushers, who told us this story later, saw the woman about to leave and asked her, “Is everything ok?” She said, “I’m just really mad.I just think it’s really ridiculous that you have this big audience and platform  to inform people about Islam and you’re using it to say cuss words.” She felt embarrassed as a Muslim woman who does not wear a headscarf and she happened to come with her best friend who was a hijabi.

The usher suggested she stay for the rest of the show because that’s just the first story. He advised her to voice her feelings during the Q & A session post-show. So she did. She stayed for the rest of the show and she said to the performers what she said to the usher, and before we could respond, her friend who wears a headscarf responded. She expressed her dismay that her friend felt that way when she didn’t feel that way at all; rather she said just by one simple f-word she felt relieved that she was given permission to be a human being for once. So it seemed like a conversation that those two friends had to have, right? I thought that was kind of amazing for us, too – because we were just getting started. It really showed that the desire from within a faith community for certain women to represent the community’s identity as models of perfection can be just as damaging as the desire from secular communities for those same Muslim women to stand in as models of Islam’s oppression.

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