The Hijabi Monologues: The young Muslims in Britain using the arts to reclaim their culture
A number of projects in the UK are using cultural events to promote a nuanced view of Muslims in a polarised political climate
“Do you know what it’s like to represent a billion human beings every day?” asks Zainab Hasan. “It’s exhausting,” she tells the audience, brows raised, incredulous that she’s expected to answer for an entire world religion. Shifting her abaya to show patterned pyjamas underneath, she rails against the pressure to pick outfits “for public relations purposes” and to prove that she isn’t an “oppressed” Muslim woman.
This performance of I’m Tired, written by Sahar Ullah, is part of Hijabi Monologues London, a series of stories drawn from the experiences of Muslim women. The tales are sometimes funny, and sometimes angry or sad, as they recount the feeling of being watched on the Tube, confronted by strangers – or even instances when they’ve assumed the identity of an imaginary superhero to face the dangers of being a hijab-wearing woman in London.
Together, they peel away the stereotypes and remind the audience of the different cultures encompassed by a vast global faith. In Britain, where Muslims represent the fastest growing minority group – accounting for a third of the country’s black, Asian and minority ethnic population – young creatives are finding ways to reclaim their representation in the country’s theatres, art galleries, concert halls and community centres.
Using the arts to promote a nuanced portrayal of Muslim communities
Home Office figures show recorded hate crime has more than doubled in England and Wales over the past five years, with more than 50 per cent of religiously motivated attacks directed at Muslims. The Hijabi Monologues is part of a growing body of work that is harnessing the arts to promote a more nuanced portrayal of Muslim communities in an increasingly polarised political climate.
In 2017, it was among 39 projects to receive a grant from the Said Foundation’s Amal programme, which supports arts and cultural initiatives to increase understanding of Muslim communities in the United Kingdom. Grants were distributed across genres including music, drama, poetry and dance to projects that foster a stronger sense of belonging among British Muslims and improve their access to the arts.
A report by the Said Foundation on Amal’s first year shows the impact of the arts in creating common ground. At the Stratford Circus Arts Centre in the London borough of Newham, a small grant from Amal was enough to forge links with the local mosque for a shared storytelling project, connecting neighbours who had never met, over cups of tea.
The report also contributes to a mounting body of evidence that underscores the ability of the arts to “strengthen social cohesion by promoting empathy for others”. It cites the Arts and Humanities Research Council, which described the scope of cultural engagement as being able to “break down perceived barriers between generations, between neighbourhoods, social classes and different world views”.
“One of the biggest problems for Muslims in the West is lack of cultural capital,” says Luqman Ali, co-founder of London’s Khayaal Theatre Company, which runs dramatic productions inspired by Muslim world culture and heritage. It’s only when this imbalance is redressed and Muslim artists become more visible that these misconceptions will be dispelled, he says.
Stories as a powerful medium for cross-cultural exchange
Last October, the British Museum unveiled the Albukhary Foundation Gallery, showcasing a range of remarkable riches from across the Islamic world. Part of the permanent collection, the eclectic display of art, archaeology, books, textiles, games, scientific instruments and other artefacts conveys the interaction between different cultures that characterised the evolution of Islam across the ages.
Amal helps to facilitate connections between grassroots enterprises and established institutions such as this, to enhance Britain’s cultural landscape with an arts scene that better reflects its diverse social fabric. Success stories include a production of Othello by English Touring Theatre, a company that made its international debut at Dubai Opera last week.
The play invites viewers of all backgrounds to engage with one of the great classics of western literature. “We’ve taken something that is central to mainstream British culture and subverted it to show that this is a multicultural play,” its director, Richard Twyman, says.
In this version, Othello conceals his Islamic identity from a western society that fears his faith. Keeping his prayer beads hidden, he encapsulates the outsiders’ struggle to integrate while staying true to his beliefs.
Islamic storyteller and actress Eleanor Martin was with Amal in 2017 at Greenbelt, an annual Christian festival that has been running for 45 years. Muslim arts are not a regular feature on its programme, but the Amal tent was “heaving”, says Martin, who captivated the audience with the true tale of a persecuted Muslim community given refuge by a Christian king in the early days of Islam.
Stories are a powerful medium for cross-cultural exchange because they “remind us of our shared humanity,” says Martin, who is also an associate director at Khayaal Theatre, which received a grant from Amal in 2017 to deliver its Theatre Without Walls project – a series of multifaith drama workshops – across the country. This enabled them to engage a large Muslim audience, many of whom were experiencing theatre for the first time. Dozens of families also contacted co-founder Ali afterwards to enrol their children in drama and storytelling lessons.
Inspiring a bright future for Muslims in the arts
When Luqman Ali launched the theatre back in 1997, there were very few Muslims on the scene. “It was barren terrain,” he recalls. Since then he has seen a notable rise in Muslim engagement with the arts, but representation remains disproportionate and role models scarce for a generation of upcoming artists seeking inspiring acts to follow. Prejudice and discrimination are compounded by recent budget cuts across the creative industries, which have had a particular impact on minority groups, he says.
Amal’s partnerships with the Southbank Centre, Cheltenham Festivals, Bradford Literature Festival and others, aim to remove some of the barriers for young Muslims participating in the arts. The Said Foundation’s report states that around two-thirds of British Muslims are aged 30 or under, and that this “overwhelmingly young demographic represents a great prize in terms of their potential contribution to the future of the country”.
Drama and poetry are particularly effective in engaging a younger crowd. As part of Makrooh, a Muslim creative collective that runs open mic nights in North London, performers find expression through music, verse and other mediums. Spoken-word artist Fahima Hersi, a regular headliner at the collective’s events, described art and creativity as “the best place to bridge the gap between people of different groups” in an interview with The National last year.
Their events also offer a safe space to explore sensitive subjects, giving young people a voice they might otherwise lack. Without it, there’s a danger that people can start to feel excluded and become more marginalised, says Abid Hussein, director of diversity at the Arts Council England and an advisor on the Amal board.
Historically, there has been a low uptake in the arts among British Muslim communities, but that’s beginning to change among generations born and brought up in the UK. “More and more British Muslims feel that Britain is their home and want to contribute to the wider cultural landscape of the country,” he says.
“That’s starting to happen now and it gives me a lot of optimism for the future.”
Originally published in The National, 5 February 2019
(Main image, Hijabi Monologues London. Image credit: Helen Murray )