We live in a world where we are constantly being told what to think. In an age of readily accessible information, passive consumption of media-perpetuated stereotypes trump active quests for knowledge. For instance, the hijab, commonly associated with the headscarf worn by Muslim women, has become a source of irrational fear for many. With a sharp rise in Islamophobia and xenophobia in America and abroad, we have gone from telling Muslim women in hijab that they're being oppressed to yanking off their headscarves. Much of this fear stems from false information and a lack of inquiry. So what do non-Muslims actually know about the hijab or the Qur'an? Demystifying the hijab with an eye toward justice is exactly what New Mexico State University Interdisciplinary Studies/Women's Studies Associate Professor Dr. Manal Hamzeh and Mount Prospect native and Silk Road Rising Founding Artistic Director Jamil Khoury set out to do with the new animated short film The Four Hijabs, premiering at Silk Road Rising on July 30, 2016.
The Four Hijabs was purposefully developed as an entertaining and accessible animated short film that engages with the complex ideas surrounding the hijab. The animated short explores the multiple meanings of four hijabs mentioned in 16 Qur'anic verses. In engaging these verses through Arab-Muslim feminist lenses, four identifiable hijabs emerge: the visual hijab (the modest dress of both Muslim men and women), the spatial hijab (the separator between private and public spaces), the ethical hijab (ethical values/practices required of all Muslims), and the spiritual hijab (the barrier that inhibits deep spiritual growth and new knowledge.
The Four Hijabs reflects our deep commitment to make important cutting-edge academic thought accessible to a general public by interpreting and rendering it as art," said Hamzeh. The project stemmed from several conversations between co-writers Hamzeh and Khoury about the effects that Islamophobia and hijabophobia are having on young Muslims.
Hamzeh and Khoury are no strangers to challenging perspectives. The Four Hijabs is inspired by ideas in Hamzeh's book, "Pedagogies of DeVeiling: Muslim Girls and the Hijab Discourse" (2012). "[The film] engages broader audiences in work and thought that may cut against the grain of what they have previously taken for granted," said Hamzeh. She sees The Four Hijabs as one of the extensions of her own struggles as an Arab-Muslim feminist wrestling with patriarchal logic. It also supplements her approach to teaching, guided by a commitment to equity and social justice.
"There's a lot about Manal's scholarship that inspires me as playwright," said Khoury. "The challenge of adapting sophisticated theoretical concepts into a character driven, dialogue driven animated short, has been a huge learning curve for me. The fact that these verses are grounded in sacred texts that have been largely distorted further raises the stakes."
Social justice and art are entwined passions for Khoury. His theatre company, Silk Road Rising, co-founded with his husband and company Executive Director Malik Gillani, has been committed to presenting stories through Asian and Middle Eastern American lenses for over 13 years. Khoury is also a successful playwright. His most recent play "Mosque Alert" boldly tackles Islamophobia, assimilation, and generational divides. In its dramatization of the resistance to the building of mosques in communities across the US, "Mosque Alert" highlights the diversity of beliefs within Muslim American communities and offers a variety of complex perspectives.
"I do not take a 'position' on the hijab nor do I seek to define it," said Khoury. "As a non-Muslim man, it is not my place to endorse or condemn the choices of Muslim women. As political and religious positions, 'pro-hijab' and 'anti-hijab' feel both reductive and essentializing. As an artist, I'm interested in the dramatization of ideas and theories. I draw inspiration from discursive argument and contested categories, and from debunking stereotypes and unpacking assumptions."
With a touch of humor and a sense of wonder, The Four Hijabs takes us on an imaginative journey through the eyes of three very different Muslim friends, two women and one man, eager to dive into a world of inquiry. In the course of engaging with the Qur'anic text on their own, the multiple meanings of the four hijabs begin coming to life. "Essentially, we had to uncover the lived experiences, the behaviors and personal applications, that inform each of the four hijabs," said Khoury. "In so doing, we embodied and empowered concepts and verses as self-aware characters seeking to undo their own misrepresentation."
The Four Hijabs also indicates how an individual Muslim has the opportunity to interpret the Qur'an without scholars, without a mediator. "How often does scripture get to resist its appropriators?" said Khoury. "Its feminist agitprop meets spiritual reclamation."
"I am excited at the thought of the The Four Hijabs engaging a wider range of learners who may then begin to question and re-read the Qur'an," said Hamzeh, "to discuss the complex ideas around this loaded topic, and ultimately to imagine a world that exists beyond that created by the power-elite."
The significance of critical inquiry brought director Elizabeth Wuerffel to the table for this project. Wuerffel is an interdisciplinary artist, filmmaker, and professor of digital media art at Valparaiso University. Wuerffel said, "As an educator, critical inquiry is the core practice essential to growing and learning that's more than developing 'practical skills for the workforce,' but deeply investigating why things are the way they are, and questioning those narratives and the forces that keep them circulating."
The Four Hijabs is made possible by generous support from The Chicago Foundation for Women, a community organization dedicated to advocating for equality and increasing resources and opportunities for women and girls in the greater Chicago area. The screening will be followed by a panel discussion, including Hamzeh, Khoury, and three respondents: Suroor Raheemullah, Director of Organizational Development for the Muslim Women's Alliance; Itedal Shalabi, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Arab American Family Services, and Fouad Teymour, playwright and Professor of Chemical Engineering at Illinois Institute of Technology.
"I am very proud of the result that our team has been able to bring to life," said film animator Anna Hayden-Roy. "Creating characters to act as audience avatars as well as physical representations of the four hijabs was perhaps the most important part of this process. My hope for this project as we bring it to the public is that these characters and the small universe they inhabit will shed new light on the subject of the hijab in a way that is both entertaining and memorable."
The Four Hijabs premiere screening and panel discussion take place on July 30, 2016, at 4pm at Silk Road Rising's downtown Chicago theatre in the Historic Chicago Temple Building (Pierce Hall, 77 W Washington St, lower level-right across from Daley Plaza). Admission is free, but seating is limited.