On Saturday, I tried to see “Headscarf and the Angry B*tch,” at Artworks for the Cincinnati Fringe Festival, which simply describes the play with the phrase, “the Muslim Weird Al.” I dashed through the doors at 6:58pm and flashed my pass. I was turned away. The house was packed, even the standing room, and I was out of luck. On the advice of the staff, I went next door to the Know Theatre and bought a ticket for the next evening.
On Sunday, I decided to show up a few minutes early, just in case. It was a wise decision. When I arrived at Artsworks about 20 minutes before show time, there was already a line halfway down the block. My growing love for all things Fringe aside, I felt this show was particularly important to see, because while Jewish stereotypes have been loudly projected into the mainstream for years, Muslims have taken a quieter, more serious route with their religion. Much of Islam remains shrouded (sometimes literally) from the mainstream, and with that choice comes a lot of misinterpretation and fear on the public’s part. This is probably part of the reason that “Headscarf” has been THE most popular show at Cincinnati Fringe Fest 2011, ticket-wise at least. Zehra Fasal has crafted a poignant, funny and insightful musical comedy to unabashedly expose and explain the Muslim stereotype without accusation or self-pity.
In this one-woman show, Fasal assumes the role of an outreach volunteer speaking in a lecture series at a Muslim community center. As this character, she intersperses educational lessons on Islam with personal experience stories and clever parodies to popular songs. For example, America’s lyric “I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name” ingeniously becomes “I’ve been through the airport as a Muslim detained.”
Fasal’s position as a first-generation woman of Indi-Pakastani immigrants is a convenient way to tell the story of Muslims in the U.S. She grew up with one foot in the old country and one in the new, and she comfortably and expertly relates and exposes all Muslim stereotypes to the audience. No Islamic stone is left unturned: after the airport security bit, she eases into Halal and Haraam (Kosher and Non-Kosher, in every sense of the word), Ramadaan, restrictions on women including dating outside of the faith, and the five daily calls to prayer. Halal and Haraam turn into a quiz show; she encourages the audience to shout out the answer as she holds up a bottle of beer, a pack of skittles, and an Ellen DeGeneres poster. Ramadaan gets its own holiday song with some hilarious but very off-color lyrics explaining the restrictions of the festival.
Fasal’s tone grows more somber as she describes the extreme societal pressure placed on Muslim women to remain chaste in a world that is becoming more over-sexed by the minute. She speaks frankly of her romantic escapades that towed the line between fitting in with her peer group and honoring her religion’s restrictions. Her tone is one of plain exasperation as she grapples with the instruction to pray five times a day. She does not try to hide her disagreement with the law but instead asks if it’s possible to hold on to parts of this religion while still maintaining a secular lifestyle. She embraces her anger at society’s reaction to the Muslim people over this past decade, declaring “through conflict, we redefine ourselves.”
“Headscarf” ended, as I imagine it often does, to thunderous applause. There is a rare quality to Fasal’s brash stereotyping and frankness that seems to touch every person on some level. I could relate her religious struggles with my own; any dogma that dictates and restricts our way of life is bound to raise some questions on whether the spiritual fulfillment is worth the sacrificial cost. That is the crux of Fasal’s piece, and her insights and conclusions make this a compelling show to watch. She gives her final Cincinnati Fringe performance on Tuesday, June 7 at 7:30pm. More information is available here.