Mona Haydar is a Syrian-American artist, activist and musician whose mission is to help the world grow more loving and understanding by challenging negative and narrow narratives. Her first single and music video, “Hijabi (Wrap My Hijab)” quickly went viral and currently has OVER A MILLION views! Even more impressively, Haydar was eight months pregnant when she shot the video! She and her husband Sebastian went viral in 2015 for their Ask a Muslim stand, where they gave away coffee, donuts and flowers engendering positive and humanizing connections.
In this interview, Mayim gets to know Mona and asks her questions about faith, religion, poetry and taking down the patriarchy.
Mayim Bialik: Thank you for talking with us! Where did you grow up?
Mona Haydar: My parents are from Damascus, Syria. They came as newlyweds and my dad is a doctor. He worked in the inner city of Flint for over thirty years and my mom is a teacher. My dad was kind of burned out from his work in Flint and needed a break and went to Saudi Arabia for a bit; I was actually born in Saudi Arabia. Then the Gulf War happened and my family came back to the US. So I was an American, born abroad.
I have seven siblings. They are all super high achievers: doctors, lawyers, PHd’s, and I kind of was the kid who felt like: “I just like poetry.” I got started in Flint doing my poetry stuff and it was amazing to find people who loved me outside of my family based on my art. As a non-black person of color, I was used to being the “other” in my school and growing up in my community, so finding this poetry scene that just embraced me for everything I was was wonderful. I was told very clearly that I should express myself and that to do so is to live a healthy and full life. I had amazing people who taught me to do that well in Flint.
MB: Were you raised in a religious household?
MH: My parents are practicing Muslims. My mother wears a hijab and both of my parents pray five times a day. I was raised to be conscientious of God and to ask myself daily, am I being kind? Am I being generous? Am I putting others before myself? Am I worried about the well-being of those around me? My parents raised me to have that sense of religious and spiritual identity. I wasn’t raised with dogma around me such as “If you don’t do that you are going to go to hell.” That wasn’t part of my upbringing. It was more care about people, to care about the earth, and to care about how we live.
MB: A lot of people don’t know about hijab and how it works. I know a lot of people see young Muslim girls with their heads covered. Can you explain what hijab is, when you start wearing it, and what its significance is?
MH: Hijab is a spiritual practice like meditation, or like praying or like any other practice that someone would choose to take on in order to further themselves on the spiritual path. For me, I chose to wear it when I was riding my bike one day in the summer between sixth and seventh grade and I just knew it was time for me. My parents threw me a big party to commemorate that shift. It has to do with the idea that we are more than our bodies; that we are spirits and we’re hearts and we’re intellects before we are these bodies. It’s a recognition of that fact. So everyday I wake up in the morning, and I’m honoring myself as a mind, I’m honoring myself as a heart, and I’m covering my hair in honor of the fact I’m not just this body. I’m going out in the world saying I’m so much more than my hair, I’m so much more this body. People think hijab is this “Oh it’s so men can’t see you” thing, but….well, actually, fuck men because it has nothing to do with them! It’s all about a woman’s own liberation and her own spiritual path towards enlightenment and knowledge of herself and her world.
MB: How does the practice of hijab vary in other Muslim countries or communities?
MH: Culturally it differs. Where ever there is Islam, there is a place that had a culture before Islam came into existence. So, everywhere you go, Islam takes on a different flavor. In Indonesia, for example, Islam is practiced very differently than in Senegal. Some cultures like their daughters to wear hijabs earlier, and in my own family I have an aunt who didn’t wear hijab until her fifties. She didn’t feel like it was for her, and then something happened in her fifties and she thought “Yes, I’m ready I want to do this.” My mother started covering when she was sixteen and I started covering when I was thirteen or fourteen. There’s a lot of hijab fluidity now where people cover sometimes.
MB: I love that term: “hijab fluidity”! I stopped wearing pants outside of the home because of modesty issues when I was in college and I’ve pretty much kept that up for almost twenty years now. But even though I’ve adopted this custom, many women would be considered more Jewishly observant than I am even if they do choose to wear pants. So there’s a lot of fluidity for Jews as well.
Obviously there is a lot of criticism from outside the Muslim community about hijab that are based on misconceptions of Islam, and I think the way that you present it is really beautiful. I love thinking of it as a spiritual practice, but obviously, once we are trying to claim our identity within a religion that is based in patriarchy and which is steeped in cultures that typically have restricted women’s movement historically, it can become confusing. What are your personal thoughts about criticism about the treatment of women in Islam?
MH: The thing about the patriarchy is that it tries to trick us into believing that it belongs to a certain religion or a certain geographical location when it actuality it’s a worldwide phenomenon and it’s the ultimate problem that we are dealing with as a human family. I think once we agree that patriarchy and white supremacy are the two major contributors to all of our human folly, we will do a much better job of uniting and doing away with them. So I don’t think hijab is a manifestation of patriarchy, but I do believe that a man’s aggression against a woman or using hijab as a tool to oppress a woman is a reflection of the patriarchy, a manifestation of the patriarchy. I can use hijab as a tool for my liberation, while another woman in another country has the hijab used against her because she lives in a more patriarchal society where she has less agency. I totally recognize that and it makes me sick, but it also makes me sick that here in my context as an American Muslim, one in three women in this country is sexually assaulted in her lifetime. Every three seconds it happens. So we can talk about Islam as a problem, or Judaism as a problem when really they have nothing to do with it. People bring their baggage to their religion and to their political ideology; they bring it to their identities, and try to manipulate it into “this is what my religion says.”
MB: That’s a brilliant distinction and response. On to a lighter question… I was really inspired at how joyous your video is and how unusual it is for many of us to see Muslim women this way. Who are some of your influences in terms of poetry or music?
MH: I grew up with really powerful symbols of womanhood. The number one person being my mother: the way she lives her life, not really concerned with what people say. She is really conscious of what’s going on inside herself. There’s a saying of the prophet Muhammad, “Seek the counsel of your heart, even when those around you are giving you counsel,” because ultimately we always know what the right thing is for us as long as we are connected to ourselves. Other influences are Nikki Giovanni, or Maya Angelou, or my professor Tracy Curry; these incredible women rise to the occasion of loving themselves when the world tells them they shouldn’t. I see that as the most courageous thing a woman can do: loving themselves in spite of the beauty industrial complex; in spite of the huge pressure on women to value themselves for their sexual function in the world when we are so much more than that. So that’s a big influence for me: women who buck that and say “No, I instead choose to love myself, even if the world doesn’t recognize that I am worthy of love. But I am.”
Musically, I grew up listening to Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu and that sort of neo-soul, spiritually conscious, politically-conscious hip-hop. It continues to be my treasure box. I always come back to a couple of those albums like of course “The MisEducation of Lauryn Hill” and so many others.
MB: Tell us about your personal life.
MH: I am married and I have two sons. I have a 3-year-old and two-month-old. We live in New York; my husband is a teacher from Massachusetts and his father is Jewish and his mother is Christian. We honor Shabbat sometimes and we are practicing Muslims but we believe that in order to be practicing Muslims, we also have to do things like honor the traditions that came before us and made it so that Islam could exist, since Islam is a product of Judaism and of Christianity.
MB: What an amazing family! What are you working on next?
MH: We’re shooting a video called “Dog” and it’s about men in positions of power, especially in religious communities, who prey on young women.
MB: I am voting for you for President whenever you are ready to run. What an honor to speak to you. I’m grateful we got to talk!