Kashif Pasta is the founder of Dunya, a communications agency that aims to bring relatable narratives to South Asian and Muslim communities in North America. He and his team recently produced Zoya, a short film following a high school girl who doesn’t quite expect her peers’ reactions when she decides to experiment with hijab.
Sarabi Eventide, Muslimah Media Watch: What inspired you to make this film?
Kashif Pasta: There was an article in Maisonneuve Quarterly by Rahat Kurd back in 2011 where she reflects on her time wearing and not wearing the hijab. This was pre-Instagram, pre-Tumblr being huge. Pre- the massive current hijabi fashionista movement. There was one part of the piece that struck me in particular, where she talked about getting more attention from a hijab then you’d get from wearing an expensive YSL coat, and that fact struck me as so funny, but so true. I had never thought of the attention as a good thing that one might actually want. In the fashion world, that’s exactly what you want.
[The team started thinking]: what if someone did see hijab as pure fashion? The idea of [a] girl who feels invisible at school came up— what if she used the hijab to get noticed? She can’t get to a trend faster than anyone else [and] she can’t start wearing YSL and Burberry to school, but she can afford a scarf. No one else would ever think to do that. Her journey [in beginning] to understand it as something more than fashion start[s] to be[come] a story. Putting aside the spirituality, theology, and so on that are absolutely and incredibly important, ultimately all these ideas and feelings, discussion in news media are about attaching symbolism and ideas to a piece of fabric. What if a character really only saw it as that, and we started to re-build the symbolism from there?
The character of Zoya ended up far less iconoclastic than the original idea for her, but I was and still am taken by the idea of getting to talk about ourselves as Muslims in our own way, separate from the talking points and forced binaries that are pushed on us by Fox News and co. What they do is so counterintuitive, painting a broad brush across something so personal and individual for each person. So I wanted to start breaking the mental model a bit to emphasize that we are allowed to be participants in telling our stories, especially the stories each of us tells ourselves.
Eventide: It’s tragic how much importance people place on other people’s appearances. These days, people have to “look the part” to be credible. The media tells us a Muslim woman can only be a spokesperson for Islam if she covers her hair, but if she wants to prove her liberality, she must cast away her hijab. Your film does an excellent job of avoiding the argument over religion and liberality and focusing on the human aspect of hijabihood.
Speaking of human aspects, why did you choose to film in a high school setting, as opposed to an adult setting?
Pasta: Zoya, being a fairly smart character, would likely be much further on the journey of figuring out her identity by her mid-twenties or adulthood. If there’s one thing, in my experience, that characterizes the modern Muslim woman, it’s an almost overwhelming level of ambition, intelligence, and oftentimes active engagement in creating their own identities—in a sense this film is a way to go, “okay, that’s a great place to arrive at—but what’s her origin story?”
High school is a little microcosm of the world where smaller things are more dramatic, where you’re much more obviously expected to conform and your day-to-day choices are a lot more limited. In university you can maybe join the MSA and start filtering out who you interact with, then you can be an adult and have just 3 or 4 friends that you’ve carefully chosen, but in high school you’re just stuck with everyone your age who happens to live in the same area for one of the most formative periods of your life. Conformity equals success in a very direct way.
Eventide: I can foresee a lot of people criticizing you and the film for the particular hijab style Zoya chooses, as well as for choosing hip-hop beats. What do you have to say to your critics?
Pasta: Surprisingly we haven’t been critiqued about either yet—or the potentially most controversial element, the fact that her best friend is a boy (gasp!).
I was planning on doing a lot more research and consulting but then I realized that our lead actress doesn’t wear a hijab herself—as a bit of a first-timer whatever she did would naturally be authentic. I couldn’t have written in those visible hijab pins that would make an experienced hijab-wearer cringe. It was authentic by nature.
The music was another effort to make the film feel authentic and relatable. The hip hop mostly came out of the original Zoya character having a lot more attitude—in terms we didn’t even have available to us when we wrote the film, her personality was a mix between Tony Stark and Kamala Khan. But even as she was evened out a bit, the hip hop stuck around because it feels so contemporary, which is what she is as a person. She’s a senior in high school and can and should be allowed to live as culturally in-the-moment as everyone else. Music helps lend visuals a sense of place, and all the music was made by Mannan Ahmed precisely half a block away from the school it was filmed at—by its very nature it suits that locale.
Eventide: They way you described Zoya’s character is interesting; you chose two superheroes as examples. Zoya can’t fly and doesn’t have super strength, but would you consider her a superhero?
Pasta: Ha. I guess I do make a lot of references like that. I think the superhero-esque aspect comes into the film more from the story structure than character, and that it seeps in there because that’s so much a part of how we tell and understand stories right now. If Westerns were the myth-du-jour Zoya might have been the new kid at school, with the student council kids being townspeople and Alison being the Sheriff. The film was written before Ms. Marvel was created as a Pakistani-American superhero, but the superhero genre– if it is one genre– definitely influenced the structure. We thought about the hijab in terms of a hero’s costume, and what comes with putting it on and the “powers” of sorts that it enables. She’s more confident and tries more things when she has it on. So in that sense, yes I do!
Eventide: I appreciated your decision to use comedy instead of drama. Why did you choose comedy and do you think the message would have changed if you used a different genre?
Pasta: I want to tell stories that are engaging and relatable, and real life is pretty funny. The film actually ended up being a lot more serious than we originally intended, but comedy really comes from surprise—you laugh when you don’t expect something. It’s why knock-knock jokes still work. I think [that in] a film that has to do with hijab, we [expect] to have a girl holding some fabric, crying her eyes out in front of a mirror with an oud [a stringed instrument common in traditional Middle Eastern and North African music] being somberly plucked in the cinematic distance—and of course we’d have to call the movie Unveiled.
The reality is, that it’s not how we live our lives, [it’s] just how we’ve been trained to see ourselves and our stories. There’s this cultural schizophrenia where we have to change who we are based on the situation – in class, with family, at the mosque, out in public. Small efforts to try and synthesize those into one cohesive person are really important to me, because people need to feel validated more than anything else and there are limited opportunities for that without molding yourself into someone else’s box, even if that box is the MSA or a group of relatively supportive people. Even the most accepting groups want you to be like them before they’ll accept you.
We expect Zoya – or ourselves when we’re in that kind of situation, as we have been so many times– to start to explain herself, quote the hadith and its lineage with supporting verses, translations, and commentary from the Qur’an, but the fact is she’s 18 and you’re wrong and now it’s on you to figure yourself out. The funniest stuff in Zoya is the least expected. In following with the theme of the film, a lot of her lines weren’t written from the point of view of what Zoya should say, but what we think she shouldn’t. At least in the way we’re subtly taught to exist as Muslims in North America.
My sister Shagufta wears a hijab and consulted on the story of Zoya—she started to wear the hijab at age 14, while on student council and at the exact high school we shot at, so where better to go for authenticity—and I bounced some lines off of her. When I, speaking as one of the characters in the film said something along the lines of “you don’t believe in the oppression of women? You wear a hijab,” Shagufta just went “exactly”, and I lost it. So funny and so real. She owes an explanation to no one. If someone is wrong or doesn’t understand, that’s their problem. That line made it into the film.
Growing up Muslim in North America we’re treated as guilty until proven guilty; it’s cathartic to me to have a character not take that weight on. The laugh is a physical manifestation of that catharsis.
Eventide: Your use of the phrase “cultural schizophrenia” captures the tensions you explore through Zoya’s story. Young Muslims often have to work through similar tensions. Figuring oneself out is especially difficult when both the media and family members inundate Muslims with their expectations.
I believe part of this comes from allowing others to tell their stories. Your work as a filmmaker is instrumental in helping reshape people’s ideas about Islam and about Muslims. Do you have any advice for someone who might want to do similar work, who might want to share his or her narrative?
Pasta: Make things. And keep making them. It sounds simpler than it is, but it’s also simpler than it sounds. Even just writing things down for yourself, making something as simple as a single journal entry or poem or photo or painting, it’s all creating and it all helps to build your creative momentum. Momentum by definition takes a lot of energy to start but gets easier and easier as you go.
The second piece of advice is more practical, and one that gets missed a lot: keep your audience in mind. You don’t have to release everything you make if you don’t want to, but for the things you do publish, upload, show, etc., you’re showing it to people. Who are these people? Be as specific as possible [about who you’re talking to] and to start being clearer about the ideas you’re communicating.
It’s difficult to have an impact on “Muslims” or “everybody”, but [when you focus on, for instance,] “Muslim women who attend your university,” now you have a pretty defined group that has it’s own lingo, mannerisms, ways of understanding that is very different than Hindu seniors in suburban Chicago. If your small target audience relates to it, chances are a wider group will relate to the universal elements in the work as well. Kendrick Lamar’s work is very, very, very specific to young men in Compton, but it works so well that my family in South Africa can relate and are big fans as well. You can imbue your work with as much meaning as you want, but meaning is really created at the point of reception—in the viewer’s mind, once they’ve combined your work with everything they already know and think about the world.
Eventide: The end of the film is a total cliffhanger, it took me a few minutes to piece everything together. I’m assuming the “true Zoya” is the form of her we see in the end. Is this the case?
Pasta: At some point in the writing process it became very clear that Shyam (my co-writer, producer, and the guy who plays Zoya’s best friend Akash) [and I] were just one Muslim dude and one Hindu dude, and an in-depth treatise on the hijab was not our story to tell. That’s when a lot of dialogue we were planning around the true nature of hijab, use, misuse, etc. was replaced by a more straightforward story about student council. It had the double-benefit of being something we could absolutely relate to because all that student council nonsense absolutely is our story to tell based on our experiences, and also having Zoya not be solely defined by what she wore.
Ultimately she grows because of her own thoughts and experiences, the hijab is just the catalyst. Like Mike [a film in which a pair of sneakers assumed to have been worn by an NBA all star increase a teenage boy’s basketball skill level so much he is asked to play professionally] is a fun movie about magical clothing if that’s really what people want to see.
When it comes to the “cliffhanger,” it’s more about us being careful not to make a declaration about right and wrong, and to instead say to young women that it’s up to them to make a choice, to look in to things for themselves and [to] go on their own journey. [To] young men, [we wanted] to emphasize that it is Zoya’s journey and Zoya’s decision, not anyone else’s—Akash has a perspective without being prescriptive. The hijab is a great way to visually tell a story about identity and choices because in a way it is either off or on—but we run the risk of overindulging the metaphor and making it a binary thing. Hijab on means this, hijab off means that. Someone can wear a hijab or not, want to or not, be conflicted about it or not, every combination of all of the above and more—and that can just be over the course of one day.
From my point of view, [spoiler] when Zoya picks up the scarf at the end of the film, she is going to go put it on as a hijab that day [end spoiler]. But MOST importantly she is making the decision to be herself. What that means specifically will change a lot, especially at [her] stage [in] life, but the experience of asserting, doubting, and re-asserting herself will, inshaAllah, set her up for a more confident future.