Posted on Jan 07, 2013
This month's Hijabi of the Month comes to us from Rancho Cucamonga, California! Lena Khan was nominated by a friend who had this to say about her:
"She is one-of-a-kind in her field since there are very few American Muslims in the entertainment business. Lena has worked for major production companies and is well on her way to making her own feature film. She'd make a great Hijabi of the Month because of her past success, her current endeavors and the way she is giving back to the community."
Lena Khan is a filmmaker now working on a full-length feature film. After graduating from UCLA with degrees in political science and history, she then graduated from UCLA's prestigious film school. Since then, she has been directing films, commercials and music videos for international artists such as Maher Zain. After getting years of experience working at well known production companies in mainstream Hollywood, she is now working on her first full-length feature film, a dramatic comedy called The Tiger Hunter. She hopes her film, which features a positive Muslim character in a lead role, will help jumpstart a trend of normalizing Muslims through entertainment. She also hopes it will make people laugh themselves silly.
Aside from her career, Lena is married and likes to dabble in everything. While she has given up her dream to become a Jeopardy contender or master ventriloquism, she likes to hang out with her cat and husband (though not necessarily in that order), study (Arabic, Islam, etc), juggle, play the drums, or convince herself to embrace her P90X workout DVDs.
Lena directing Maher Zain on the set of his music video, "Keep me True."
1) When did you start wearing hijab and how does it impact you in your profession?
I started wearing hijab early in college, before I knew what an impact it would have on my professional life. Sure, I probably wouldn't have changed my decision, but at least I would have been better prepared for a career defined by a piece of cloth on my head. I have little doubt that my hijab is the first thing most people in the industry notice when they first meet me. When I used to intern at various production companies, my bosses were kind to me, but they also assumed I had less of a command of popular culture than my other interns. People were always kind, and trusted me enough to give me the internships, but it was hard for them to completely expect I would have the same capabilities of the others. The result was that I had to fight harder to get noticed, to show that I could hold on my own. And in the end, I came out with a job at one of the most respected production companies. Sure, people still brought me scripts from countries I had nothing to do with, ("Lena, can you look at this script? It's your people so I figured you'd have a good perspective." They don't realize I know nothing about Iranians) but I was still a respected co-worker who had earned her keep.
In my own work, the problem stays. Because of my hijab, I become known by Muslims and non-Muslim filmmakers as a "Muslim filmmaker," when in order to succeed I sometimes prefer to be what I am: a filmmaker who happens to be Muslim. I sometimes have embraced the title as the compliment that it is, but while my faith helps drive me, I prefer for the product of my work to define me. Muslim and non-Muslim investors alike have vocally expressed their hesitance at investing with a hijabi filmmaker. Even when promoting our film online, I am wary of whether our cause will be hurt by the fact that the spokesperson for the project is me. In the last week of only modestly promoting my fan page beyond our community, I have received 4 pieces of bigoted hate mail. True, I don't have any scary stories of prejudice, but when fighting an uphill battle to chase your dreams—all of this matters. The result? I will work harder to prove myself. I will commit myself to my film. And I will, God willing, do my utmost to carve out a career with work that is entertaining and compelling enough that people won't care enough to notice what I have on my head.
2) What do you love most about working in film?
I love bringing people into my world. It's more than telling stories—it's telling stories through a ride that I have helped shape in every way, from dreaming up characters to deciding aesthetics that only speak to people in the most unconscious of levels. Whereas I am usually more of an intellectually, pragmatically minded person, I appreciate film because in order to truly succeed at it, you have to develop not only the mind but also your inner faculties. On the one hand, You have to build an adeptness at technical skills and an intellectual grasp of aspects like story structure or the issues your film is dealing with. On the other hand, you have to hone your ability to see people on an inner level: what governs your own biases, what drives people's motivations, and what subtext you can find that governs human interactions. I may not have come close to mastering any of these aspects, but it makes me love immersing myself in them.
3) What were some positive influences you had growing up?
My parents, in their own ways, are do-gooders. My father helps anyone who asks and my mom used to take in boarders to our home, anyone from battered women to Bosnian refugees. In addition, she spends her time doing anything from organizing health fairs to working in politics. Partly because of them, I see my work not only as art, but as a means to help society as well. Film—especially fictional film, which is where I am focused—has the unique ability to change people's perceptions without ever having an argument or hosting a lecture. It moves people in ways even the tears of real people do not. I have always been committed as such to using it to benefit society as much as I can.
4) If you could tell your 17 year-old self one thing, what would it be?
I would tell myself to go buy a camera and start honing my craft. In high school, I used to make videos for various occasions, be it my brother's wedding video or projects for class. While my work was often praised, I treated it as a hobby that was secondary to more important things. Like many in the Muslim community, I ultimately thought things like film or painting were simply things we engaged in when we were taking a break from the more important tasks that would mean more in the world. Now that I know the power of filmmaking and the potential it has, I would tell my younger self to get a camera, start honing my skills, and fly with whatever aspirations or ideas hit me. I would also tell myself to save every single dime I had for my first feature - because then maybe it would be easier to finish financing my current film!
5) If you could give one piece of advice to someone struggling with hijab, what would it be?
In my own life, I have found that the hijab may not be easy at first, but it often seems to work out for the best. It pushes me to work harder. It makes people notice when I do things of value and connect the goodness I do to my faith. So, if I had to give advice to somebody who truly wants to wear the hijab but is afraid of what will come? For whatever my paltry advice is worth, I'd say:
1. We are a resilient species that will adapt to almost anything, and surmount most things life throws our way.
2. Sometimes the hijab will lead you to that which is better. My father had a phrase of poetry he used to say in his language, Urdu. Translated, it applies to my experience with hijab:
To the Eagle, flying in the air:
Do not be afraid of the wind beating against you.
It is only with the oncoming wind, that you can truly rise higher.
Is there someone you'd like to nominate for HOTM? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.