Before I can ask Rohina Malik a question, she jumps in to ask me her own question—“What was your favorite character in my play?” The play she is referring to is “Unveiled,” a stunning one-act that Malik has written and performed around the country for almost a decade. The play shares the stories of five distinct Muslim women in a post-9/11 world. I tell Malik that all of the characters are affecting, but perhaps the first vignette—Maryam’s story—stayed with me a bit more. “That’s my story,” says Malik, clearly delighted.
The London-born Malik is Pakistani by heritage and now lives in Chicago. She recently spoke to JewishBoston as she finished a successful run of “Unveiled” at the New Rep Theatre. The play moves on to Stoneham’s Greater Boston Stage Company from Feb. 7-16.
Maryam is a Pakistani immigrant who arrives at a friend’s wedding wearing a hijab and pushing a stroller. As she enters the banquet hall, a man screams at her to “take that s**t off your head. If you’re an American, dress like one.” Malik says the incident “was heavy on my heart. I knew I wanted to write about it and I knew I wanted to start with that story when I began writing ‘Unveiled.’”
To gain some distance from the incident, Malik created Maryam as a fictional dressmaker. The focus, however, remains trained on Maryam’s hijab. All five characters in the play tell their stories of wearing the hijab in the face of bigotry and hate. “The hijab is such a big thing for Muslim women,” Malik says. “We talk about it all the time.” She says the hijab represents different things for Muslim women. For some the hijab is about modesty. For others it’s part of their culture as opposed to a religious act. Malik says women also wear the hijab as a feminist statement. “The reasons women cover is so diverse,” she says. “Feminists find it very empowering to decide what parts of their body people get to look at.”
As an artist, Malik also sets out to “lift the veil from our hearts. I feel a responsibility to try and depict Muslims as people.” In the play, depicting Muslims as “natural, flawed, normal people” begins with Malik inviting people into the living rooms of her characters to drink tea. She observes that tea is an integral part of Muslim culture. “Tea is a part of everything for Muslims,” she says. “It’s served when you’re happy, you’re grieving or stressed.” Certainly all of Malik’s characters experience these emotions. Noor, a Moroccan-American lawyer, loses her husband to a heinous hate crime. Inez, an Africa-American Muslim, is targeted for wearing her hijab. Layla, a Palestinian-American, remembers praying to Allah on Sept. 11: “Please, Allah, make it be a mistake.” After the towers fall, she not only worries about perceptions of Muslims, but also fears for her firefighter brother who is on the scene.
Malik says she set out to write “Unveiled” after observing a rise in hate crimes and hate rhetoric in 2008. “Now it’s a whole new animal,” she says. “At that time hate wasn’t just affecting Muslims, it was affecting so many communities. Hindus were being targeted, as was the Sikh community because the men wear turbans and have beards. When people looked at them they saw a stereotypical terrorist.” Malik is determined to fight stereotypes with her plays, as well as display her devotion to interfaith work. “Performing ‘Unveiled’ has changed my life,” she says. “I have so many Jewish and Christians friends because of it. I’ve been invited to perform in synagogues, churches and mosques since the play premiered in Chicago in 2009.”
After President Trump’s election, Malik collaborated with two other women—a Jewish storyteller and a Christian theater artist—and created a new play called “Keeping Faith: Three Sisters of Story.” The idea, says Malik, is straightforward: Each woman tells three stories from her faith tradition. The women then come together to tell one shared story. “We are sisters,” asserts Malik. “We share so much in common, beginning with the fact that we are of Abrahamic faiths. We’re from different rivers that come from the same ocean.”
“Unveiled” will run at the Greater Boston Stage Company in Stoneham from Feb. 7-16. For more information and tickets, click here.