‘Get to know me,” says actress/playwright Rahina Malik. “Someone may look different from you, but once you get to know them, you know their humanity.” With her play “Unveiled,” playing Wednesday through Sunday, April 24 through 28, at New Brunswick’s Crossroads Theater, she introduces us to five Muslim women so that we get to know them. They are five very different women with one thing in common — they wear the hijab, the veil. Not only did Malik write the play, she also performs the different roles.
Even before 9/11, she says, the media fostered a negative image of Muslims. The bias against “the other,” in this case, Muslims, was already there. “After 9/11, it really got worse. There were hate crimes against Muslims or anyone whose skin was too dark or who dressed differently. It was frightening.”
She feels that hate crimes do not begin with violence, but need an atmosphere conducive to stereotyping human beings and using degrading language. “It never begins with a gun or knife or bat.” She decided she wanted to be part of the solution to this problem. “I wrote this play as a way to challenge these stereotypes about Muslim women.”
Malik refers to Crossroads’ producing artistic director Marshall Jones as MJ. They met a few years ago at a Theater Communications Group conference. “I think MJ chose the play because of the current negative climate for the Muslim community.”
Jones tells it this way: “I was struck by the passion and poetry of the work. We should know what’s underneath the veil. I know what it feels like to be stigmatized. After 9/11, I went totally the other way: not thinking that anyone who was a Muslim was a terrorist or hated America.” He continues, “I know what it’s like, and it’s not fair. I thought this would be a great choice for our audiences at Crossroads because, I, as a black male, can see the similarities in our experience.”
The first story is based on an incident that happened to Malik. “I began from a very personal place,” she says. At a friend’s wedding, a man confronted her rudely, telling her to take off her veil. “It was frightening because it almost became violent on his part and in front of my children.”
As we talked on the phone, she was at home in Chicago, where she lives with her financial analyst husband. “The total opposite of me,” she says, “but he gives me feedback not as a director or dramaturg, but as an audience member.”
They have four children who range in ages from 5 to 12. When she answers the phone, I can hear children’s voices in the background. She asks me to wait a moment while she puts on a cartoon to keep them occupied while we talk. So not only is she a writer and performer, she is an active homemaker and mother as well. “I’m a busy lady. Once you become a mother, you realize how precious writing time is.”
She takes advantage of the time when the children are in school and late at night when they have gone to bed. “I’m a night owl. Once I open the document I’m working on, I get very creative.” Currently she is writing two plays, “Yasmina’s Necklace,” which deals with coming to terms with one’s identity, and “The Mecca Tales,” which again tells the stories of five Muslim women. They are both slated for productions in 2014.
Malik grew up in London with Pakistani parents. When she was 16 they moved to the Chicago area. She had become enamored of theater and was busy acting in everything when she was in high school, but when she went to college at DePaul University, she majored in religious studies. “I don’t know why I didn’t major in theater in college. But I heard so many negative comments from my peers saying ‘You’re a Muslim woman; do you really have a place in American theater?’” However, as the years went by, she felt a void in her life. “When you have such a passion for something, you can’t avoid it. It will find its way back to you. That happened.”
She has two sisters. One is a filmmaker who is currently making a documentary about Muslim women in the arts which, of course, will feature her writer/actress sister as well as other artists.
When Malik was in her 30s she began to write the first monologue and worked with others at Chicago’s 16th Street Theater on its development. During the process she served them chocolate chai tea. that interaction suggested a thread that led to the addition of four more women to the plot. From the original monologue emerged the play of five women telling their stories. “Each character is introduced preparing different types of tea from the Islamic world.”
The original character, Miriam, “is not me, but she grew from my experience.” She is a dressmaker on Devon Avenue in a diverse neighborhood in Chicago, “where there are a lot of Indians, Arabs, Orthodox Jews, Pakistanis.” Her story begins with Rahina’s wedding experience about her veil, but from that has grown this dressmaker who will no longer make wedding dresses for her clients. Perhaps there is a little of Malik’s mother in the character as her mother is a homemaker who is an “amazing seamstress who makes wonderful Pakistani clothes. She never did the things she really wanted to do because she stayed home and raised us.” Her father, now retired, was an aircraft engineer for British Airways.
Thanks to the support of her mother and husband, she is able to create a balance in her life between her artistic endeavors and her children. “I try not to do too much — so far, so good. It’s important that my children understand, that their hopes and dreams never end. The older two come to readings, so they see what I’m doing while I’m away from home.”
In addition to Miriam, the play also introduces us to Layla, a Middle Eastern restaurant owner in a Chicago suburb; Inez, as African-American convert to Islam; Shabana, a South Asian rapper from London; and Noor, a Moroccan-American lawyer. Noor’s story explores the reason “silence is sometimes a crime.”
Each of these women wears the hijab for different reasons. Miriam wears it for modesty because that is part of her faith. Shabana wears it as a feminist statement. As Malik explains, “Shabana is saying ‘Don’t objectify me as a sex symbol. Deal with my mind, not my body.’”
Malik began wearing the hijab when she was 19. “I was trying to figure out who I am. I studied my heritage and felt a spiritually strong connection to God. I put on the veil for God. It was very deeply personal for me.” She did have misgivings and explains one thing she thought at the time, “Now I’ll never be able to audition for shows, because how can I get around not showing my hair. I think I was my worst enemy. You can’t. You can’t.”
With her return to theater, she has solved that problem by writing her own stories with women who wear the veil. However, she adds, “It hurts when people look at the veil and decide that I’m oppressed. And I’m very far from oppressed. We need to get past these things: Mennonite, Hindu, Sikhs, Jewish Orthodox, all cover. I don’t know why there is such an obsession on Muslim women. That’s one thing that’s frightening to me. When there is an event like the Oklahoma City bombing by Timothy McVeigh, a white man, they don’t then blame all white people. The point is there’s not a backlash of hate crimes against every blond guy you see on the street. However, Muslim women in veils will be spat on, verbally abused. There’s a double standard.”
She explains that if a crime is committed by a Muslim, all Muslims will be blamed. Summing up, she repeats her theme, “There’s a lot of the hatred in the world. People are people. Someone may look different from you, but once you get to know them, you know their humanity.”
Unveiled, Crossroads Theater Company, 7 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Wednesday through Sunday, April 24 to 28. Wednesday through Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 7 p.m. $50. 732-545-8100 or www.crossroadstheatrecompany.org.