“All stereotypes have the potential to be harmful, but negative stereotypes about a group of people are really dangerous,” says Rohina Malik, a Chicago-based playwright and actor, who was recently awarded the Lorraine H Morton Woman of Promise Award by the Evanston YWCA for her critically acclaimed play Unveiled.
The London-born Malik, who is of Indian and Pakistani descent, has been privy to several negative notions against Muslims in post- 9/11 America. One instance was an ugly encounter between her and an American man, who almost got violent with her in front of her children. The pain of the experience inspired Malik to write her first play, Unveiled.
Unveiled portrays five Muslim women immigrants, four from the US and one from the UK, and the way their lives change after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The common thread among the characters is their hijab and the typical tea from their native countries, which they serve during the course of the play. But what really connects them is their strong yearning for a peaceful and amiable coexistence with people around them.
Since its debut in April 2009 at the 16th Street Theater in Berwyn, Illinois, Malik has been invited to perform Unveiled at theatres, churches, mosques and synagogues across the US and Canada. In a riveting 70-minute monologue, Malik not only entertains with humour, but also compels the audience to rethink any preconceived notions they may have about Muslims.
“As an American Muslim who wears the hijab, I feel the suspicion and racial profiling at airports,” Malik says. “I fly often and more often than not it is an unpleasant experience.
“As a woman, a stereotype that I often come across [in the West] is that I am anti-American, oppressed or that I need to be saved. People also feel I can’t think for myself or someone forced me to wear the veil; that I’m weak, submissive and pathetic,” says Malik, 36.
In her play, she has dealt with this issue through her character Shabana, a London rapper of Indian descent, who says: “Deal with my mind, not my body. ‘Cause that ain’t yours to look at! This is my feminism.”
Incidentally, Shabana also faces opposition from her mother for wearing the hijab, another story that comes from Malik’s own life. “Some mothers think the hijab will hurt their child’s prospects of getting married. When I went to university, I met other young Muslim women whose families were also unhappy about their decision to cover,” she says. Many outside the Muslim community may not believe that because all they’ve heard of are the fanatics who ostracise their daughters or wives for not covering.
Malik has witnessed a measure of success in challenging the negativity associated with Muslim women. She recalls a young American man who sobbed in front of her after seeing Unveiled and told her how he hated Muslims, thinking women wore the veil to celebrate the September 11 attacks. “I will never forget the tears streaming down his face as he looked at me and said he was sorry.
“Most people who see the play often tell me that they learnt a lot from it. The presumptions about Muslims are so strong that it is shocking for audiences to hear the characters in my play explain why they dress their way and do what they do,” Malik says, adding that she has heard people say: “I’m not a racist and I’m educated. But I can’t deny that I had several preconceptions about Islam and Muslim women and you challenged them.”
Having watched the play, many Muslim and Arab women in the US have also broken their silence on their unpleasant experiences.
Of course, there have been negative responses, too, wherein people have walked out saying the play is another form of Islamic propaganda. “I’m OK with that because that is the nature of art,” Malik says, adding that she hopes to bring the play to the UAE someday.
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