Muslim writer-actress Rohina Malik on ‘Unveiled’
When Rohina Malik fell in love with theater, she was a shy teenager slowly finding her voice in drama class. But to actively pursue theater, well, that’s just not what Pakistani girls did, at least not in Malik’s London neighborhood. Bright daughters of Pakistani immigrants went into law or medicine. Not the arts.
Malik later moved to Chicago, where she married, found success as a Montessori teacher and began raising her four children. But there was a void in her life, so thinking back to the times when she was happiest, she began a journey back to theater.
Starting with a class in solo performance at Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater, Malik began creating characters for what would eventually become the breakthrough hit “Unveiled,” in which Malik stars as five Muslim women from around the world talking about their lives and what it’s like to wear the hijab, or traditional head covering worn by Muslim women.
After three productions around the Chicago area, Malik, 35, brings the show to San Francisco’s Brava Theater. On the phone from her Chicago home, with the sound of children at play behind her, the writer-performer discussed why she chose to wear a hijab and why she thinks theater can undermine racism.
Q:Why did theater mean so much to you as a teenager?
A: There was a lot of racial tension in London, and we felt that in our classrooms. Something happened in theater class I will never forget. I was performing for my peers, and they were laughing – not at me. They were enjoying what I was doing. We were in the moment together. I don’t think I understood it then the way I do now, but it is simply that art brings people together.
Q:You started wearing the hijab at age 19. Why?
A: It was my first year of college, and it was a very spiritual decision. I put on the hijab, and my mother said, “Oh, my God. Take that off.” You can see some of this in “Unveiled.” The reality for a lot of Muslim women is that parents think you’ll never find a husband if you wear it. There’s a lot of opposition. People don’t know that story. They just hear the story of the crazy dad who kills his daughter for not wearing the veil. That’s the thing about stereotypes. They come from a truth, but it’s one truth, not many. Not mine. Not everybody’s.
Q:How do people in this country react to your veil?
A: When I first started taking the solo performance class, one of the other writers remembered looking at me and thinking, “Oh, she’s oppressed.” She told me this at the end of our class, but her feelings had changed as she got to know me. I think that’s the real message of my play: Get to know me.
Q:In “Unveiled,” you play five very different Muslim women. Do you find that theater audiences arrive with open minds?
A: You never know who God will put in those seats. One night a young man was still sitting in the theater, even after the post-show discussion. He had been crying and said he needed to talk to me privately. He was going to college in a small town in Ohio and was on a trip with his schoolmates. He said that he hated Muslims and thought that we wore the veil to celebrate 9/11. At this point, the tears were streaming down his face. And he apologized. That changed something inside me. It changed me as an artist. I hear from people all the time that they considered themselves open-minded but realized, watching my show, that they did hold certain stereotypes of Muslim women.
Q:Do you feel one play can make a difference in Islamophobia?
A: I am naive enough to believe that. I found a way to talk about racism through art. You use the gifts God has given. After shows, people in the Muslim community say, “The climate is so bad. What should we do?” I don’t have answers. You have your own gifts. Everyone does. We have to find a way to reach out and get to know people and let them get to know us. Once you know a person, they’re not the “other.” They’re a human being.