By Ann Firestone Ungar
In the space of one swift hour the skilled dramatist and actress Rohina Malik portrays five Muslim women. Their personal stories vividly and movingly tell their experiences as they wear the hijab of their faith, encountering racism and islamophobic hate crimes, and yet surviving and thriving despite this ugly onslaught. For those who are not aware of the subject matter of the June 1, 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision, the hijab is a veil that covers the head and chest. It is often worn by Muslim women as a sign of modesty. (The court ruled in favor of a Muslim woman who wore the hijab to a job interview with a retailer and was refused employment because of it.)
Unveiled begins with a monologue by Maryam, a Pakistani dress tailor from Chicago. We learn that she made a bridal gown for a friend, but as she entered the wedding celebration she was accosted by an “American” man who told her to “Take that trash off your head.” At that moment Maryam’s life changed. She decided to stand up for her constitutional right to practice her religion and dress as she chose. She confronted the man who called her a “Mozlem,” a “terrorist”; he came at her with his fists. They both ended up at the police station. Maryam’s peaceful day with her friends was ruined, but ultimately saved by the bride her urged her to dance, to remember a line from the poet Rumi, “Dance when you’re broken open.” The character as portrayed by Ms. Malik is intelligent, passionate and moving.
In the second monologue by Noor, a Moroccan lawyer born and raised in in Chicago, we learn that she had been in love with a Muslim convert named Joe who defended her in school against some boys who were taunting her, also for wearing the hijab. They ultimately married, overcoming the objections of her parents (humorously played by Ms. Malik), but their story ended tragically when Joe, a musician, is murdered in a parking lot before a performance. He’s wearing a long robe – foreign – and the attackers are screaming “No mercy for terrorists.” Noor is raped. Her name means “light,” and after much agony and shame, she finally finds her personal light, and meets with the State’s attorney to prepare testimony. Her mother persuaded her that “Silence is sometimes a crime.” Noor becomes an attorney devoted to assisting victims of similar crimes.
Inez, the third woman we meet, an African American, tells us that on the anniversary of 9/11 she drinks bitter tea, prays for the dead, reads the Koran and walks in the streets in her hijab. She remembers aloud that terrible day when she was in a store where everyone was intently focused on the TV as the news came of the attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the plane that was downed in Pennsylvania. The people in the store turned on Inez with fury. She was nicely told to take off her hijab because it wasn’t safe for her; she finally did this to rush home, thus protecting the unborn child she was carrying. She recalls that also on that day a bearded man in a turban was murdered for his appearance. Inez’s message is that societal pressure stole her rights. She says, “And don’t you think this is just a Muslim problem, or an Arab problem. This is every American’s problem. We are all Americans, and we have to protect each other. Every American needs to realize: Today it is my rights, tomorrow, it could be yours.”
Shabana, a British daughter of immigrants, is a rapper, and as though in a nightclub at a standing microphone, she raps about her rights as a veiled Muslim: “You can call me oppressed, but I won’t be undressed.” She’s funny and serious and very entertaining as a performer who’s found her art, expressing her identity as so many in the Hip Hop community do through spoken poetry. As she steps away from the mic and into dialogue with her mother who urges her to unveil because it’s dangerous, she says, “Why are you so obsessed with Muslim women and the veil?…Nuns wear it for God. Who do you think I wear it for? Her Royal Highness the Queen! It’s about Modesty. You know, like, deal with my mind, not my body. Cuz that ain’t yours to look at! This is my feminism.” Shabana’s mother wants her to marry a doctor who visits them. Shabana refuses. Her mother insists, partly because it’s an opportunity, and her daughter has dark skin. Her racism, even toward her child, is a product of British colonialism in her native India. Shabana retorts, “They left behind their racist mentality and we ate it up. And it keeps getting passed down generation after generation. Daughters taught to hate their brown skin. But the cycle stops with me. And that’s why I write, and that’s why I rap.”
Finally, we hear from Layla, a restaurateur in a Chicago suburb. She’s profoundly hospitable, but has a difficult story to tell. On 9/11 she could only pray to Allah that it had been a mistake. She prayed for the people of New York. There is a bomb scare at her children’s school which was connected to a Mosque. A mob is outside and screaming, “USA! USA! Go back to your country you terrorist.” Layla sees a female friend being beaten by a young man. She tried to talk sense to him. “What are you doing? Is this the solution? Is this helping the people in New York? …Murder is Haram, it is forbidden. This is not Islam.” She urges the police not to arrest this perpetrator because it was clear to her that he had suddenly seen her as human, had become more human himself in that moment when she confronted him. She urges him (and us) to “Remove the veil from your heart.” Layla’s brother, a New Yorker with medical training dies at the World Trade Center as he tried to assist.
This quietly moving play, often fierce, always deeply intelligent, is softened by the symbolic making of a particular tea for each vignette and the lovely middle eastern music of the oud, played by Scott Wilson. Well directed by Wayne Maugans and Nick Westemeyer, Unveiled welcomes and teaches and evokes emotion: sympathy for the women and their like-minded communities, and a renewed awareness of the often cited but always relevant warning by Martin Niemöller: “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.”
WITH: Scott Wilson, oud and guitar
Production design by Peri Grabin Leong, assistant production designer, Sean McCarthy, lighting design by Olivia Edery, sound design by Dan Henry Bøhler, production stage manager, VTC artistic associate/production manager, Sara Troficanto, assistant stage manager, producer VTC artistic associate, Mary Round, producer, VTC executive director, Charles C. Bales, producer, Michael Ngo. Presented by Voyage Theater Company at the 4th Street Theatre, 83 East 4th Street, New York, NY 10003, www.voyagetheatercompany.org, tickets at https://vtcpresentsunveiledbyrohinamalik.eventbrite.com , June 2-6, 2015, running time 1 hour.