Written by Talia Weingarten, Literary and Public Programs Intern
Following our Sunday matinee of “The Who and The What,” Victory Gardens was fortunate enough to be joined by Rohina Malik and Dr. Seema Imam for “The Eyes Have It,” a town hall that explored the challenges and empowerment that stem from the wearing the veil by Muslim women, particularly in the context of Western society.
Ayad Akhtar’s “The Who and The What” paints a complicated portrait of what it means to be a woman in Islam. He grants the audience access into this commonly foreign conversation through universally accessible themes of family, loyalty, and religious exploration. Throughout main character Zarina’s journey to reconcile her religious devotion with her female empowerment, the veil is oftentimes portrayed as an oppressive garment rather than an empowering one. While the portrait Akhtar, along with director Ron OJ Parson and the incredible cast, renders is an exceedingly beautiful one, it is by no means the whole picture.
Ms. Malik and Dr. Imam helped to expand the conversation by bringing their experiences with the veil and with being Muslim women that were not represented in the play into the space.
They spoke to the different Islamic origins for veil wearing that were not depicted in the play and reminded us that practitioners of many faiths that cover their hair (nuns, orthodox Jewish men and women, etc.). Ms. Malik stated that “the obsession with Muslim women wearing a veil is deeply offensive” and suggested that the persistent interrogation of veil-wearing by Muslim women is a racist act that perpetuates the demonization of Islam and oftentimes carries undertones of Western Savior complexes.
One thing that became quite clear very early on in the discussion is that it’s impossible to talk about or experience art in a vacuum. As Ms. Malik reminded us, “Islamophobia is very real in the world.” We live in a world where Islamophobia still courses through the blood of our nation, tormenting and terminating the lives of many innocent people. Ms. Malik and Dr. Imam both expressed concern over the portrayal of the veil as well as other aspects of Islam and Muslim identity in the production. Audience members who oftentimes enter the space with limited knowledge of the veil and the religion leave the theatre having experienced a very specific point of view, and now, perhaps, feel qualified to form their own opinions without ever seeking out further knowledge and first hand experiences. Isaac Gomez, Literary Manager, reminded us that if you’re not careful, “when you engage in a conversation, about a religion that’s already attacked, you’re providing the ammunition.”
Multiple audience members chimed in to express that while the play might not showcase every relevant perspective, it peaked their curiosity, rather than condemnation, regarding the Islamic faith. One participant expressed his gratitude for the story and for those who share their religious beliefs: “When I see a radical southern baptist preaching on the corner, I may think to myself that’s not accurate biblically, but to him I say thank you.”
Minita Gandhi, the actress who plays Mahwish, posed the question: so where, then, does the responsibility of the playwright lie? Is the artist socially liable to tell the most politically correct or wholistic story if it is not the point of view they are interested in exploring or by which they stand?
What I took away from this viscerally alive dialogue was that art is a facilitator of richer dialogue and deeper communities, not the end of a conversation. We live in a world still battling intense intersectional oppression that tends to foster separation and condemnation (subconscious or not) between people who are different from one another. Art counteracts this habitualized isolation and suspicion by capitalizing on something so human that it transcends these internalized false barriers: empathy. It does not, and cannot, tell the full picture, and that is why public programs are mandated – to maximize the personal stakes that the art conjures and to propel the conversation forward through additional knowledge and perspectives.
Ms. Malik and Dr. Imam closed the program by urging the attendees to research and pursue further knowledge about the incredibly “beautiful, peaceful, logical, and simple” religion of Islam as well as how cultural influences color both various iterations and our own understandings about the faith. After all, knowledge is the best defense against hatred or apathy. Our inherent connectivity as humans is only deepened when we explore it through different lenses and with open hearts.
Rohina Malik’s critically acclaimed one Woman play,UNVEILED, explores the complexities of Islam through the perspective of five Muslim women in a post-9/11 world. UNVEILED has been performed by Malik nationwide, including at: Yale, NYU, Princeton, University of Chicago, and regional theaters such as Silk Road Rising & 16th Street Theater. We are excited to have Rohina’s one woman show at Victory Gardens Theater presented as a one-time-only performance throughout the run of The Who & The What on Wednesday, July 1st at 7:00 p.m.