Not long after 9/11, playwright and actress Rohina Malik attended her best friend's wedding wearing a hijab.
"There was an American wedding going on in the same place as our Pakistani wedding," Malik said. "A guest from the American wedding saw me and had a really strong response to my veil. It got really ugly very fast. I knew afterward that I wanted to write about it."
What Malik ended up writing was "Unveiled," a provocative one-woman play that she will perform at Theatre Project. She portrays five Muslim women living in the West, post-9/11.
Since a sold-out premiere run in 2009 at Chicago's 16th Street Theater, the London-born Malik has performed "Unveiled" throughout the country.
During the 10th anniversary of 9/11, she did the show in San Francisco. At a Q&A session after one performance, Malik spotted a young man crying.
"He was from a very white neighborhood in Orange County," the playwright said. "He told me that right after 9/11, they literally chased an Indian man out of his community. Fear and ignorance can be a deadly combination."
On another occasion, a teary college student stayed behind to apologize to Malik for believing that Muslim women wore the veil to celebrate 9/11.
"Unveiled" is about fighting myths, stereotypes and intolerance.
"One of the characters is a hip-hop rapper who says the veil is a problem, except when it's on a nun's head," Malik said. "One is wearing a veil because she is spiritual; it's about God and faith. The Muslim woman is supposedly wearing one because she has been forced by a man, she's oppressed, or she's anti-American. It's really crazy."
Malik, 35, makes another point about veil-wearing, one that some non-Muslim women might not have considered.
"There is a feminist interpretation," she said, "where the veil is a way of saying, 'I'm going to cover up my body so you can't look at me as a sexual object.'"
The daughter of an Indian mother and Pakistani father, Malik decided to wear the hijab for spiritual reasons when she was 19. "No one forced me to wear it," she said. "My family opposed it."
The veil serves as a thread to link the play's characters. So does tea. Each of the women drinks a particular variety.
Those characters include a Pakistani-born dressmaker (she relates a wedding reception incident like the one Malik experienced) and an African-American Texan who has reconnected with Islam. The rapper is a West London teen who tells of how her mother tried to bleach the girl's dark skin.
From all of these stories, Malik aims to provide audiences an opening into a culture greatly misunderstood in the West. She also wants to be entertaining. "A lecture about the Muslim community can be so boring," she said with a laugh.
Malik developed a love for theater attending a school in London with a vibrant drama department, where she overcame shyness through acting.
"Everybody was laughing, not at me, but with me," she said. "That had a really big impact on me. I remember the racial tension in my class between white students and the minorities. Theater taught me how art can bring people together."
After her family moved to Chicago when she was 15, Malik found herself in another theatrically active high school and wrote her first play. Today, playwriting is her primary focus; she recently had pieces workshopped and commissioned by Chicago's Goodman Theatre.
Performing "Unveiled" remains a big part of Malik's schedule.
"There has been a sprinkling of negative reactions to the play," she said. "I've had people walk out, calling it 'Islamist propaganda.' Some Muslims have been offended by the strong language. But the response has been overwhelmingly positive. And most people stay after to continue the dialogue. It doesn't end when the play ends."
If you go
"Unveiled" is at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St. $10 to $20. Call 410-752-8558 or go to theatreproject.org.