Shining a Light Under the Veil
The author, whose interviews have been widely published, talks to playwright Mary Apick about the stories of women who spend their public lives shielded from our view.
From a Western perspective, it can be hard to know what to make of the outrage that some Muslim women voiced as France and Belgium moved closer in recent weeks to becoming the first countries in Europe to ban the face coverings worn by many observant Muslim women. Lawmakers in both countries are considering a ban in all public places on burqas, the full head-to-toe Islamic veil, or the niqab, which only leaves the eyes visible. Said French President Nicolas Sarkozy, “It is not a religious symbol… It's a sign of enslavement... It will not be welcome in the French republic.”
If these resolutions become law, any women wearing the facial coverings could be subject to a fine or jail. While lawmakers in both countries say that their motivation is driven in part to protect women’s rights and freedoms, many observant Muslim women view it as the opposite—an affront to their right to practice and express their religious beliefs—and vow to defy the ban.
While the news stories play out on the world stage, Beneath the Veil by Iranian American actress and writer Mary Apick was recently performed at Lincoln Center. In her acclaimed play, Apick goes beyond the stereotypes and tells the true stories of ten women of various ages who have lived very different lives in the Middle East but are connected by one common thread—the veil. Apick says in the show, which she also directed and stars in, the veil is “only metaphorical. It’s an issue of human rights and legal rights in Iran and the neighboring countries that represent the same type of church and state together.”
Apick can speak to experiencing the loss of personal freedoms in Iran. Before the revolution, she was a child star in Tehran, an Iranian of Armenian heritage whose mother was a well-known actress and whose father worked for the U.S. military. She became a trendsetter for Western dress, sporting mini-skirts, and appeared from a young age on Octopus, a Saturday Night Live-style satirical show. In 1979, at the age 18, Apick fled to the United States when, as she puts it, “half of the nation of Iran went under the black drape.” This “oppression of women though religion, to hide them and take their rights away,” outraged her. She has spent the past 30 years speaking out—for example, advocating for Iranian women who face horrific conditions in the prison system. Says Apick, “As far as the legal situation is concerned, it’s brutal. They are being raped; women are still being stoned to death in some cases. Their rights are not equal to the men in any which way.”
The disturbing stories she continually hears from her sources and in the news were what inspired her to write Beneath the Veil. She was particularly affected by the story of Zahra Kazemi, a Canadian journalist who was brutally tortured, raped and killed in Tehran for taking photographs of the exterior of a prison in 2003. She was also “devastated” by the suicide of her girlfriend’s daughter, Melody (“she was like my goddaughter”) who killed herself after she was publicly shamed at the height of anti-American sentiment during the hostage crisis for carrying photographs of pop star Michael Jackson in her school books. Such stories, she says, “brought me to a point when I knew this was the time to do something in English to create awareness of their situation, and the atrocities that are happening.”
The plot lines in Beneath the Veil range from dramatic to comedic, and also feature music and dance. Stories are told from the imagination of an American journalist, who falls asleep and dreams of the characters brought to life. In addition to featuring the stories of both Zahra Kazemi and Melody, the play’s tales include a woman refusing to remove her veil while trying to get a driver’s license in Florida and a woman who is stoned to death in Iran. Apick, who plays the role of Zahra Kazemi, also does a comedic turn as a lavish Persian woman who embraces the veil as a fashion accessory, wearing a head-to-toe burqa under her designer dresses. Since winning the Critic’s Choice Award at the Los Angeles Theatre Festival in 2005, Beneath the Veil has been performed in venues across the country, including The John F. Kennedy Center in 2006 where Laura Bush served as the honorary chair. Last month’s performance at Lincoln Center featured honorary chair Princess Firyal of Jordan, who made opening remarks about the need to raise awareness of equal rights in the Middle East. Performances in Texas and Chicago are being planned for later this year.
While some women depicted in her play are proud to wear the veil, as far as Apick is concerned those who say they wear the burqa willingly are deeply under the influence of societal conditioning. “I don’t think any women in this world, on their free will, would wear it. I mean, why? Would you? Unless you really have been manipulated from the core, which is when you are a child and you see it all around you and it’s mandated.” Yet she is skeptical of the proposed bans, which could, she says “create a lot of fear and problems.” She adds, “It’s a complex matter. This is part of their life and society. They will continue to wear it because it is a family matter. It’s an honor matter.”
When the veil was imposed in the early days of the Iranian revolution, she recalls, “one hundred thousand women came out on the streets of Tehran saying, no, we’re not going to do it. And when they came out, the religious police started beating them; some were killed.” The pressure reached beyond the violence. “They started calling them prostitutes out on the street for not wearing the veil. So the next day, any father, any husband, any brother would not want their daughter, their wife, their sister, to go out there without the cover.” Under those circumstances, what woman wouldn’t wear the veil, she asks. “It was brilliant. The psychology behind it was unbelievable.”
A woman who refused, she says, could be arrested, “and god knows what happens to them in the prison system. It reached to a point that families would give anything in order to release [a family member]. They knew if their daughter or their wife would spend the evening, they were going to be raped brutally—she is not going to be a normal person anymore.”
Yet, ironically, bans on wearing the niqab and burqa may now subject observant Muslim women to fines or jail time, or to a life in seclusion. Apick says that it can often be a delicate challenge to reverse oppressive traditions without endangering women. “It’s getting to be a very complex world. My role is to create awareness and to present it for the audience to decide. Or think more about it and see what they can do. I do not have an answer.”
Apick often dedicates her play to Neda—the young woman who became an international symbol last year after being shot down in the street during the Iranian election protests—and “anybody who’s fighting for democracy.” Says Apick, “The Green Movement [for reform in Iran] was magnificent because it was not about the leaders that they were choosing, it was about freedom. This voice was shut down. People were brutally treated. And that’s why I dedicate my play to them.”
When human rights are threatened, says Apick, women “are the first victims. We are the ones who have to pay the highest price, particularly in a religious state.” Her message to girls growing up in the Middle East? “To be strong and educate themselves. And they need to know there are a few individuals such as me who will never forget them, who will make sure their stories are spread.”
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