We are in a city. In London, and to be specific, in Whitechapel, where artisan coffee roasteries share the grey street with African fabric wholesalers. We are listening to a story that begins in Cairo, where the buildings bristle with ‘TV antennas and air-conditioning units, all covered in dust and haze.’ No matter: all cities are alike in kind. As its writer Sara Shaarawi makes clear, the key feminist message in Niqabi Ninja is applicable worldwide.
We are at the beginning, outside Toynbee Studios, a group of us, with little MP3 players and big headphones, standing in a slightly hesitant clump, looking at a poster pasted on the wall. The poster (illustrated by Gehan Mounir) looks like a frame from a graphic novel. It shows a city skyline, with a dark figure rising over it, wings outstretched. In one of the city’s apartment blocks, one of the windows is illuminated, and we can see a young woman sitting at a desk.
Niqabi Ninja is an audio piece that takes its audience on a short walk through Whitechapel, passing 6 artworks that illustrate moments in the story it tells. Hana, the woman at the desk, is trying to write a graphic novel about her experiences of misogynistic violence and street harassment. She tells us about buying her first bra and walking home with the shameful bag; about being followed at night by a man on a motorbike; about pushy drunk clubbers. Men’s comments on her body, shouted or muttered from the sidewalks, slide through her memory. She tells us the rules she follows, to protect herself:
Watch your drink.
Carry something sharp: keys, pencil, nail-file. If he touches you, aim for his eyes.
The faster you walk, the faster it’s all over.
The play was originally conceived for the stage and had to be amended for a post-pandemic world, but there is a neat form-content symmetry in the fact that Hana talks about her feelings of fear in public spaces as we, the audience, walk through parks and squares. While it’s a dramaturgically smart adaptation, though, the ‘walking tour’ element isn’t super-smooth. I find myself slightly distracted, juggling my headphones and the provided map. It’s not always clear from the audio when we’re supposed to move on from each artwork; I end up spending much more time standing or sitting in front of each image than walking between them, which seems a shame when the rhythm of the piece often feels like it’s meant to be accompanied by forward motion. The route takes the audience round the residential roads on either side of Commercial Street (slate, concrete, mostly Bangladeshi families) and then through a modern property development behind Leman Street (glass, steel, mostly white yuppies). I’m conscious that there are other questions to be raised around entitlement and who takes up space on the city’s streets, perhaps particularly in this part of London; they’re not the focus of Niqabi Ninja, but inevitably they twitch at the back of my mind throughout the walk.
Other elements of the production are very successful, though. It has a bright, sharp energy. Shaarawi’s writing is waspish, punchy and imagistic, capturing the typical tone of a graphic novel or comic. The percussive score, composed by the Egyptian artist-musician BalQeis, clicks, paces, buzzes, the sound of an oud circling in the background, as Nik Paget-Tomlinson’s sound design meshes the cityscape with the darkness in Hana’s head. The overall event is thoughtfully set up, too. The map we’re given at the start marks toilets, crossing points with tactile paving, noisy areas and places to rest. It also lists local and national support resources for anyone affected by the play’s theme of sexual violence, and there was a quiet place available in the venue for anyone who needed it. The attention paid to the experience of potentially marginalised audience members felt genuinely feminist in both theory and practice.
Rebecca Banatvala’s nuanced and heartfelt performance as Hana is balanced against the mischievous, sarcastic voice of Juliana Yazbeck as the Niqabi Ninja, the superhero of the story that Hana is writing. The Ninja causes Hana trouble. Hana wants to write a hopeful narrative: she’s seeking empathy, and therefore also feels the need to offer it. She’s not sure how to write about blame. But her imaginary character is angry, and extreme, and out for blood. She wants a weapon hidden under her abaya, she wants to slice someone apart. There’s a lot of humour in their frustrated interactions. When Hana argues, ‘not all taxi drivers are fuckers’, the Niqabi Ninja responds, ‘no, all men in the whole entire world are fuckers.’
Hana’s story culminates at the demonstrations in Tahrir Square, specifically the protests against President Morsi in 2013. Her boyfriend – politically, a revolutionary; personally, a shithead – tells her that she needs to join the protests, ‘to feel the power of your body making history.’ But the huge crowds mean something ironically and horrifically different for women and their bodies. During the protests, groups of men systematically targetted lone women, surrounded them in the confusion, and raped them: at least 169 instances of mob sexual assault occurred in a week. When Hana volunteers with a rescue organisation, she is attacked.
The Niqabi Ninja emerges from Hana, ultimately, as an instrument of feminist vengeance. The form of her revenge is macabre and inventive, and neatly mirrors the constant, background threat that Hana and other people who experience gendered violence feel when they walk through a city. In the end, anger and blood win out, thrillingly, viciously – and why not? It’s a fantasy solution, but the real-world answer doesn’t yet exist. In 2013, a UN report revealed that 99.3% of Egyptian women had been sexually harassed, and 91% felt unsafe on the streets. Activists argued that this was a result of a societal acceptance and implicit state sanctioning of gendered violence and rape culture, pointing out that victims were often failed or dismissed by the police. Niqabi Ninja was written in response to Tahrir Square, but a UK production in 2021 – in the wake of the murders of Sarah Everard, Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry, and others – still cuts to the bone.
Niqabi Ninja runs outside ArtsAdmin at Toynbee Studios as part of Shubbak Festival until 17th July. More info here.