“Why does my anger not count?” asks playwright Sara Shaarawi.
Niqabi Ninja is an unapologetically, emphatically angry play. Told through dialogue between the titular, costumed vigilante Niqabi Ninja and a young Egyptian woman called Hana, Niqabi Ninja is a revenge story about those who are forced to endure male violence and the rage that erupts from living under it. “I want to focus on that anger,” explains Shaarawi. “I want to give it space. There are so many angry men’s plays; why does my anger not count?”
Shaarawi began working on Niqabi Ninja in 2013. Asked to perform at a scratch night at a festival of feminist writing at Glasgow’s Tron Theatre, Shaatrawi sat down to think about what to write about. At that time, protests in Egypt had reached a fever pitch. In 2011, protestors ousted President Hosni Mubarak who stepped down and was replaced by President Mohammed Morsi in 2012. The demonstrations then turned against him and continued into 2014 when mass public gatherings were banned without permits. During this time, sexual assaults at the demonstrations began to be reported, with women saying they were being separated, encircled and then assaulted by large groups of assailants.
Shaarawi began writing out of anger from the assaults, but she also wanted to draw a line between the horrendous attacks on women that happened in Tahrir Square and normalised social behaviour. “The mob sexual assaults were the last straw,” she explains. “As a society we’ve normalised so much. We say: ‘you should protect yourself,’ or ‘you shouldn’t be in public spaces,’ or ‘you shouldn’t act like this.’ Niqabi Ninja became a piece that connects that first experience of cat calling, to people saying inappropriate things to you in the street, to people touching you inappropriately, to being warned about men exposing themselves in front of you in public. All behaviours that are normal everywhere and not just specifically in Egypt.”
The play dramatises how these seemingly “minor” and normalised actions cumulated in mass sexual assault and rape. “The uprising was a very violent chapter even though it was peaceful, nonviolent protests,” says Shaarawi. “There was a lot of state violence and chaos. It was a very volatile time, both politically and socially. And when it came to the assaults, it was shocking but not wholly surprising, unfortunately. People took advantage of that chaos.”
Although Niqabi Ninja deals with very real violence, Shaarawi hopes the play doesn’t overwhelm audiences. The costumed character of the Niqabi Ninja, a comic book style vigilante, is one element that helps with processing the violence. “I was really into comic books when I started writing,” Shaarawi explains. “Stories like Kick Ass, and narratives of people donning costumes and living that out. I was attracted to comic books for their fantastical and cartoonish elements as well as dark humour, the Niqabi Ninja is a tool for distancing so that we can look at violence.”
Niqabi Ninja was originally conceived as a two-hander theatre production, performed by a pair of actors on a stage in front of an audience. COVID-19 restrictions meant Shaarawi and the play’s team had to rethink how audiences could experience Niqabi Ninja in a safe way. They settled on an audio drama which audiences listen to while they walk around their respective city. The intimacy of the listening experience, as well as the fact that the audience experiences the play in public space, has given it a new dimension.
Experiencing the play outside, in public space, is also different to experiencing it in a theatre, particularly as Niqabi Ninja centres on safety in those spaces. Shaarawi hopes that this new element will help those who don’t experience male violence on a daily basis, particularly cisgendered, heterosexual men, to understand that experience. “It’s literally a walk in her shoes scenario!” says Shaarawi. “When you write these kinds of plays, people tend to assume that the intended audience are the people who have experienced a similar violence. I’m curious to see how people who haven’t experienced that violence, respond to this piece.”
This article is a reblog of 'Adapting Niqabi Ninja to an audio drama: Sara Shaarawi in conversation with Katie Goh' on artsadmin.co.uk.
Niqabi Ninja comes to Eden Court Thu 26 - Sat 28 Aug at various times. Book your tickets here.