The early 2010s were a period of great transition in the Arab world, with a wave of revolts leading to large-scale conflict, regime changes and anti-government rebellion. These demonstrations were initially triggered in December 2010, when a young Tunisian street vendor set himself afire to protest police harassment and corruption; his death sparking protests across Tunisia. But this quickly spread to other countries, including Egypt, ultimately resulting in the Arab Spring uprisings, which saw mass protests against oppression, authoritarianism and poverty.
Egypt-born, Glasgow-based playwright Sara Shaarawi looks back on this period with some anger, not because of the demonstrations themselves, but because of the resulting violence. Tensions were high between the police and protesters and violence commonplace, but for women this extended to sexual assault; one of many tactics used to oppress dissenters. This intensified post-Arab Spring, with mob sexual assaults becoming much more prominent at demonstrations in Tahir Square from 2012-2014.
Having moved away from Egypt by this point, Shaarawi was reluctant to write directly about this violent moment in her home country. Instead, she drew inspiration in a different way, choosing to interrogate the widespread normalistion of certain behaviours which foster rape culture. The result was her graphic-novel style revenge story Niqabi Ninja.
“I wrote it in 2013 and it was originally a monologue,” Shaarawi explains. “At the time, the testimonies and the reports of the mob sexual assaults in Tahir Square were coming out and I felt incredibly angry. There was already a lot of state violence and it was chaotic, but people took advantage of this chaos.”
Niqabi Ninja follows a young woman called Hana, in dialogue with the titular Cairene vigilante, as she attempts to fight back against the male violence around her. “I really wanted to structure it like an origin story,” says Shaarawi. “So Hana is creating this comic and by the end of the play she sort of becomes this creation of hers – the vigilante. The comic book element also brings the humour out. It’s not making fun of anything but it lightens the mood without taking away from the rage. I come from a place where rage is not necessarily aggressive; rage is process.”
Versions of Niqabi Ninja have already been staged in Uganda and South Africa, but in response to COVID the piece was reimagined as an audio drama, combining street artwork, audio-story performance and a walk through a city centre location. This month it will be presented at the Edinburgh International Festival, and simultaneously across Scotland in Dundee, Inverness, Aberdeen and Glasgow, where audiences are invited to experience it in pairs or small groups.
“I really wanted to create something intimate,” Shaarawi says. “This is about public space, and it's about women in public space.” With global conversations on sexual violence having accelerated in recent years, thanks in part to the impact of #MeToo and Time's Up, Shaarawi’s play is a snapshot of a time and place, but one easily transplanted to anywhere in the world. “Every time that moment of extreme violence happens, especially gender-based violence or misogynistic violence, the thing about it is that it could have happened to any of us. To me, that is really present in the piece.”
Since 2013 there have been multiple versions of Niqabi Ninja, each inspired by another crucial moment in anti-sexual assault and women's empowerment movements. “I feel like every time I've sat down to rewrite it, something really bad has happened, like a big public case of rape, or a woman being murdered or something relating to #MeToo. I feel like these themes don't go away, they happen in waves. I think Niqabi Ninja in that sense is really specific to a certain time, but also really timeless. And it's really local to a specific place, but also universal.”
Niqabi Ninja’s inclusion in the EIF programme is significant, not only because of the relevance and universality of its themes but because its setting in post-Arab Spring Cairo provides an insight into a society not often represented in UK theatre. As well as Niqabi Ninja, the EIF has programmed a rehearsed reading of another Cairo-set production – writer Ahlam and director Katie Posner’s You Bury Me.
“You Bury Me follows the lives of six young people growing up, falling in love and fighting to do so freely,” Posner says of the work. “What’s interesting is Ahlam never set out to write a play on life after the uprising. She wanted to write a play about young people fumbling their way through love, sex and discovering who they are in Cairo. Originally, You Bury Me was about figuring out how to love when living in a police state with a superficially conservative society – but Ahlam could not write about young people and love and self-discovery, without writing about the revolution and the brutality that followed it.”
Like Niqabi Ninja, You Bury Me explores themes that are poignant, but related to a very distinct location and the results of a particularly violent period. It was the winner of the inaugural Women’s Prize for Playwriting 2020, and as Posner explains, was chosen for its fresh perspective on such familiar themes. “Its ambition translates way beyond the page and its political undercurrent takes hold of us and refuses to let go. Ahlam’s voice is an important new addition to British theatre and You Bury Me is a story we have not seen on stages in the UK before. It is a big, bold and brilliant story that needs to be told about fighting to love and live freely in post-Arab Spring Cairo.”
While there is crossover in the themes, both productions highlight an interesting development in Egypt’s story, as Shaarawi points out. “Egypt has changed in a major way in terms of the conversation happening around violence against women. People are talking about things like marital rape, sexual harassment and consent and how women can dress how they like and act how they like – all of this stuff is being discussed publicly in a way that I've never experienced before, in a way that 13-year-old me would never have imagined.”
Both Shaarawi and Posner are hopeful that their respective pieces will encourage greater conversation in this area, while also educating on the way that different forms of sexual violence are normalised around the world. “I hope that audiences will come away with a better understanding of the challenges faced by young people growing up in Cairo and consequently realise the importance of providing a space for these stories that are often silenced on our stages.” Posner says.
“I hope it makes people really reflect on their own society and on their own community.” Shaarawi adds. “But what I really hope this play does is honour women in Egypt, particularly the women who wrote those testimonies, or the women who experienced these particular mob assaults. I don't want people to forget that that happened. And it still happens. There's still a lot of violence; it's not going away. So I hope this piece honours those women in particular but all women and all bodies that are threatened on a daily basis.”
Niqabi Ninja, 12-28 August. eif.co.uk/events/niqabi-ninja. You Bury Me, Royal Lyceum Theatre 13-14 August, and online, 17-19 August. eif.co.uk/events/you-bury-me
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