Halina Rifai

Content warning: sexual violence

We commissioned writers to experience Niqabi Ninja by Sara Shaarawi and share their reflections on the work. The third of these works is by Glasgow based Podcast Producer, music writer and marketer Halina Rifai.

Photo: Tiu Makkonen Illustration: Gehan Mounir

The rain is penetrating my skin, the Glasgow Southside streets are now flooded from a sudden downpour and my map is starting to stick to my wet hands. I have Hana’s voice in my ears going through snapshots of her life. She describes the clothes she’s wearing at different ages, the aligning male gaze, the unwanted comments and their terrifying threats which tell a sobering story. A middle-aged man starts speaking to me. I sigh as I have to push back one side of my headphones to listen: “You look lost. A lovely lady like you shouldn’t be walking around at this time,” he says with a bizarre smile. “Do you want me to walk with you?”

It’s 6:47pm. It’s daylight. I have a map in my hand. I am fine.

Twenty minutes pass and my guided route continues. With my polarising audio soundtrack as a companion, a man on a bike passes me and then turns back.

“Hey, where are you off to?” he asks.

“Home,” I reply.

In my head I’m screaming, Take me to hell!”

He continues: “You look like you need company”.

“It’s the last thing I need,” I reply.

By this time, I have had to press pause on my player and deal with another unwanted conversation. He eventually gets the message, mutters something derogatory under his breath and cycles off.

The irony of these events accompanying my promenade with Sara Shaarawi’s Niqabi Ninja is almost overwhelming. The audio play dramatises a history of sexual violence from Cairo but the nuance within its performance and writing places such stark realism on many of the experiences we often face, especially as women. Whilst my experience was nowhere near the extremes of Hana’s, it still represents a landscape of problematic behaviour happening daily.

Being half Arab, I remember travelling to Cairo as a child. There are a plethora of senses that overtake you in North Africa. The smells, bustle, chatter and kaleidoscopic sites are similar to the Moroccan heritage and visits I have been raised with. But so, too, is the darkness and dirt of the streets. Niqabi Ninja provides a sonic link to these memories in a way that is profoundly effective, letting me experience my own sense of time travel. Similarly, its spoken voices are able to hush my thoughts into dismayed silence with their unadulterated fear, hatred, shame and violent retellings.

Illustration: Gehan Mounir Photo: Jemima Yong

The beauty of this immersive storytelling is that it hits you cognitively in a way that’s so exquisitely intelligent. Your mirroring of another person’s steps is further plunged into an almost aural virtual reality world where your hearts are pounding and slowing at exactly the same time. As someone who soaks themselves in audio and sound design on a daily basis, the way in which Niqabi Ninja is able to manipulate my senses is nothing short of shocking.

Whilst pausing at each stop, casting a gaze over the unmissable dynamic graphic posters which pinpoint key chapters, you start to lose yourself. You begin to feel an uneasy twist in your stomach as you realise that Hana is prey. Towering, grabbing, lusting men with wild eyes and hands like claws. And all she wants is to laugh, to dance… to exist.

Like journeying to the top of a cliff, there’s a point many reach while experiencing stories like Niqabi Ninja when it becomes almost too much. Niqabi Ninja’s introduction of Hana’s superhero alter-ego, the wildly violent titular ninja who goads Hana into acts of retribution, is where my connection begins. There’s a voice in all of our heads: some of us have crowds of them running past shouting things as if on a moving train. But there’s also that deep inner voice that tells us when to act. Candidly speaking, as someone who has experienced poor behaviour from men since childhood, the want for revenge is commonplace. When you have been ground down consistently or, in Hana’s case, abused in every sense of the word, we all develop a Niqabi Ninja voice which imagines the unthinkable. The repayment of all the disgust, guilt and shame that has been inflicted at no fault of the victim. It grows and you want to fight for the masses around you and seek vengeance – but when does it stop?

Niqabi Ninja is fuel for the soul. Whilst it invokes deep feelings of anger, it validates experiences. It also educates and that’s where the vengeance strangely subsides. This piece is vital listening, and has to be wholly embraced – and not just by women and gender minorities. It hit me in ways that I find hard to articulate but it gave me a sense of purpose, it augmented my empathy and it showed that no matter the streets you walk –from Cairo to Glasgow – we can share experiences. It’s perhaps time that we use art like this to act as voices for others.

About the Writer:

Halina Rifai is a Podcast Producer, music writer and marketer. She has produced podcasts for the BBC, Fringe of Colour and Glasgow Short Film Festival and produced mental health podcast A Sonic Hug for The Big Light network. She is also currently PR & Marketing lead for We Are Here Scotland and Dardishi.