Nasim Rebecca Asl

Content warning: sexual violence

We commissioned writers to experience Niqabi Ninja by Sara Shaarawi and share their reflections on the work. The second of these works is by Glasgow based poet &  journalist Nasim Rebecca Asl.

Photo: Tiu Makkonen Illustration: Gehan Mounir

It is a blistering hot day in Tehran; the mercury is pushing 40 degrees and, despite wearing the lightest fabric I could find, I am sweating in my cotton manteau and blue hijab. The only skin on show: my face and hands. The morality police have not stopped me, so I must be dressed ‘modestly’ enough. As my baba and I make our way to an entrance of the Grand Bazaar, we get caught in a small crush of people right by a fruit shop. My baba is two people in front of me, separated by the crowd. People chatter in Persian. I can smell melon. I feel a stranger’s hands snake around my body. My breasts are suddenly, violently, grabbed. I freeze. Surge forward. Hands trace my waist, grab my hips, tightly squeeze my buttocks. I break between the shoulders of the people in front of me. Hands are gone. I grab my baba’s arm, spin round wildly, see a white-haired man smirk as he sidles away. I don’t speak Persian. I do not know the words for what has just happened. I can’t translate this. My oblivious baba points out landmarks to me, and I swallow bile, force the mask of my face into a smile and move on.

This memory comes back to me in vivid detail as I walk the streets of Edinburgh, listening to the story of the Niqabi Ninja. When she asks me, “Do Western hands feel any different?” I laugh to myself. “No,” I mutter, staring at illustration three which depicts a dark-haired Hana, with curls so like my own, dancing in a club. The violence feels the same. Hands feature heavily in the tale of Niqabi Ninja, and the memory of the white-haired man’s hands on my body blends with the memory of other hands and other men. Hands slapping, grabbing, gripping, my bum, my arms, my throat.

What I experienced in Iran felt like a double violation; forced to cover up by the law of the land, I naively thought my clothes would protect me. Hana thought the same. In one harrowing scene from Niqabi Ninja, she describes how her body is violated despite her breasts being wrapped, despite multiple layers, and my heart twists in sympathy. What sort of armour would have kept us untouched?

I do not know Cairo, but as I walk through Edinburgh, turning into streets that are familiar and some that are not, I think of the safety of our spaces, and how unfair it is that the impetus is on women to protect themselves when walking alone, on women to avoid the night, on women to stick to main roads and well-lit areas. I know how it feels, like Hana, to be uncomfortable or worried in streets you’re supposed to call your home. I think of when I was followed home from the gym when I lived in Aberdeen. For weeks after, I walked a little quicker, held my keys in my hand – just in case – and often took the bus instead. I think of Sarah Everard, who was just walking home from her friends’ house.

As I follow Hana’s trail, I think about how we navigate spaces we have a right to call our own. There’s something powerful about going on this journey at the same time as strangers – women I know I will never meet again. We look out for one another, follow one another to each location, guide others over the road with a wave and a point when confused faces study the map.

But no matter where we are in the world and no matter the clothes we wear, there always seems to be men who claim our bodies, who believe they have a right to us. I do not have any female friends who have not experienced harassment or assault. When Hana fires memories at me of experiences she’s had – age, location, clothing, what was said – I remember suddenly how early this inequality begins.

Photo: Tiu Makkonen Illustration: Gehan Mounir

For Hana, it was “as soon as she hit puberty, buying her first bra.” I remember French class, aged 13. Boy-girl seating. As soon as our teacher turns to write new verbs on the board, hands creep between our backs and chairs. A cacophony of fumbles. First bras undone. Just a game for the boys, but from then on, we made an effort to watch our backs – and most of us have never stopped.

Niqabi Ninja forces us to reckon with the realities of our experiences, but while there was darkness in the story – the recounting of the mob rapes of Tahrir Square especially – I found the experience empowering. There was solidarity between the women who listened at the same time as me. We reclaimed the route. Looking over the Edinburgh skyline at sunset, I feel like the final image of Niqabi Ninja, her arms spread wide over her city. I wanted to tell her, to tell Hana and the women of Tahrir that what happened to them wasn’t their fault. As I reflected on my own experiences, I felt a slight burn of absolution – it wasn’t my fault.

When I get home, my phone lights up with the news that the Taliban is about to take Kabul. I think of the women who will be forced into ‘modest clothing’ that I know will not protect them, who will lose rights and freedoms and will experience violation. Niqabi Ninja feels even more timely, even more desperate in its need. Hana says, “Cairo needs a miracle” – it’s not the only place that does.

About the Writer:

Nasim Rebecca Asl is a Glasgow based poet and journalist. She has worked on a range of current affairs and news programmes, and in 2018 was nominated for the Royal Television Society Young Journalist of the Year award.

Her poetry has appeared in a range of publications, including Gutter Magazine, Modern Poetry in Translation and Middleground Magazine. In 2021 she received a New Writers Award for Poetry from the Scottish Book Trust.