Content warning: sexual violence
We commissioned writers to experience Niqabi Ninja by Sara Shaarawi and share their reflections on the work. The first of these works is by Edinburgh arts journalist Anahit Behrooz.
A man masturbated next to me in a taxi once, while I did nothing but stare out the window and hope it would stop. He was driving and I was in the seat beside him – an unspoken taboo for a young woman in Amman, where I was living that summer – but I was too inexperienced to argue when he insisted. He took a circuitous route, asking if I drank alcohol, looking at me and laughing, and when we finally pulled up at our destination, my phone dead and my entire body flushed, my boyfriend at the time was furious with worry. When I tried to tell him what had happened, it seemed to barely register in the face of whatever abstract danger he had been imagining. There was a gap between how he expected violence to manifest, and how it actually did. I didn’t know how to bridge it.
I feel precious about who I tell this story to, nervous and angry that it might confirm white people’s worst fears about Arab men, but I’m telling it here; partly, I suppose, to contextualise my relationship with Sara Shaarawi’s Niqabi Ninja, and partly to participate in its articulation of how harm – both active and passive – is performed. Perhaps it is because of the marked absence of what we would traditionally recognise as performance – Niqabi Ninja unfolding instead as an audio narration and walking route – but its emphasis on performativity is what strikes me most. Performativity, not in the sense of inauthenticity, but in the sense of reification, the repeated, public entrenching of power and its resistance.
Niqabi Ninja leads its audience around a route sprawling past Edinburgh’s Lyceum Theatre, past six graphic novel-like artworks that depict episodes in our protagonist’s life. The narrative itself emerges out of a conversation between Hana and an imagined character she is sketching: Niqabi Ninja, a veiled Cairene vigilante with a bloodlust for violent men. As the two bicker about the comic Hana is sketching for Niqabi Ninja to populate, they delve into Hana’s past and her experience of misogyny within public spheres: streets, shops, bars and clubs. I am normally a fast walker, but Niqabi Ninja forces me to slow my steps, consider my own presence – defiant, tangible, exposed – within the cityscape.
Each artistic episode builds on Hana’s story, but it is the third episode that pulls me to a halt. It is the only chapter that doesn’t take place in Cairo, as Hana recalls the time she spent abroad in London, and the harassment she faced in a club. She is reluctant to tell the story at first, trying to brush past it, but Niqabi Ninja is adamant. “Do Western hands feel any different?” she spits. “I thought they respect women abroad,” Hana responds, her voice tight and scared. The accompanying picture depicts her mid-dance, care-free, liberated, lost in herself, her dark curls – so much like mine – hiding her face. Yet reaching from the corners of the frame are hands clawing their way towards her, while in the background two men watch, their eyes dizzied and sharp. I think I sit in front of it for twenty minutes.
Male violence chokes every moment of Hana’s life, yet it is this third frame that is, to me, the most central. Interrogating the fixed frameworks through which we recognise misogyny, Hana’s experience in London unveils the constant performance of male power in every corner of the world – no matter the expression it wears – and the ways in which its repetition fixes the patriarchy in place. I think back to that moment right after the taxi journey, and how what had happened was brushed aside in favour of a fictional worse. I think also of all the times I have told this story to others and their resulting horror, a horror that never quite matches that when I recount stories from the UK. Men barring the toilet in which I’m hiding, men shouting from their cars, men touching me in the street. Niqabi Ninja is right: people believe that Western hands feel different. But misogyny is misogyny. Violence is violence. Different societies have just normalised different performances.
But men aren’t the only actants on this labyrinthine stage. Throughout Niqabi Ninja, there is a sense that Hana is trying to exorcise something that happened to her, searching for catharsis through communion with her imaginary heroine. Niqabi Ninja – the comic, the character, her alter-ego – becomes a performance of Hana’s own rage and helplessness, a refusal of the many ways in which performing femininity in public means to perform vulnerability.
Refusing to elide the constant threat of male violence and the myriad ways in which rape culture is perpetuated and accepted across the world, Niqabi Ninja enacts her revenge. Her presence, looming over the city of Cairo in the final artwork, is a stark reminder of the worlds that can be performed until they become real, proof that if you take a pen and score through the script enough, eventually something new can be written over. A new performance, out there, right in the heart of the public sphere, can be staged.
About the writer
Anahit Behrooz is an arts journalist based in Edinburgh. She currently works as events editor at The Skinny, with words in Little White Lies, The Quietus, MAP Magazine, Girls on Tops and others. She likes beautiful films about women, old bookshops, and Dan Levy’s eyebrows.