Playwright Sara Shaarawi in conversation with Katie Goh

Sara Shaarawi Photo: Beth Chalmers

Niqabi Ninja by Sara Shaarawi is a graphic-novel style revenge story about one woman's transformation into a Cairene vigilante as she attempts to right the wrongs of the male violence she sees all around her. Sara Shaarawi talks to Katie Goh about adapting Niqabi Ninja to an audio drama.

“Why does my anger not count?” asks playwright Sara Shaarawi. We’re discussing her play, Niqabi Ninja, an audio drama that will make its UK debut at Shubbak Festival before being performed simultaneously at different Scottish venues in August. 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, Shaarawi 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 space,’ 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. 

“When you’re depicting violence and you think about a group of people in a room watching it, it’s very different to one person walking in public listening to it,” says Shaarawi. “I think it’s more traumatic, the more intimate it is, so when I sat down to adapt the script into this audio drama, I cut out a lot of the direct violence because I felt like it was too much for one person to take on. Everyone’s imagination is different and, when you’re using sound to activate that, it can be a much more intense experience. We’re telling people not to come on their own, to come with a pal or group, and we’re still trying to create that theatre community feeling as much as we can.” 

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.”

Shaarawi began writing Niqabi Ninja in 2013, several years before the MeToo movement sparked its cultural reckoning. “It’s been a really interesting journey,” reflects Shaarawi. “I’ve had women come up to me after the play and say ‘thank you for saying that’ or ‘I know exactly what that is even though I’m not Egyptian.’ But I’m always surprised when men come up to me and say they’re shocked by these stories or think it’s just an Arab problem. How do you still not know we get followed by men when we walk alone, at night or at daytime. Do you not know that we have to constantly deal with people bothering us no matter where we are? How do you not know these things? But they don’t! Even after MeToo they still don’t.” 

Sarah Everard’s murder earlier this year put a national spotlight back onto women’s safety in public spaces. “It’s brought a new focus and sensitivity to the play,” says Shaarawi. “When we planned the walk, Sarah Everard’s murder hadn’t happened yet, and when I first wrote the play, MeToo hadn’t happened yet. These themes never stop being urgent. It's heartbreaking.” 

Over eight years, from starting to write the play in 2013 to right now, Shaarawi’s relationship to Niqabi Ninja has changed, particularly as a writer. “Niqabi Ninja was my first play,” she explains. “I have 20 or 25 drafts of it. I kept going back to it and working on it and it’s evolved as I’ve also evolved as a writer. I wrote the first version when I was in Cairo and so the play was very much rooted in Cairo. Over time it’s evolved as I’ve moved to the UK and learnt how to frame the story for a UK and European audience without diluting it. I was painfully aware of how Arab women or women from the MENA region in general are portrayed in British media and I didn’t want to play into that gaze and the specific boxes of revolutionary or refugee or terrorist. I also didn’t want to demonise Arab men and for audiences to think this is just an issue in Egypt. It’s an issue everywhere!”

Right now, Niqabi Ninja would face challenges to be performed publicly in Egypt due to a rigid censorship process, but Shaarawi also points out there’s a different kind of challenge to performing it in the UK. “As an Egyptian artist I need to tell this story but it has its limits in Egypt. Yet in the UK, it’s also limited because I have to constantly take into consideration things like white supremacy and racism. It’s challenging in a different way. I need to balance doing that narrative justice, but not demonising that part of the world and not being disrespectful or putting Muslim women in danger.”

Our conversation comes full circle back to anger as Shaarawi remembers the early rejections Niqabi Ninja received from British theatres. “A lot of theatres in London and Scotland said no and the reason they said no was because it was a really angry play. Yet how many angry man plays get performed in UK theatres? I wanted to create a space for my anger because I come from a place where anger is a way of processing and it’s not necessarily an aggressive thing like here. If Niqabi Ninja is a play about anger and a revenge fantasy then that’s what it is. I committed to that and I’m not going to apologise for that. In fact I’m confident it works.”