Raphael Cormack was at Glasgow’s Tron Theatre on May 21 for a performance of “Day One” by Sara Shaarawi and Maryam Hamidi, directed by Nicola McCartney, a show that he says is like an Egyptian “Everyday Sexism“:
“A woman wearing a niqab, whose face cannot be seen, is the equivalent of a car moving through the streets without a number plate,” Mourid Barghouti writes in I Was Born Here, I Was Born There (trans. Humphrey Davies).Although I don’t think Barghouti meant it as such, this is an unorthodox way to look at the niqab, neither based on religion nor on “protection,” but on subversion and an anti-societal kind of liberation. It is this aspect of the niqab that Sara Shaarawi’s Day One exploits to great effect.
Shaarawi’s work presents, on one side of the stage, a volunteer with OpAntiSH and HarrassMap being interviewed by an unseen and unheard British journalist. In the course of this one-sided dialogue, she tells “the journalist” and the audience about her work in these organisations, but more importantly about her own experiences of sexual harassment in Cairo, from the day she bought her first bra up to the present.
Inspired by recent comic strips like Burqa Avenger and Qahera, she places on the other side of the stage her alter-ego: a niqabi superhero, who roams the streets of Cairo, looking for deserving men on which to enact her vengeance. Any of the thousands of men who harass women on the streets could be her next victim.
Shaarawi is not trying to say that a niqab can stop women from being harassed but it helps slip under the radar when they seek retribution.
“Men never realise when they are being followed. They don’t expect it. They don’t have a sixth sense like women.” Shaarawi also brings another item of female clothing that some make representative of female oppression into her arsenal. The high heel “might slow you down,” she says, “but it can be used as a weapon!”
The play extracts a certain joy from re-appropriating symbols of male power to use against them. The revenge that Shaarawi has planned for harassers is for their own words to be tattooed on their faces so they will have to cover themselves or else reveal the shame of their deeds.
It is also, of course, cathartic to picture Shaarawi exacting vengeance upon her mouth-breathing harassers.
In this 50-minute “rehearsed reading,” a genre that I have been told will feature more and more in the theatre, Shaarawi and the excellent Maryam Hamidi form a dynamic duo on the stage, playing off each other in English and Arabic and seamlessly switching roles in the last third of the action. The niqabi superhero adds narrative drive and flair to the text. It is also, of course, cathartic to picture Shaarawi exacting vengeance upon her mouth-breathing harassers.
However, where this piece is successful in not just as a revenge fantasy but also, and perhaps more so, as a one-woman “Everyday Sexism,” frankly detailing her experiences. From the ridiculous, though never comical, to the baldly distressing, Shaarawi narrates a terrifying list of incidents: looks, words, touches. The simple setting — two chairs, a desk, a rail of clothes, and two actors — bring a sense of deep personal confession and establish a palpable connection with the audience in the theatre.
The references to Zamalek, Doqqi, and Aboul Fotouh, for example, do not reach their mark here as they might in Cairo.
Debuting the piece in the Tron theatre in Glasgow might seem odd for something so clearly rooted in the city of Cairo. The references to Zamalek, Doqqi, and Aboul Fotouh, for example, do not reach their mark here as they might in Cairo.
She argued that it was becoming more possible, and more necessary, to talk openly about sexual harassment in Egypt and expressed, albeit slightly qualified intentions to make an Arabic version of “Day One.”
Of course, to a large extent, the issues being discussed are global ones, which were as familiar to an audience in Scotland as they are to one in Egypt, as members of the audience commented. Still, it is a play that cries out for an Egyptian audience as well as (not instead of) a Glaswegian one. In the after-show discussion Shaarawi was questioned about performing her work in Egypt. She argued that it was becoming more possible, and more necessary, to talk openly about sexual harassment in Egypt and expressed, albeit slightly qualified intentions to make an Arabic version of Day One.
On its own, this is not a “movement.” But a play with the obvious qualities of this one could form an exciting part of a larger discourse in Egypt — when it gets there!
Raphael Cormack is a PhD student at Edinburgh University working on 19th and 20th Century Egyptian Literature. His blog is http://ergamegala.wordpress.com/