Niqabi Ninja review – rape-revenge promenade loses its way

ñiqabi Ninja is a revenge fantasy originally written by Sara Shaarawi in response to an instance of sexual violence in 2013 during demonstrations at Tahrir Square. Staged as part of the Shubbak festival, it makes clear that endemic sexual assault and rape culture relates to cities beyond Cairo, issues that have gained new resonance in the aftermath of Sarah Everard’s murder in London.

Directed by Catrin Evans, it has been adapted from a stage play into an outdoors event that mixes an audio story with a walk around east London alongside Gehan Mounir’s graphic art illustrations, pasted on walls, buildings and hoardings. Rebecca Banatvala, as Hana, describes both the everyday sexual catcalling around her in Cairo, which begins barely after she hits puberty, to a serious incident of sexual assault. In between, she observes men’s relentless gawping and groping in crowds (“hands everywhere”) and harassment that is both casual and calculated. Her experience builds to a bloodthirsty desire for revenge and the creation of Niqabi Ninja (Juliana Yazbeck), a graphic novel-style superhero-cum-avenging angel; the ancient Egyptian tale of Isis and her murdered husband, Osiris, is also woven in with the contemporary story.

In theory, this multimedia promenade performance is immensely timely, chiming with the urgent issue of safe public space and the campaign to “reclaim the streets”. But in practice, it is difficult and discombobulating to keep a firm hold of the story, while navigating the map to six accompanying images along the way (we must find a gated garden, go round the back of a pub and through confusingly signposted streets).

The narrative carries a real sense of danger all the same, and BalQeis’s instrumental music helps to build the atmosphere. But the story, while fuelled by trauma and rage, lacks a full enough arc. Several recent “revenge” dramas such as Promising Young WomanI May Destroy You have dealt with male sexual violence and consent with extremely sophisticated storytelling. This feels far less effective in its execution, however potent its subject matter. While the act of walking carries great symbolism (our eye is drawn to lone women on the streets), it also renders the story diffuse.

Mounir’s illustrations are more dramatic in their effects, but there are not enough of them in the hour-long walk: the first and last images feature the Niqabi Ninja – a formidable, phoenix-like figure bearing shades of a Wim Wenders film – who hovers across the city’s skyline. We are left craving more of her.