What Fatima Did…, at the Hampstead Theatre

What Fatima Did

stand back, i've got a hijab in my pocket

How do you get young people into the theatre? By writing about them, as Atiha Sen-Gupta from the school of Skins writers proves with this topical debut. In this teen world of dub-step, drinking, and dressing up, Fatima decides to don the hijab, a decision that makes those close to her question why.

The play has an intimate set-up moving from the classroom to the girl’s toilets, focusing on six best friends, and one close family. Fatima never actually appears onstage, like Deepa in Anupama Chandrasekhar’s Free Outgoing, instead we only learn about her through other characters.  The device is the crux of the play: you want to see her answer questions, stand up for her actions, and in her actual hijab. Instead it’s up to us, the non-hijab wearing audience (like her friends), who are forced to question our own assumptions.

The feminist Sen-Gupta says on the hijab: “it makes you visible as a Muslim, but invisible as a woman.” Her arguments are not new, they are just presented in a fresh way; rather than having stuffy academics sitting on a panel discussing the issue, we have at the pinnacle of the play a classroom debate by a group of multi-racial friends.

Every argument about the hijab is put forward and often from the most unlikely candidates. Fatima’s Caribbean school friend Craig admires her modesty, whilst her mum says her daughter has become a “fundamentalist postbox.” The mum points out: “my grandmother fought for my mother, and my mother fought for me not to wear it.” In a society where young girls are the chief buyers and wearers of headscarves rather than their mums, this addresses the main subject at the heart of the play: how are things different, if not more difficult post-9/11, for second generation Asians?

The in-your-face cast are excellent at portraying the chaos and confusion, in particular Fatima’s family, Asher Ali as Mohammed and Shobu Kapoor as the mum. At times the humour is cringeworthy, Fatima’s ex-boyfriend’s desperation repetitive, and the denouement slow. Despite this it is absorbing, and the audience who were half full of hijab wearers gasping, laughing, and on the edge of their seats seemed to think so too. Theatre at its best.

Runs till 7 November.

To see or not to see: * * * * 

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