What Fatima Didn’t Do: British Play Discusses Identity and Hijab

A thin square of shiny polyester is the main player in Atiha Sen Gupta’s play, What Fatima Did. The plot focuses upon the sudden decision of a non-religious young woman to wear hijab. An insightful and funny look into the reaction of those around her, the play asked some very good questions about identity, religion, and culture. Despite not being a Londoner myself, I could relate to some of the struggles depicted. However, what was noticeably absent from the play was Fatima herself, and this left me confused about Gupta’s overall message.

The story is centered around a group of teenagers living in London. Their group consists of a set of twins named Fatima and Mo, and three other friends. Upon their return from summer vacation, the group discovers that Fatima has inexplicably decided to begin wearing hijab, and their reactions, in particular, that of her boyfriend George, present some interesting questions and challenges. The largest question, by far, was that of identity. What was refreshing was that the idea of religion was not in the forefront, rather the hijab was dissected in relation to the type of identity crisis that one would have at seventeen.

One of the strongest points is made by Ayesha, a self-proclaimed feminist in the group, who insists that the hijab is “stained with blood”, and is vehemently against what she believes it symbolizes. Ayesha also believes that Fatima is wearing hijab for culturally Muslim reasons rather than religious reasons. In her insinuation that it is a political statement rather than a religious one, Ayesha made an interesting point about the way in which some young Muslim women today decide to wear hijab.  Especially in a Western nation, it becomes significant, at times, especially for an adolescent to find a balance between identities.

The reaction of Fatima’s mother was also interesting. She speaks of the struggle of women in her family against the hijab, and she is wildly against Fatima’s decision. She speaks of her grandmother’s struggle to protect her mother’s right not to wear hijab. I thought that her reaction was incredibly powerful. Once the hijab migrated to the west, I began to think about how its symbolism has changed. If it represented a lack of autonomy in the case of Fatima’s great-grandmother, could the hijab eventually become the symbol of a different type of Muslim woman?

The most obvious omission from the play was Fatima herself. She was not heard from or seen. Her absence helped the audience see the powerful impact of her decision. However, in the focus on the thoughts of others, I think Gupta reinforced a part of the hijab debate, which has bothered me for a long time. The voice of the “veiled” woman has been noticeably absent from the discussion, and I had hoped that the play would provide a look from a young Muslim woman’s perspective. While the reactions of those around her were significant and powerful, ultimately, the play left me with more questions about where Fatima was, rather than what she did.

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  • http://ammena03.blogspot.com ammena

    interesting… I saw an advert for this play in the metro the other week and wondered how they would do this, if they would, differently. Thanks for the insight

  • http://cycads.wordpress.com/ Cycads

    I’m glad I went to that play with you, Sara!

    What I thought was an interesting commentary was the part George, a White boy, had to play in the play. Filled with shock and disbelief that his girlfriend has adopted the hijab, he is suddenly confronted with a very visible symbol of his fears and confusion. In one scene, George rips off Fatima’s hijab in act of passion/aggression/madness which is quickly translated as an act of racism by Fatima (I understood it as religious intolerance more than anything else), who then lodges a harassment report against him.

    George makes amends with Fatima at her 18th birthday party by turning his St. George flag (apparently this is an offensive flag in front of ethnic minorities, judging by the reaction of his friends) into a hijab which he wears on his head. A surreal and bizarre compromise? He says, “If she can wear it, so can I!”.

    His friends leave the party because they’re disgusted by his St. George flag-to-hijab conversion, which I found sad. Yes, it was totally ridiculous to look at, but is the voice of White Britain trying to make sense of its hijab fears: by doing the unthinkable – confronting and accepting it, and this case wearing it?

  • Sobia

    Sounds like an interesting play. Also sounds like the point of the play was to focus on those around her, and not on Fatima – hence the missing Fatima. I like that it presented some very realistic Muslim as well as non-Muslim reactions. There are many Muslims who do react very negatively to the hijab for a variety of reasons.

  • nikki bedi

    Adaab….just wanted to let you know I had Atiha on my show minutes ago and quoted from your site and review. Thank you! Nikki Bedi on The BBC Asian Network.

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