Arts and Culture
Review: At Her Feet
When Nadia Davids’s play At Her Feet was first performed in 2002, “Western” perceptions of Islam were in a parlous state.
George W. Bush’s “War on Terror” in the aftermath of September 11th depended on an implicit stereotyping of Muslims as religious fundamentalists. News stories of young women becoming victims of “honour killings”, from the Middle East to Nigeria, seemed to confirm this equation. Images of burkha-clad women were invoked to demonstrate restrictions on civil rights under Sharia law, while in France and other secular countries there were protests over the right Muslim women claimed to follow hijab by wearing a scarf.
The play was a timely intervention, exploring these thorny issues from a Muslim perspective (with a particularly South African inflection), exposing the false assumptions of many non-Muslims about Islam but at the same time offering a critique of the faith and its practises from within.
At Her Feet ran for almost three years, was subsequently published and became a setwork at schools and universities. It contributed to what Davids describes as “a more informed debate about what constitutes the scarf, the veil, the place Muslim women occupy in our global imaginations”.
Quanita Adams, who received a Fleur du Cap award for her performance in the one-woman show, is now reprising the role – or, more accurately, roles – in a revival of the play at the Market Theatre. In the seven years since she wrote At Her Feet, Davids acknowledges in her programme notes, “the world has shifted, contracted, regressed, progressed ... we have entered a more hopeful era in geo-politics”.
And yet, she points out, 2009 has already seen both blank indifference to the deaths of women and children as “collateral damage” in Gaza and renewed outrage after the recent public lashing of a teenage girl in Pakistan because she spoke to a married man.
So it’s clear that the fictionalised story of Azra al Jamal (a Jordanian woman stoned to death for similar reasons), which drives the action in At Her Feet, is still particularly relevant.
In the play, four characters – all Muslim women from Cape Town – respond to Azra’s death, both directly and indirectly, and in doing so they tell us about their own lives.
Sara Jacobs, the narrator-figure, veers from a lyrical celebration of the colours and sacred geometries of the scarf, to a blunt assertion of disgust at the honour killing, to a critique of CNN’s version of “the Arabs”. Her opinions are probably closest to the author’s own views, but ultimately the other characters are more interesting to us.
Sara’s aunt, Kariema, seems at first to be a comical Cape Flats or Bo-Kaap tannie. She is narrow-minded when it comes to Azra’s killing and carries her own ethnic prejudices. But we warm to her, and also discover her reservations about the gendered rituals of Islam – when her mother died, for example, she was not allowed to participate in her burial.
Then there’s Ayesha, Sara’s friend, who initially comes across as a fake revolutionary and hip-hop wannabe; in her final appearance, however, she gives a virtuoso rendition of her astute spoken/sung/rapped poem “Miss Islam”.
Likewise, Sara’s cousin, Tahiera Hussein, is more complex than her ditsy, label-conscious mask suggests – there is substance to both her fears and her dreams, and it is she who experiences the bigotry of those who misinterpret the symbol of the head-scarf.
Yet these vivid character portraits, affirming a complex and nuanced understanding of Muslim female identity, are balanced by the trenchant admission by Azra’s mother as she bends over her daughter’s dead body: Muslim mothers-to-be don’t want to have girls because they know how difficult it is to be a Muslim woman.