The debut play of 21-year-old Atiha Sen Gupta uses the difficult subject of the hijab to investigate a whole number of different layers of racism, bigotry and juvenile angst. The fact that this is carried off with a quick fire comedy dialogue, makes it all the more compelling.
The plot revolves around Fatima who comes back to school after the six week summer holiday wearing the hijab. Prior to this the impression is that she was like the other students out drinking and spending time with her boyfriend George.
The whole play focuses on eight characters. Black students Craig and Stacey, Muslims Aisha and Mohamed, who is also Fatima’s brother, and white George whose parents are Irish but he hates. There is also an excellent cameo from Shobu Kapoor as the mother of Fatima and Mohamed. And there is ofourse the obligatory teacher or maybe that should be referee.
Once Fatima starts to wear the hijab everyone’s attitude changes, especially George. He at one point takes off her hjijab resulting in a fight with Mohamed and being reported for racism to the school authorities by Fatima.
The strongest protests though, apart from George, come from Aisha and Fatima’s mother Ruckshana. She protests how she fought her husband not to wear the hijab and accuses her daughter of looking like “a fundamentalist post box.”
Aisha is equally fervent in her opposition to the hijab, attacking it’s use to subjugate women. At times it is difficult not to think that the character has morphed into Jack Straw, who she quotes approvingly. This representation of Muslims being opposed to the hijab brings another refreshing dynamic to the piece.
Interesting clashes emerge such as the teacher being prepared to put up with the hijab but not a baseball cap on Craig. The play is very much of the post 9/11 world, fast moving showing how friends have been split apart and communities polarised. It shows a real intolerance among some of the kids over what is merely a piece of clothing.
George becomes so disillusioned that he drifts off to the far right. Mohamed becomes fearlessly defensive of his sister against Ruckshana and George. One of the most powerful narratives of the play comes when after a row with his mother Mohamed talks about how Muslims have become a suspect community and how people move away on the trains when spotting a Muslim with a backpack. The Muslim is seen as a potential bomber, the white person as a backpacker. “Why can’t we all be backpackers,” laments Mohamed
The dialogue of the play is fast and furious with plenty of swearing from the characters. What Fatima Did is an excellent debut play for Sen-Gupta and it must be hoped that it goes on from the Hampstead theatre. The power of the play is that it speaks to young people about politics in their language. It would though be interesting to see how it went down with a sixth form full of kids wearing hijabs. Whether it works quite as well for the over 50s remains to be seen. If Sen Gupta does nothing else other than establish a way to hold effective political dialogue with younger people she has already achieved more than most.
* What Fatima Did runs at the Hampstead Theatre until 7 November