United Kingdom / Europe / USA: Pressure on Muslim women to stay out of music
Within a growing scene for Islamic hip-hop in the United Kingdom, women rappers are facing a tough time. When a woman tries to break into the scene she is often intimidated, or even threatened, reported the New Statesman magazine.
During 2007–2008, the Norwegian Muslim singer and human rights activist Deeyah set up a project for Muslim women in music in a bid to change attitudes towards women artists. As a result of the hundreds of songs which were submitted to her from women rappers and singers through her profile-page on the internet music community MySpace.com she organised an online mixtape of previously unreleased songs written by young up-and-coming women Muslim rappers, singers and poetesses from the UK, Europe and US, and named the project ‘Sisterhood’.
“In many Muslim communities, there is virtually no support for young women who want to express themselves as creative artists. Many [Muslim women] are actively discouraged from expressing their thoughts and dreams through music. A big part of the problem is the cultural expectations placed upon women. There is the association of music with sexuality and a westernised form of expression. The main aim I had in putting together the Sisterhood project was to let young Muslim girls know they are not alone in their struggles to get their music out there,” the 30-year-old singer told the New Statesman magazine.
Dreams and hopes “This is just the first small step towards encouraging these artists and others like them out there to pursue their dreams and hopes, and a way to let them know they are not alone. Female Muslim artists face a tough time. There‘s very little support for them. But they are not alone as this first collection proves… they have something to say and they deserve to be heard. Hopefully we can help create a platform to have their voices and opinions heard as both artists and Muslim women living in Western societies,” Deeyah is quoted as saying on the Myspace profile of the project, myspace.com/deeyahpresents.
“I wanted to give these young women the support and encouragement I never had — as I’ve had to learn myself, no one will do anything for us which is why we have to help each other and create the change ourselves. I don’t want these women feeling the same isolation and difficulties I had to through the years simply because of my background and choice of career which is why it was essential for me to create this project in an attempt to build a sense of community and a network of support for my fellow sisters and artists. My aim is to continue supporting and working with up and coming female artists as well as doing what I can to promote the right to freedom of choice and expression,” Deeyah told Freemuse.
Stepped away from pop music Throughout her career Deeyah has received death threats by members of her religious community, basically because they disapproved of her music career. She is now based in the US and has since 2006 completely stepped away from commercial mainstream pop music due to the years of this harassment and abuse. She does continue to work on some music, but she has moved away from pop music and from the public eye in the last couple of years.
Deeyah’s story, in short, is the story of a singer and songwriter who is passionate about human rights, and especially about women’s rights. Most of her life she has found resistance and constant disapproval of her career choice which is music. She told Freemuse in an email interview in August 2008:
“This is because in my culture music is considered an unacceptable career choice. It is not viewed as a respectable profession for a woman to have. The resistance to me grew with the years and with my success. The more attention I started getting for my music, the more attention I also started getting from people within my community who did not wish for me to be as outspoken and visible in the national media as I became. Some told me to my face on several occasions that I was providing a ‘bad example for their young daughters’ — that I ‘might make their daughters think it’s OK to do what I do’ — and that it ‘would make their daughters think that they should do this too’.
With the growing attention came also harassment, intimidation, warnings and death threats. After several incidents and constant barrage of violent threats and warnings Deeyah left Oslo for the United Kingdom. Years on, but following the exact patterns from Norway, only now in the United Kingdom as her music and her person started receiving more attention and airtime the same warnings and threats started flooding in. This time from members of the Muslim community in the United Kingdom. As a result in early 2005 Deeyah went to the MET police where she has found understanding, support, advice and guidance till this day. ‘
Reactions from the Muslim communities In 2005 Deeyah moved to the US where she, out of years of anger, sadness and frustration over this life of start and stop, ended up recording a song and music video called ‘What Will It Be?’, as a middle finger to the people who do everything in their power to choke individual’s right to freedom of expression and choice. Since then she recorded an album with Andy Summers, Bob James and Nils Petter Molvaer called ‘Ataraxis’.
Deeyah: “The Ataraxis album was a wonderful creative outlet for me. Something I desperately needed to do for my own peace of mind.”
Freemuse: What have reactions from the various Muslim communities been towards your Sisterhood project?
“The reactions from young male and female Muslims have been overwhelmingly supportive and encouraging. However, from what I understand, some community leaders and religious leaders are not all that supportive of the concept and the Sisterhood project. Although this is disappointing and disheartening, these types of negative attitudes are no longer a surprise to me and sadly it’s something I’ve just come to expect from these so-called leaders. ”