“I have always experienced prejudice and discrimination for being a woman, for being Muslim and for not being white. I think these issues cannot be solved without reform from within my own community first. I hope that I can address and articulate some of these issues both through my music as well as through other forms of expression – such as writing, short films, and documentaries as well as through general activism within the community. I hope to see Muslim women claiming their rightful place within society without any fears of judgment, discrimination or violence.”
“I come from a culture of fear and silence. Everyone within my own community knows about the abuse and mistreatment of women, but no one says anything.”
It was only after more than 10 years of being silent and quietly taking this abuse that Deeyah decided to speak out. Now, however, she has incited anger from British Muslims and has been forced to cancel performances and hire a team of bodyguards.
An interview as long as this one would normally be cut down to a third of its length by an editor, assuming that no one will have time to read such a long text anyway. Freemuse however has decided to present our interview with the singer in full length. Deeyah has expressed a wish to speak out, and we are pleased to be able to give her all the time and all the space she feels she needs in order to do so.
The fact that Deeyah, born and raised in a Muslim community in Norway, now based in USA, has chosen a profession that is largely considered unacceptable and not respectable for a Muslim woman has attracted not just insults and condemnation from certain sections of her community, but also intimidation, physical attacks and threats.
“I am not a critic of Islam, nor am I interested in “Islam bashing”. I am a Muslim myself but what I do not accept and will continue criticising is how certain sections within the community are using Islam and culture to further their personal agendas for their own gain by promoting hate, segregation, sexism, homophobia and violence. Practices that are particularly violent and discriminatory against women that we are seeing even today in Europe actually pre-date Islam. Honour killings, for instance originated from the tribal systems of the Arab Bedouins. However the ingrained patriarchic tribal laws and customs remained which Islam was not able to completely get rid of. As I have said before, this is not about Islam. This is about people trying to maintain control and power through spreading fear and encouraging ignorance rather than unity, tolerance and respect for all.
This is not acceptable to me and should not be acceptable to Muslims around the world. Muslim’s cultural identity has been hijacked by people that are preaching hatred and violence in the name of culture and religion.”
Deeyah has produced a new song and a music video entitled ‘What Will It Be’. At a first glimpse, it is yet another pop video with a good-looking suntanned chick doing a bit of singing, but then… it also contains some unusually harsh scenes of women being hanged and executed. And a woman dressed in the Afghan burka who suddenly throws it off and jumps in a swimming pool dressed in a bikini.
People who don’t know Deeyah’s background are quick to judge her, thinking that those pictures are just a publicity stunt, a trick to ensure some quick media attention and to capitalise on the world-wide tension created by religious fundamentalists. Rumours have it that she is not even a Muslim herself.
Now, read on here. Because when you have finished reading this in-depth interview with Deeyah, you will not only know that this is definitely not any superficial publicity stunt. You will come to know Deeyah as a well-formulated woman with unusual courage and a strong vision.
This is the story about a woman who had to go through a terrible lot of pain and fear before she was able to articulate her feelings and lyrics before a controversial song came out of her, all of a sudden… ‘What Will It Be’.
In the name of Islam
“This video and song marks a personal and artistic change in me,” Deeyah says.
“I have found that the hypocrisy prevalent in our culture is too much to bear without speaking up. I am tired of the people who clamor at the slightest hint of skin on a Muslim woman but who will not speak up when a woman is beaten and even murdered in the name of Islam. The personal driving force behind ‘What Will It Be?’ is a lot of sadness, frustration and disgust at where things are going and developing for the worse rather than improving in any major way. ‘What Will It Be’ is a direct result and reaction to what I have experienced for more than 10 years now. The video criticises people who commit murder and promote hatred and violence in the name of culture and religion.
I have been scared my whole life of talking about these problems. Not just because of the potential repercussions from my own community but also racism being as big of a problem as it is. I was frightened that by me coming forward and saying what had happened to me that I may confirm what the right wing in Norway believed and preached. I felt trapped between two extremes and didn’t want to become a tool that these two hateful extremes would use for the benefit of their own hateful agendas.
In a sense ‘What Will It Be?’ has helped liberate me from these paralysing fears to where I will now speak the truth of my own experiences and about the community as well as the sense of being lost and struggling to find an identity being a Western born girl from a Muslim immigrant family. The reason I can no longer continue censoring my perspective is that by doing so, I am a part of the problem. This wall of silence exists because of fear and is enforced through fear, intimidation, excommunication and in the worst cases, through violence and murder. I am not saying that I am here to solve all these problems or that I even have all the answers. However, I feel speaking out about the difficulties we are all facing right now is crucial. Must we really put up with that muslim’s cultural identity has been hijacked by people that are preaching hatred and violence while hiding behind culture and religion? These people can only be stopped by as many opposing and alternative voices speaking out and by us standing up for our individual identities.
I feel it’s my duty as an artist to reflect through my art form what I see around me whether it be personal, social, cultural or political observations. Music and art is not just entertainment – it also has the ability to provide some commentary on the state of the societal climate reflected through pop culture. I get countless letters from Muslim girls who desperately wish to choose their own future with either the decision of life partners or careers. So many of these girls tell me their passion and dream is to create music and to be allowed to share their talent with others, but they are not permitted to do so as music and entertainment is not considered a “respectable” profession for a lot of our girls. Maybe at the very least, myself along with other female artists, can prove to these girls that a Muslim girl has the right to express herself in whatever way she herself desires and chooses.”
The burka: a choice
Criticising Muslim culture and religion can be a dangerous field to enter, one could say, taking into consideration what happened to a Dutch film maker Theo van Gogh who touched on this subject and was killed in 2004. Deeyah is cautious and hires bodyguards when she goes out in public. But, nevertheless, while she was producing the video she didn’t think of censoring it or toning down its message:
“There was very little self censorship during the video process. I have been censoring myself my entire life. I did this video because I needed to be honest and overcome my own fears about speaking out on these issues. The only thing I wanted to do was to make sure I didn’t disrespect Islam as a religion. I find it interesting that many people equate the burka as being part of Islam when it is most definitely not. It is a garb developed as a result of culture not religion. People seem to think that I am “casting off” the burka in the music video when in fact I am embracing it as a choice as well as embracing the bikini as a choice. There is no disrespect of the burka at all in the video. I believe it is a viable choice for women (but only by women, not men who might impose it) just as I think the bikini is acceptable if a woman chooses to wear it. Respecting a woman’s choice is what this is about. I do not judge a woman who chooses to wear the burka and do not want to impose my way of dress or living on anyone. Similarly I expect this same respect for my choices as personally I do not chose or wish to wear the burka in my life.
When writing this song and making the video I did not even care whether anyone saw or heard them. It was something I needed to do for me — a lot of anger I needed to get out. Because I didn’t have any plan or even wish to release this single officially, I felt free to just say what I needed to say without any thought about whether it would be suitable for broadcast or not. A lot of the imagery in the video is extremely harsh with scenes of women being hanged and executed. I was under no illusion that this would get day time airplay. Airplay was not a concern or even on my mind. This is something I had to do for my own peace of mind. I come from a culture of fear and silence — everyone within my own community knows about the abuse and mistreatment of women, but no one says anything. The only way we deal with things is to close our eyes and ears and pretend like this abuse doesn’t exist. If we as a community can’t even admit and acknowledge that these things are going on, change and progress will never happen for us.
“By being silent and scared myself for all these years, I feel I was essentially a part of the problem. I’ve been in music and been performing since I was seven-eight years old. Music is the only thing I know and the most comfortable form of expression for me which is why I decided to start addressing these issues through my music and this video. I was actually advised against making this video by some of the people who believe that activism and music should not be mixed. I guess they’ve not heard of any of the Western rock music from the 1960s or 1970s…
It’s a simple protest song. The main point I wanted to convey through this video was the individual’s right to freedom of expression, freedom of dress, and most importantly, the freedom of choice. Additionally I wanted to salute and pay my respects to people that have stepped out and exercised these human rights – but who have ended up paying with their lives for their choices. The video is about making a first personal step towards breaking this wall of silence. It’s about re-claiming your voice as an individual. It is not intended as “Islam bashing”. I am however bashing people who use Islam as a tool to impose their will on others.
Female oppression in my opinion is not so much about pieces of clothing (or the lack of them), but rather the unwillingness of some people to afford women the right to their own opinions and choices, whatever they may be. If a woman chooses to do something truly of her own free will, I respect her and would fight for her right to do so. Demeaning this right and a woman’s ability to think for herself and make conscious decisions is in my opinion a very patronising and discriminating mindset in itself – whether this is expressed by Muslims or Westerners.”
You have said that you would be lying if you said that abuse from religious fanatics did not upset or scare you. What does this actually mean?
“Feeling unsafe and constantly worrying about my personal and my family’s safety is a huge burden and weight both emotionally and mentally. Not being able to tour and connect with my fans directly like most artists get to do without security concerns is extremely frustrating. I have lost people that were working with me because of my stance. It became too much for them to the point where it started affecting their businesses and became a source of worry and concern with regards to their safety as well. This is why I am now in the process of putting together a new team of people around me who are comfortable with what I am about as a person and artist.
In general, not only has it been the physical safety issues, but it is also the mental pressures of not saying or doing anything that people would rather no one talked about. Along with the worry of how what I do affects my family and their standing within the community, there is the pressure of having the unwanted responsibility of always trying to protect the communities reputation at all costs.
This is unfortunately a burden that is always unfairly placed mostly on our girls —meaning that the entire concept of honor, shame and responsibility of reputation predominantly is on the shoulders of girls.
In terms of the practicality of dealing with the security concerns, despite popular belief I do not have trained professional bodyguards because my reality is I can’t afford that.
However I do have people that watch over me and travel with me now, but they are my friends and not hired and paid bodyguards. They protect me because they know my situation and genuinely care about my safety. Just like in Norway I have people with me now who want to make sure I’m safe because they love me. Even though they are not your “typical” bodyguards it is guys who know how to handle difficult situations and are more than comfortable with handling any physical altercations.
In Norway my guys would get into countless fights because of people either being physically threatening or actually grabbing me and on occasion knives were even pulled. Some people have advised me that I may not want to have people with colorful backgrounds taking care of me, but the fact of the matter is they are my friends and I trust them with my life for how they have protected me throughout the years in Norway and the UK.
Also, the MET Police in London have been incredibly understanding and supportive. They have advised me on security precautions and in general been very helpful in my situation.
Critique of Muslim leaders
Coming clean and talking about some of these issues has been the most nerve wracking and toughest thing I’ve ever done. What’s been a hard and sad thing for me to realise is how not one single person from the religious establishment within the community (as in official organisations or so-called spokespeople) has shown any support or attempted to reach out to me. In fact, I asked for help from a representative of a very prominent Muslim organisation in the UK and he coldly declined while his body language showing his clear disgust of me as if I was diseased. It makes me question what these people are really there for. Is it just for political posturing and to continue securing their funding, or is it actually to deal with real problems we face within the Muslim community? I personally think they are there for the free lunch.
Unfortunately, a lot of these self appointed leaders and spokespeople are too busy painting a smiley face on every single problem that surfaces rather than actually identifying the underlying reasons for these problems so they can be dealt with and the process of finding solutions can begin.These people show through their in-action that problem solving is of no interest to them because in practice they have shown that they’d much rather sweep it all under the carpet. To me, these people are either extremely out of touch and ignorant about what’s really going on within their own community, or they choose to ignore the realities that we are constantly faced with on a daily basis.
It really is a sad state of affairs when these are the types of people supposedly representing us. In my particular situation, some of these leaders and representatives have spent more time pulling under the belt punches with various insults and accusations rather than either helping me or at the very least acknowledging that what I’m saying is in fact happening every single day. Who do they represent — their own personal interests or Muslims? They have pulled every trick in the book to discredit me in the hopes that what I’m saying will somehow not be heard. It’s apparently much easier attacking people like me than to support me.
However, as difficult as this has been and will no doubt continue being, it has made me even more determined not to lose faith in the work that has to be done and the questions that have to be raised.
This, yet again, goes back to the element of fear that some people want to maintain in us so that we are easily controlled and lead by their agendas.”
Pressure to keep quiet
Deeyah’s real name is Deepika Thathaal, and she started her music career in Norway’s capital Oslo 14 years ago. Her musical work there received a lot of positive attention and reactions from the Norwegian media and music community. Her first album, recorded when she was 14, and out when she was 15, was a mixture of folk music, jazz and Indian classical. It soon saw her adopted as Norway’s mascot for multiculturalism. She got the opportunity to work with some very talented artists, such as her teachers, Ustad Fateh Ali Khan and Ustad Sultan Khan, and world renowned musicians such as Jan Garbarek, David Lindley, Nana Vasconcelos, Trilok Gurtu, Talvin Singh, Guy Sigsworth, Zakir Hussain, Don Cherry, and Knut Reiersrud.
However, the reaction of part of the Muslim immigrant community in Norway was not supportive at all, says Deeyah today. Like many Muslims living in Western societies, Deeyah found herself living in two “parallel worlds”. While she found herself being heavily attacked and criticised by parts of the immigrant community, the public at large and the media were not a ware of her situation because she tried her best never to say anything about it.
“As a community, we were having quite a lot of problems with the image we had in the media because of violence. I was one of the first people with Muslim immigrant background in Norway to garner positive and not violence related attention in the media. I was very proud that I was contributing towards a more positive perception of the community as a whole. To my shock and disappointment, this feeling of pride was not reflected or expressed by the community. They were angry and disapproved of me doing music, being in the limelight and being an outspoken girl. They felt my presence would encourage their daughters to do whatever they wanted to. They were extremely concerned that I may somehow corrupt their daughters making them rebel and disobedient towards the typical cultural expectations for women. In addition, there was a lot of pressure put on me to not say anything about this negative response from the muslim community towards myself and my family. This is why I chose to keep quiet and deal with my problems alone and eventually left Norway.On one hand I was doing very well as far as my career was concerned, but on the other hand, I had to deal with a lot of abuse, threats and intimidation from my own community. I was very young and it became unbearable for me. The nature of the abuse I faced in Norway was everything from simple name calling, people spitting at me, and being attacked with pepper spray at my own concert. At one point, a group of Muslim guys wanted to take me from my school to “take care of me”. I had threatening phone calls, was constantly having groups of guys following me — either threatening me themselves, or warning me of what would happen if I didn’t stop setting a bad example for “their girls”. My family was harassed, warned and threatened to the point where they now have minimal or no contact with most of the community. They now live a very closed and isolated life.
Growing up I was very opinionated, energetic and confident. However, because of what I went through and the fact that I went through it all mostly alone, is something that has had a lasting negative and spirit breaking effect on me. It took me years not to feel scared and flinch every time a random stranger came too close to me. Even after years of undoing this deep rooted sense of fear that had been instilled in me, when similar situations arose in the UK, I was devastated because of the enormous disappointment and shock that this was happening to me again years on and in a different country. Determined not to let it all get out of hand like it did in Norway, I left the UK unwilling to accept this. After months of soul searching and trying to decide whether I wanted to give up music altogether or to do the one and only thing I had never tried — which was standing up for myself and making it very very clear that I will no longer stand for this type of treatment and intimidation. From that decision “What Will It Be?’ was born.
The hypocrisy of some people within the community is highlighted through various images and scenes in the video. One particular scene – “the burka bikini scene” – is in the video for two reasons, one being that in its most basic and direct way it is about the choice of a woman, the second reason is to pinpoint this hypocrisy which has very much been confirmed by the reactions to the video – that a woman being sexual and owning her own body is a way bigger crime and outrage than the murder, beatings and the mistreatment of women. The reactions of some people to this scene in particular has made it painfully clear that skin is a bigger sin than murder. This I find disgusting and indicative of the tremendously twisted mentality of some within our community.”
Then, What Will It Be..? What is coming up next when it comes to your future projects?
In terms of my creative and artistic expression, things have changed in a very fundamental and personal way for me. This change is marked by ‘What Will It Be?’ and is something that will continue to be reflected through my future work. Musically and stylistically the album that I am now recording is a blend of pop, rock and electronica while keeping influences of my Indian-Pakistani classical vocal training.
I will continue raising awareness about topics that I feel are very important. I have scrapped the album I was working on and have started over. The lyrical and musical content is becoming different for me as I’m in a different place personally and artistically right now. In addition to music, other projects I am starting on are a couple of documentaries, the working title ‘The Lost Generation’ it is about us children of immigrants who were born and raised in Europe. This project will be about bringing to light the difficulties and hard questions regarding belonging and searching for an identity in the West. Another possible documentary project is ‘The Wall Of Silence’ through which I would like to explore why we as Muslims in most instances choose to stay silent about wrongs that we know exist within our own community. So in addition to my music I will be doing a lot more work to highlight the state of our women and youth in Europe.
In the immediate future, I am now getting ready to direct and film a video for a Pashto lullaby That I have recorded it in honor of Afghani women imprisoned (along with their children) for so-called “crimes of morality” in Afghanistan.”
Starting an organisation
Deeyah has always had a strong sense of pride and loyalty to the Muslim community and says that this has not changed. What has changed, however, is that she now chooses not to stand by things that she sees as being wrong. She is not willing to continue pretending like everything is perfect and that there is nothing negative within certain parts of her community.
“We as a community have to start taking some responsibility in acknowledging some of the things happening within and stop always trying to blame everyone else for our own problems. Yes, racism does exist, and we as a whole community are discriminated against on some levels, which is something we all have to fight against. Having said that, we also very much need to look inwards and deal with some of our own problems by not sweeping all the difficult issues under the rug. We need to clean up our own backyard before blaming everyone and everything on the outside first. We have to stop justifying the wrongs within and actively do something about it for a change. Our basic human rights and the freedom of expression and individual choice can not be compromised in the name of culture and religion.
This is why I am starting an organisation that I initially intended to be for young Muslims and young people of immigrant background living in Europe and the US. However I have decided to try and create a platform where like minded people can come together to air their concerns and issues regardless of race or religious background. The purpose of this organisation will be to provide support for open-minded progressive people and give them a place to come together. A place where they will know that they’re not alone and that there are in fact other people out there who experience feelings of fear, feel disenfranchised, and who are being misrepresented and judged (from without AND within their own communities). No prejudice, intolerance or homophobia will be accepted in this group . The point of this is for like-minded people to provide each other with support and to share our thoughts and experiences in an environment free from judgment.
Voice to a positive Muslim
“I receive countless letters and emails from other Muslims like myself who were born and raised in the West. These are people who are proud of their heritage and parents’ culture but who also value deeply the rights and freedoms we enjoy living in the West. The support I have received is from people who feel disheartened by how we are portrayed in the media, and who are also disgusted by how some of our so called representatives are responsible for breeding hatred rather than true tolerance. People have thanked me for not giving up and for daring to speak about what’s really going on. They have encouraged me to continue doing what I am doing. Many tell me in detail about their own experiences that are similar to my own and so many others.
There is also a host of musicians in the Muslim world – not only the Middle East but also Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, and Central Asia – who are desperately fighting for their right to free expression, as can also be learned from many of the articles on www.freemuse.org.
Another re-occurring statement is how they feel proud that someone like me is around as they feel it proves they can also live their dreams despite the hardships and imposed “traditional” roles we may face from our community. The majority of the responses are about hope and how it now seems possible that a positive Muslim person can be given a voice.We have to be pro-active if we desire change in our reality, however this has to be an individual choice that we as women have to make. Change can be nurtured and encouraged but not imposed, not by me or any man. This is why I never presume to speak for all Muslim women because I don’t. I can only speak for myself and from my own perspective. If someone can relate to what I am about, then that’s great but I am not arrogant enough to tell people how they should or should not live their lives. I am not here to pass judgment on what other women choose to do. What matters to me is that a woman is truly free and independent and has a choice.”