The Burkha Rapper: Sophie Ashraf

Sophie Ashraf performing. Image via BlindBoys.

Sophie Ashraf performing. Image via BlindBoys.

Sophie Ashraf, also known as The Burkha Rapper, is an Indian Muslim female rapper for whom Muslim identity seems central to her art. This comes across clearly in her following statement on the Blind Boys website:

Its like when you really like a band, you wear T-shirts of that band, Well we really, really like Islam, so we wear the burkha. I rap because I cant sing. But I love music, so it had to be rap. Soon, the burkha and the rap formed an identity of itself, and people started recognizing me as the burkha rapper. The Justice Rocks Concert was the first platform where I felt the setting and the timing was right to talk about Islam. The Mumbai attack had just happened and everyone was waiting for a proactive Muslim to come out and say what Islam was about. I was just blown away by the response. There are those who are not convinced about the burkha, sure. Now that we wear it, we feel empty without it, naked. There is a line in the quran that says, “To you, your religion, and to me mine”. And so they are letting me express myself the way I want to. People tend to think that someone who tries to be different and someone who breaks the rules are the same. I work within the rules, but I find those little loopholes that allow me to do my thing. There is this cool anime (Japenese animation) called The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya in which the entire world is made just to amuse her, the main character. Sometimes i feel the world is created just to amuse me. Because things, mashaallah always go right.

The story is accompanied by pictures.

Deconstructing Ashraf’s words makes it obvious that the burqa is central to her work and image.

I have to admit though that my first reaction to the pictures was, “That’s not a burqa!” This looks nothing like the burqa I would form out of my mother’s dupattas as a child while playing “grown up.” Nor does it look like the burqa Muslim heroines in Bollywood films would wear. Nor does it look like the net burqa native to the NWFP of Pakistan.  What we see Ashraf wearing in the pictures looks nothing like traditional South Asian burqas do. I suspect one of two possible things happening here.

The first could be an appropriation of the West’s inaccurate and generic notion of the burqa.  It is almost as if, rather than challenge the inaccuracy in views of the burqa, this inaccurate view has been accepted and perpetuated. The second possibility is the further Arabization of South Asian culture. What we actually see Ashraf wearing is the Middle Eastern hijab and abaya, a recent import into South Asia, not something native to the region.  As abaya is a foreign term, and burqa a native one, what seems to have happened is foreign attire has been given a familiar name, thus making it more palatable to locals. Think of that what you will.

However, speculation aside, the purposeful use of this “burqa” is not hidden in Ashraf’s quote.

Well we really, really like Islam, so we wear the burkha.

Here we see Islam being positioned as a superstar of sorts worthy of having worshiping fans. The donning of the “burkha” by Ashraf, and those like her, has been for the purposes to support her religion, to demonstrate an allegiance, admiration, respect, and desire to emulate Islam. The analogy is young and fun and would be one that would easily attract a younger Muslim population.

Image via BlindBoys.

Image via BlindBoys.

…the burkha and the rap formed an identity of itself, and people started recognizing me as the burkha rapper.

Ashraf’s music and words come from her Muslim identity. From this quote, it is clear that for her the “burkha”, which is a symbol in for Islam itself, and her rapping have become one and cannot be separated. Her art is inevitably shaped by her religion and her religion, perhaps, by her art.

The burqa has also become a platform via which Ashraf has had the opportunity to speak about Islam.

The Mumbai attack had just happened and everyone was waiting for a proactive Muslim to come out and say what Islam was about.

Ashraf’s donning of the “burkha” while rapping has brought her religion to the forefront, which consequently has placed her in a position to represent Islam. And this position is considered to be an active one by Ashraf, as demonstrated by her use of the word “proactive.” As Ashraf has made Islam central to her work, her proactivity as a Muslim has been established.

There are those who are not convinced about the burkha, sure. Now that we wear it, we feel empty without it, naked. There is a line in the quran that says, “To you, your religion, and to me mine”. And so they are letting me express myself the way I want to.

Ashraf recognizes an opposition to the “burkha”–however, no force or compulsion is stated, either for or against wearing it. In fact, a level of comfort permeates through this comment – a physical comfort wearing the “burkha” but also an expressive comfort – a comfort Ashraf feels in being able to express her Muslim-ness and an acceptance she experiences from those around her.

Finally, this final comment demonstrates an intelligent and active engagement with Islam.

People tend to think that someone who tries to be different and someone who breaks the rules are the same. I work within the rules, but I find those little loopholes that allow me to do my thing.

Ashraf shows a comfort with Islam and her knowledge of what she does and does not feel she can follow. This comment demonstrates that Ashraf is actively negotiating with Islam, trying to decipher for herself what Islam means to her, all the while keeping Islam as central to her work.

Overall, Ashraf comes across as a confident, self-aware and active Muslim woman, who uses Islam to shape her life and work and places Islam in a central position in her life. Her desire to defend Islam and present it in a  manner true to her beliefs is apparent. It seems she may be a force to reckon with.

  • http://thatmashguy.blogspot.com/ mash

    no examples of lyrics?

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  • s.c.

    You mention its not typical of South Asian (or moreoever, Pakistani) burqas but I’ve seen plenty of this type of burqa around Hyderabad (India), Lucknow, and Delhi. It’s more popular among the elite religious Urdu-speaking classes. Don’t know when it happened but I’m old enough to see that it has been established for a while.

    Also, women from the elite upper classes (historically ‘Seyyids’) in these places have often regularly worn a burqa very similar the afghan burqa except that it’s usually black with some tan netting.

  • s.c.

    The point of my comment was totally missed (my fault, I clicked too soon), I meant to suggest that I don’t think these burqa’s point to the “arabization” of Indian Islam. There’s actually been a counter trend since partition for Indian Muslims to recognize their historically Indian roots. They also don’t have the support of the state for just massive projects (the way it happened in Pakistan under Zia and the Bhutto’s), in fact in some instances the state has done the exact opposite. If you watch any 1950′s, 1960′s movies about some of these elite classes you’ll notice that the burqa has always been there, even if it’s not a dupatta (something more common to Punjabi dresses).

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  • http://getoutlines.wordpress.com Safiya Outlines

    Salaam Alaikum,

    Great article. I would love to hear more of her stuff.

    Another amazing Muslimah artist is the poet Warsan Shire. Her stuff is really raw and compelling: http://www.myspace.com/warsanshire

  • Ayeshter

    ok….hijabi rapper? How kick ass is that?

    You know, once I started whereing hijab, I was too scared to go back to the punk shows i loved so much. Now that I’ve read this, I think I’m ready to head back to the pit. It just gives me so much confidance…see a woman more covered than me….but still cool, not scared of anything.

    Thank you Sophie and thank you Sobia for writing this!!

  • http://getoutlines.wordpress.com Safiya Outlines

    Salaam Alaikum,

    Ayeshter – I used to have similar thoughts when I started wearing hijab, especially about gig going. Then I realised that, if I listen to something in the house, what’s so different to going and seeing it live.

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  • Sofia Ashraf

    Assalam.
    omg! Masha Allah. i’m so….touched. you could build a house with the bricks i’ve been shitting ever since the media got a whiff of me. i though i’d be torn apart by fundamentalists. thank you all so so much for your support. i’ve stopped rapping tho…mommy said so. sniff sniff. Plus the rock scene got a lil addcitive, so staying out of it. but here is the youtube link to my song, you’ll have to wait till the end for it.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_yoRUNpu0Pc&feature=related

    The lyrics go thus:
    When you see me, is this all you see?
    Opressed coz i’m dressed as my creed has decreed..
    it’s my choice, my way to voice
    what i believe in and leave an identity.
    What is islamic terrorism?
    This is quite an erronous term.
    Gimme back my faith,
    Don’t hijack my faith,
    Don’t hate me for an idiot’s mistake.
    Salatullah, here’s my prayer
    All i want is Islam in the clear
    from those who pollute, convolute and misuse,
    Their belief’s misconceived,
    Spread your love not your fear.

    PS: is this Sobia Asrar from al jumuah?

  • Sobia

    Wasalaam Sophia,

    Sorry, the article had your name as Sophie.

    I’m glad you liked our review. As you can see most people here were quite impressed with you. Thanks for your work.

    And this is not Sobia Asrar from al jumuah.


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