The New Music Makers: European Muslim Women

Europe’s controversial stance and inflammatory language surrounding the burqa puts Muslim women, veiled or not, in a tight spot. Instead of donning a low profile, some Muslim women are turning to music to speak their minds.

Diam's. Image credit unknown.

European Muslimahs are defying stereotypes by promoting their art and pushing themselves front and center. Take Diam’s, a French recording artist who shot to fame with her 2006 album Dans Ma Bulle (In My Bubble). Born in Cyprus, Diam’s raps about discrimination, poverty, and social ills in France, where she was raised. She catapulted to stardom when her 2006 album sold more than a million copies, receiving international praise, including an MTV award for Best French Act in 2006.

Her follow-up album took three years to materialize, as Diam’s coped with depression and turned to Islam while travelling in Africa. Many media outlets speculated her motives, claiming she turned to Islam to overcome fear and doubt. Feminists in France criticized her conversion. An article titled, “The Rebel submits to Islam” does a good job of detailing some of the criticism Diams faced after embracing Islam.  As Bitch Magazine reports, the French women’s rights group Ni Putes Ni Soumises (Neither Whores nor Submissives) was straight-up bitchy when interviewed by the French daily Le Parisien regarding Diams’ conversion.

“With this new image, Diams’ represents submission, tradition and isolation,” says Safia Labdi, the organization’s president. “Diams’ has had a hard time. She was lost, and found herself by wearing the veil. This is something that we unfortunately see with a lot of young girls.” (sic)

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Miss Undastood

A few months ago, my mother gave me the CD of a Muslimah who she saw rapping at a masjid in Philadelphia. The CD is titled Muslimas with Attitude and the artist is Miss Undastood (link to her MySpace page here). She’s still a relatively new rapper who has released a few mixed-track CDs. Listening to Muslimah, as well as some of the tracks from her latest, State of the Ummah Address, I felt frustrated and happy, but mostly frustrated.

Below is one of Miss Undastood’s songs, titled “Best Names”:

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I want to support Muslimahs in hip hop, since there are so few of us there. Miss Undastood isn’t afraid to advertise her Muslim identity and her rap revolves exclusively around Muslims and issues that mostly inner-city Muslims face. Some of the issues that she raps about are issues that affect Muslims of various backgrounds. One track, titled, “What up Muslims” looks at sectarian issues among Muslims. Miss Undastood is scathing in her criticism of sectarian Muslims, with lines like “I’m gonna salaam you even though you say hi” or “It’s no different than gang bangin’”.

She also addresses some gender issues. In “Hijab is the One Thing”, she asserts that “just because I cover don’t mean I’m more righteous. Just because she doesn’t, don’t mean she’s less pious.” She attacks the idea that a woman’s faith is connected to her dress. This is refreshing since all too often, talk of hijab comes down to talk of a woman’s faith or lack thereof. She also shoots down critiques of hijabs. She attacks the French for the ban on hijab with the line “French president says hijab gotta go. Democracy is hyprocrisy”; as well as the idea that hijabis wear the hijab to please their husbands.

In the track “Co-wife”, she critiques men who marry second wives for the “wrong” reasons. She mentions men who marry multiple wives without having any type of employment and who also have their wives rely on the welfare system for substinence. She also criticizes men who marry multiple wives to fulfill their “nafs” (base desires) and who deceive their wives, as well as racism in the marriage process. “How can you have a wife and she [the first wife] not know it? How you lookin’ to get over? You go to Morocco” she says, referring to the practice of some African American Muslim men who marry women from North African nations like Morocco and Algeria because they’re Arab and are lighter than African American women.

In “C.R.E.AM.”, she criticizes the materialism that she sees among some people in the inner city by asking why some people sell drugs to attain material goods and become jealous of “ballers”. These are some of the few instances that Miss Undastood uses her rap as a tool of social criticism for the ummah (Muslim community).

However, much of Miss Undastood’s music does not have this social justice theme. A lot of her music seems dedicated to announcing she is a Muslim, literally. She constantly invokes the fact that she is a Muslim who is different from “disbelievers”, especially Christians. She makes a point of pointing out that she doesn’t believe in Christian beliefs with lyrics like “I still say one God with no son no spouse”.

She constantly invokes how she does various “Muslim” acts, such as having an interest-free checking account, “closing” the ranks during congregational prayer, wearing a black hijab, carrying her Qur’an and collection of forty hadeeth (quotes from Prophet Muhammad), not drinking alcohol or eating a BLT, and more. There’s nothing wrong with these acts, but for me they made for boring listening. I already do these things and listening to someone describe the daily activities of some Muslims can become a rather tedious task. Perhaps she described these things so that non-Muslims can get a glimpse into the lives of some Muslims. This brings me to another point, which is Miss Undastood’s exclusivity.

Listening to her CD, as well as tracks on her page under Crescent Moon Media label, I felt that Miss Undastood had one idea of what Muslims are. All of the Muslimahs that she raps about wear hijab and if they don’t, then they’re simply struggling with wearing it. There’s no sense that not all Muslims agree on what constitute modest dress, no sense that some Muslim woman aren’t struggling with not wearing hijab because they don’t believe that hijab is mandated in the Qur’an.

She never challenges “traditional” interpretations of gender issues such as polygyny. In “CoWife Pt. 2″ she says that polygyny is a “right” that Muslim men have and that women who don’t want their husbands to take on a second wife “don’t want to accept all of Islam” and implies that they don’t “want for their sisters what they want for themselves.” Even without challenging this view, there is no sense of complexity and nuance in her understanding of this issue. There’s no room for different opinions. Even some classical scholars allowed for women to stipulate in their marriage contracts that they didn’t want to have co-wives. So why is it implied that Muslim women who prefer to be in monogamous unions are not complete in their understanding of their faith?

I also found her characterization of non-Muslims to be cringe-worthy at times. In the song “CoWife”, she attacks non-Muslim women who criticize polygyny. She has lyrics like “you’re a mistress, creeping late at night” and “giving your man condoms to sleep with other women”. While a critique of some Western women’s attitudes toward polygyny is warranted, the character attack on non-Muslim women isn’t. The “mistress” line reminded me of a common Muslim defense of polygyny which is that non-Muslims have mistresses but Muslims have wives, so Muslims are better.

Overall, I think Miss Undastood has considerable talent and I think it is awesome that she is working in an industry that has few women and even fewer Muslim women. Hopefully, in the future, her rap will become more inclusive of the experiences of various Muslims and continue to provide valuable social critique.