Mona Haydar's 'Feminist Planet': All About the Newest Hijabi Rapper
Have you heard of Mona Haydar? If you haven’t, get ready. She’s a Syrian-American, Muslim feminist rapper. Yes. I suppose you might question why I’m excited or even surprised that a Syrian-American Muslim woman may also rap, but that is part of the point of this article.
In March 2017, Haydar released her first independently produced single “Hijabi (Wrap my Hijab)” on youtube, which featured a cast of non-white, hijab wearing Muslim women, choreography by the Al Taw’am sisters (competitors on NBC’s World of Dance), and Haydar eight months pregnant. In her video, Haydar raps about the controversy surrounding the hijab, the experiences of women who choose to wear the hijab, and more generally people’s obsession with policing women’s bodies.
What is so original and so exciting about Haydar’s music is that it is decidedly not created for non-Muslim consumption - although this does not mean that Haydar is only singing for Muslims to listen. In fact, it means quite the opposite. Consider today’s popular media in the west. The majority of music, film, tv and fashion arises from and fits in with a certain western and secular, (although Christian-influenced), context. In other words, there is little diversity in the media that fully encapsulates the variety of people and experiences that exist in the western world.
In contrast, Haydar’s music is born from and centred on Muslim experience, and it does not seek to make that experience more palatable for a non-Muslim audience. Haydar is explicit about this in her lyrics, when she addresses her non-Muslim viewers, and the obsession with policing the hijab and those who choose to wear it, with
"[I'm] Not your exotic vacation / I'm bored with your fascination / I need that paypal, paypal, paypal if you want education."
This is also true for her second single, “Dog”, released in July 2017 and featuring actress and singer Jackie Cruz, who you may know from Netflix’s Orange is the New Black. “Dog” is, according to Haydar, “inspired by stories from the Muslim community”, and addresses men who purport themselves to be religious and spiritual leaders, but who in fact are complicit in encouraging and participating in misogyny and gender oppression:
"You say my voice is haram / 'Cause you getting turned on / Boy you might need Quran / Boy you need a turn down."
Haydar also indirectly refers in this lyric to the greatly important work of Islamic Feminism. One project of Islamic Feminism is the re-reading and reinterpretation of the Quran and its verses that have been historically used as justification for the oppression of women, and other groups of people. Many people, feminists included, balk at the thought of religious texts or doctrine as instruments of equality or feminism. But remember that these women (and men) are engaging in a project of reclamation: whatever you personally believe, a feminist must always encourage and support other women in the challenging of their community's sexism. And so, when Haydar points the men who are telling her to remain silent to the Quran for guidance, she subverts what has been used as a tool of oppression and reclaims it for herself and other Muslim women, now a tool of liberation.
Non-Muslim viewers may feel a little alienated from Haydar’s music in some instances - with references to the Quran and some lines even delivered in Arabic - and this is incredibly important. In a world that caters so heavily to a white western experience, it is crucial that we are reminded that that experience is not universal. Haydar essentially provides a three-and-a-half-minute snapshot into what it feels like to be an 'other' in society - someone who doesn't quite fit into the cultural ideals and stereotypes that we are told are normal. You may not feel completely at home listening to Haydar's music or watching her video, and consider what this tells you about representation in the media and beyond.
Yet, while some aspects of Haydar’s music specifically cater for a Muslim audience, other aspects speak to the patriarchy at large. So, at the same time that Haydar’s music focusses on Muslim experience, and therefore may feel foreign to a non-Muslim audience, the issues that Haydar raps about are also so universal that women of any community can relate to her lyrics. For example, in “Hijabi” Haydar sings
"Make a feminist planet / Women haters get banished / Covered up or not don't ever take us for granted."
Haydar also commented in an interview with the BBC on some reactions she had received about her being pregnant in her video:
"Why is it so shocking for a pregnant woman to continue living her own life while growing new life inside her? As a woman who believes that all bodies are good and beautiful, it brings me joy to dismantle the societal structures which try to dictate to women what our bodies should look like".
Moreover, her single “Dog” can also be read as a general comment on sexism in any society: men who are well respected and lauded for what they do can be hypocritical sexists in any community of the world - Harvey Weinstein anyone? Haydar explained that, in the process of conceptualising "Dog", she “didn’t feel like young women were being educated to know that their salvation is never in a man’s hands”. This is reflected in her line
“Panel on women, only dudes / Um, excuse me? Really? Rude”
and at the end of the video, where Haydar provides some truly disgusting figures on gender-based violence that will have occurred in the time it takes for you to watch “Dog”.
Haydar's music challenges sexism and gender inequality in her own religious community, but also proves that the patriarchy is global: Muslim women’s struggles with sexism are the same as non-Muslim women’s, just with a different set of influencing factors, in a different context. Haydar invites the non-Muslim viewer into her world, introducing parallels of gender oppression that the viewer will understand and resonate with, yet at the same time reminding the viewer that her culture and religion is her own, and not for them to comment on.
Haydar thus reminds us that yes, Muslim women can be oppressed - but listen to Muslim women to know what oppresses them. Listen to Muslim women to learn how to support them in dismantling that oppression. And remember that the oppression Muslim women experience is not unique to that community, and is also experienced by non-Muslim women, just sometimes in a slightly different way.
Article by Mairi Lubelska