Women, Hip-Hop and the Arab Spring: Sawtuha In The Context of Middle Eastern History

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By: Gus Navarro

A little over a month ago, Jakarta Records put out an album called Sawtuha. Translated from Arabic, Sawtuha means “Her Voice” and is the end result of a two-week studio session in which women from the center of the Arab World, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria, put their experiences from the Arab Spring into song. Sawtuha is a refreshingly eclectic mix that combines western influenced hip-hop beats with traditional Arab music. With some production from Oddisee and Olof Driejer of The Knife, Sawtuha stands as an example of how hip-hop music can be used alongside more regional sounds from anywhere in the world to create music that is new and beautiful. Sawtuha is worth the listen for this reason alone. However, there is a larger historical context that surrounds the political involvement of women in the Arab world and the artists that took part in the creation of the album that should be addressed. Because of this, Sawtuha is one of, if not the most important records that will be released this year.

It is wild to think that the beginning of the Arab Spring was over three years ago. Through the spring of 2011 and beyond the death of Osama Bin Laden, there was daily coverage of the events in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. The mobilization of Egyptian youth in Tahrir Square through digital social media such as Facebook and Twitter seemed to signify that buzz words such as change, progress and liberation were right around the corner. At this point, it is difficult to say whether or not the Arab Spring was a success as social, economic and political unrest continue to dominate the region.

On the one hand, the protests created a sense of optimism. Especially in the eyes of the west, the political demonstrations and resistance of protesters represented progress because it was a move toward western-influenced democracy. On the other hand, there is the horrific treatment of women that is well documented and that shows a not so optimistic side of the Arab Spring. To be clear, this is not an attempt to denounce the entirety of the Arab world as backward and sexist as was the popular narrative following September 11th. However, women are still not necessarily safe to take part in the protests as gang rapes have happened in public spaces such as Tahrir Square. This did not mean that women avoided the protests, were not engaged politically or that all Arab men are misogynists, but there are documented accounts of violence being carried out toward women during the protests, making these supposed spaces of liberation unsafe. This forces us to ask this of moments of political resistance:  How revolutionary can a mass movement be if it still perpetuates patriarchal oppression and sexism? Sawtuha is important because it gives voice to the issues faced by women that experienced the Arab Spring. It also reveals the political consciousness and revolutionary spirit of those that refused to back down despite patriarchal oppression. If you take a look into Middle Eastern history, you will find that Sawtuha is not the first time this has been done, nor will it be the last.

According to Emine Evered, Michigan State professor of Middle Eastern history, “In the 19th century you find women actively involved as part of modernizing the Middle East and creating a modern state for them to be independent.” Similar to Western countries, fighting for suffrage and having an active role in society was big on the political agenda of Middle Eastern women at the turn of the 20th century and beyond. As Evered explains, much of this was accomplished through the spoken and written word, one of the foundations of hip-hop music:

“A lot of women wrote. I think it was easier and less dangerous. The type of education they received was more conducive to writing poetry and prose. You find them everywhere, especially in Iran. You find them in Syria and in Turkey. They did get involved and if you’re looking for women as artists that use their voice through their pen, it is there and there were many of them.”

Moving toward present day Middle East, western nations such as Britain, France and then following WWII, the United States, were involved in placing themselves in the region to gain access to resources such as oil.

Factoring in the Cold War and the highly contested relationship between Palestine and Israel, there has been an immense amount of social, political and economic tension created over the past century. This is rarely examined from the perspective of the people. However, we should do this and Salah Hassan, a professor of English at Michigan State, makes this possible:

“Arabs aren’t stupid. They know that their governments are serving the interests of foreign corporations and foreign governments through the availability of resources such as oil. When the people criticize their government, they’re also indirectly criticizing the United States. So they don’t want to be perceived as Western. They also want to be perceived as anti-colonialist. When these hip-hop artists, whether they’re men or women, are criticizing the Tunisian or Egyptian government they are also by extension criticizing the foreign backers whether it be the French, Americans or British.”

This is yet another example of the versatility of hip-hop culture and how it can adapt to the needs of oppressed people around the world looking to speak about the conditions in which they live.

Protests in Tunisia via USA Today.

Look online and you will see Sawtuha on many different websites and blogs besides the Jakarta Records page. It is exciting to see an album of this importance getting the type of coverage it deserves. Sawtuha is incredibly refreshing given its fresh sound and the political significance that comes with it. Given the historical context of the Middle East to revolution, political agency, womanhood and relationship to the west, there should be an attempt to understand the broader context to this record. This makes it possible to better understand the women that recorded Sawtuha and celebrate their courage and willingness to put their experiences on record through such a powerful medium.

If you are interested in learning more about hip-hop influenced by Islam and/or the Middle East, Syrian-American MC Omar Offendum and Palestinian hip-hop group, Dam, would be good places to start.

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One thought on “Women, Hip-Hop and the Arab Spring: Sawtuha In The Context of Middle Eastern History

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