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Culture

Hijab Hip Hop

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IN A TIGHT SPOT: Pragaash's vocalistguitarist Noma Nazir (left), drummer Farah Deeba (not in picture) and guitarist Aneeka Khalid had to bow to public pressure

The fatwa against Pragaash was sad but scarcely shocking, says Prof Mark LeVine, who has seen too many examples of musical repression by Islamic clerics in the Arab world.

Mark LeVine is sitting more than 12, 000 kilometres away from Srinagar in his office at the University of California, Irvine, but is up to date with whatever has been said to and about Pragaash, the all-girls rock band from Srinagar that shot to 'infamy' after videos of them playing at a competition on December 10 went viral.

The girls, vocalist-guitarist Noma Nazir (16), drummer Farah Deeba and guitarist Aneeka Khalid (both 15), defied convention to form the rock band Pragaash (darkness to light) and were, sadly, subjected to abuse, both offline and online. After the grand mufti of Jammu & Kashmir, Bashiruddin Ahmad, issued a fatwa against the girls for indulging in the 'un-Islamic act' of singing, the band decided to call it quits.

LeVine, a professor of professor of Middle Eastern history, culture and Islamic Studies, has spent the last decade head-banging his way from Morocco to Pakistan and almost everywhere in between. He is the author of the book, Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam (2008). What transpired in Srinagar doesn't surprise him one bit.

"Clamping down on these girls was the only way for religious forces to justify their power, " he says. "The discourse of the cleric refers to an invasion of Western culture, in the same way Hamas talks about rap being a cultural invasion against Palestine, " says LeVine, who is fluent in Arabic, Hebrew, Turkish, and Persian, as well as Italian, French, German and English. Hamas has cracked down on rap and hip-hop groups, not because of their lyrics, but because the genres were seen as Western and therefore corrupting. Similarly, the grand mufti wasn't worried about the content of Pragaash's songs. The mere fact that a group of girls had dared to form a rock band was enough to ban them.

"Rock 'n' roll challenges authority and in every culture, it's seen as the devil's work, even in the United States, " says LeVine. "It is seen as anti-authority and is inherently libidinal and sexual. It is bound to scare a lot of people. So when women do rock 'n' roll, that's a horrific idea for religious forces. Putting a stop to that is their idea of 'defending' the Muslim personality. They couldn't care less if they were singing Britney Spears. Just singing was bad enough. It's about imposing social and political power and showing that they are fighting the forces of secularism and modernisation. "

Religious extremists often refer to music as haraam (bad), something that the grand mufti alluded to as well. The overwhelming majority of Islamic scholars are against music, which is ironic considering that Islam is so intrinsically linked with Sufi music. "The hadith (saying ascribed validly or invalidly to the Prophet) that says that music should not be allowed is weak and unreliable, " says LeVine. "From a religious point of view, Islam does not prohibit music unless it leads to un-Islamic things. That argument, in theology, has been used to say that women are not allowed to play music, and in turn control the youth. "

What happened in Srinagar, has already happened in the Arab world. In Heavy Metal Islam, which is also to be released as a documentary, LeVine explores the influence of Western music on the Middle East and discovers that hardcore metal was "an ideal platform for alienated young people in the region to criticise governments and societies that seemed to resemble the landscapes depicted in the lyrics of the bands they were listening to".

He recounts meeting a girl in Egypt, a country where girl metal bands exist and perform regularly. The girl was doing very well for herself and there were no restrictions placed on her. "But her brother didn't approve of her being a musician, " LeVine says.
But there are positive signs as well. In countries like Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia and Lebanon, women performers are being accepted more and more. In Iraq, the female-fronted black metal band Janaza lives and performs under a veil of secrecy. In Saudi Arabia, women can only play to a female audience. "Most girls wear jeans on stage, some might wear hijab but then my experience is limited to Egypt and Morocco in terms of girl bands for metal. Lyrics are usually about life, social pressures and the need to struggle against authoritarian systems. The girls are not shy performers, they can be pretty intense but I haven't seen stage diving or utterly insane headbanging. "

A few years ago, the Norwegian Muslim singer and human rights activist, Deeyah, set up a project for Muslim-women musicians in a bid to change attitudes towards women artistes. From the hundreds of songs that were submitted by women rappers and singers via MySpace. com, she organised an online mixtape of previously unreleased songs written by promising women Muslim rappers, singers and poets from the UK, Europe and US, and named the project 'Sisterhood'.
While travelling through the Arab world, LeVine, who has played guitar with celebrities like Mick Jagger, Chuck D, Michael Franti, and Doctor John, played with a band in Cairo, jammed with another in Beirut and attended concerts in Casablanca and Dubai. He was there when the Arab Spring surged forward with important contributions from the hip-hop and metal scenes.

"Most of the kids from the metal scene in Egypt were key figures in the Egypt uprising, " he says.

Young rappers like El Gênêral from Tunisia and El Deeb from Egypt became the voices of the youth. El Gênêral's song Rais Lebled (Head of State) talked about corruption, unemployment and poverty, and singled out then-president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali directly - Mr President . . . people have become like animals. . . We are living like dogs. It became a viral hit and is referred to as the anthem of the Jasmine Revolution.

El Deeb wrote a song called Stand Up Egyptian and it became a rallying cry for the crowds in Tahrir Square.

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