Seated around a lunch table at the Higher Institute of Music in Damascus, Maya Yousef and twins Nadia and Hala Muhamna – members of an all-girl’s classical music ensemble – offer vociferous protest. “[These music videos are] not about being openminded,” says Nadia, whose trendy skirt and top would easily blend in on any American campus. “It’s only about the body, about appearance…. [These videos] really affect the way men think about women. [They] focus men’s attention on the body.” (Farah)1
The above quote shows the increased focus on an emerging generation of stars whose image lies in her appearance and sexuality. Twentieth century has ensured that the women artists rising to highest prominence at the beginning of the twenty-first century are beautiful and young, as well as ready and willing to expose their bodies over mass media channels. Artists like Nancy Ajram, Elissa, Ruby, and Haifa Wehbe2 have exploded onto the Arab music scene in recent years, gaining multitudes of adoring fans. These singers have caught the public with their sexually provocative video clips.
The question of the symbol of women who are being objectified as commodities of men’s desire through the new trend of pop culture in the Arab world has stirred numerous debates. Images of scantily clothed women revealing flesh is a stirring view in a world where women where hid behind veils. The Arab women have travelled from behind the veil of a highly conservative society to face the camera in bold, revealing attires. The birth of a new generation pop singers in the Arab world who defies the erstwhile constructs of the Arab society. Debate regarding these extremely popular stars ranges from the music they play degrades classical Arabic music to the effect such objectification has on the society. With the increasing popularity that the emerging pop divas are gaining in the Europe and Americas are showing a clear deviation from the Arabic classical music genre. The popularity of the Arab pop divas singers like Nancy Ajram, Haifa Wehbe, Ellissas, and Suzanne Tamin was more related to their bold exposure of flesh in public rather than their singing abilities (Farah), which are held as icons of liberating women in Arab world. But this defies the very basic potent of multicultural feminism as it fails to identify the mutual embeddedness between feminism and multiculturalism (Shohat). This is so because the stereotyping of Arab women transgresses from veil clad image to the “belly dancer” image. These upbeat pop stars are keeping up with the “exotic” image of the oriental. In this paper, we try to analyze how the Arab pop world objectifies the women’s body.
The report discusses the different areas of the in historical background and position of women in the world of Arabic music and the kind of music that the Arab world embraced. We will then discuss the new generation Arab pop icons Nancy Ajram, Elissa, Haifa Wehbe, and Suzanne Tamin to shed light on the image of women they have created and what social effects they have on the Arab world. Then we will discuss how these female pop divas’ objectification of body transcends from the ideas of multicultural feminism. So to sum up we will try answering a few questions. First, how the present pop culture deviates from the Arabic classical musical genre? Second how different are the present symbols the female singers portray in comparison to iconic national singers like Umm Kulthum and Fairuz and how their songs had political message. We will then try to analyze if these singers have a social message or are just body depictions? And third, the paper will try to evaluate the deviation of Arab female pop stars from multicultural feminism.
Music has a deep rooted tradition in the Arab culture. According to Schuyler “The science of music has a long and distinguished history in Arab scholarship, dating back to Al-Kindi’s interpretation of Greek theory and Al-Farabi’s experimentation with intervals and his systematization of meter.” (2) Arabic singers both men and women alike have gained popularity as long as their music expounded creativity, individuality, and innovation (Racy). Contemporary music in the Arab world is said to bear a core element that shows tradition with many peripheral activities encompassing it: “Egyptians and neighboring Arabs generally refer to the music of the central domain as fann, “art” or “craft,” muslqd, “music,” and tarab, “enchantment” or “entertainment.”” (Racy 391) Present day Arabic music has evolved from religious songs of the pre-world war era to the present intermingling of Westerns classical with the folk song of the orient. The singers who are considered as real singers in the region are Umm Kulthum and ‘Abd al-Wahhab uphold this traditional singing with a modern tinge.
In the early nineteenth century, before pub appearances of female musical performances were established, there existed an age old station existed for individual expert freewomen singers and poets known as ‘awālim (sing. ‘ālima) (Keddie)3. These female singers performed in the private quarters of women. Their learning and talent made them objects of admiration, as evidenced by the name they were given, which can be translated as ‘the learned woman’ in Arabic. But with economic hardships during Muhammed Ali’s regime, these ‘awālim started performing for money infront of male audience unveiled. These singers fell in reputation from the social status. Edward Said, perhaps reflecting late 20th-century memories of these women, described a ‘ālima as a “courtesan who was extremely literate as well as lithe and profligate with her bodily charms” (Said 230). But with the decline of the patrons they were confined to the “lowest common denominator of performance: lower-class weddings and saints’ days festivals” (Kent and Franken).
Since then even though female singers performing in public gained multitude of accolade, a woman performer in the Arab world is judged by her artistic merit, intelligence and the techniques she employs to humanize herself before an audience. Her performances were also judged by the economic and political orientations of the singer’s viewers and also influenced their response to her persona. The impression the audience has about the singers produced the singer’s reputation in society. As Racy points out the environment which a woman singer performs and her skill all greatly influence the way the public receives her. Even legendary Arabic singers like Umm Kulthum who successfully reached a level of respectability unprecedented for women singers before her: “[Musicians] talked predominantly about her musical style, her vocal skills, her habits and preferences in rehearsals and performances, and her treatment of others.” (Danielson 3) Still her impending marriage in the royal family was forbidden due to her social position. Even a legend like Umm Kulthum could not completely transcend her class background and status as a paid performer.
As the western music influence in Arabic music became unmistakable, the criteria for judging the musical talent of the artists became different. According to Racy “tradition, creativity, innovation, and individuality are essential musical criteria for judging artists and repertoires. At present, the ability to blend basic aspects of local tradition with modern innovations seems to grant considerable leverage to artists of the central domain, especially the singers and the composers” (Racy 404). This was to make sure that the emerging music in Arab was not blatant imitations of the western music. Though present popular music is not blatant copies of western music, they can be considered as more refined imitations of the latter. More over the imitation is more in terms of performances of their songs. Artists have started imitating the western pp artists in their performances, especially female artists who are indulging in more flesh show through their performances than actually showcasing their talent (Keddie).
With the advent of the popular music in Arab, popularity of women singers who sport bold western outfits and are interested to reveal more of their skin than to showcase their musical talent have become prevalent. the strength of these popular categories is revealed in the tendency of the entertainment industry and the public to typecast certain performers by assigning them professional roles which reinforce their association with a particular cultural character’, or by ignoring or berating performers who play roles ‘out of character’. Some performers embrace such associations and reinforce them in order to elicit a strong public reaction. This technique often aids in increasing the performer’s visibility and, by proxy, advances her career. At the same time, typecasting limits the performer’s range of expression and restricts her artistic opportunities. At times (for instance when public opinion turns against her character or the character ceases to be interesting or provocative), it results in attempts to erase her from the collective consciousness. In the latter instances, typecasting can spell the end of a career in the public eye. For these reasons, many performers dread typecasting both with regards to the roles they are afforded in a professional setting and with regards to the cultural ‘character’ the public assigns them.
To be stereotyped as a ‘singer’ in a society which is embedded din conservative ideals and hold the word negatively is dangerous. So it is important for individual female singers to showcase themselves as socially acceptable through characteristics of another, positive category. Ultimately, “[a]rtistic conventions, understood through performance and discourse, are established relationships” to begin with so each performer must begin by functioning “within the system”, at least to some extent. (Danielson 17) Again some singers are portrayed in a false light in order to popularize their performance as well gain societal acceptance which has been seen in the performances of Haifa4 and Nancy. In some cases the singers are often truely possess the ‘good’ characteristics she emphasizes and openly challanges the personality that society imposes on her. One such singer was Umm Kulthum: “Her public self was clearly a construction but it was neither artificial nor false; Umm Kulthum simply learned to present herself in the way she wanted to be thought of and remembered.” (Danielson 192)
In the Arab popular culture distinct lines are drown between a female performers’ public and private life. Modesty and religious devotion are chief among her more restrictive attributes. In the entertainment industry, these standards are somewhat (or even quite) relaxed, but they still exist as has been in the case of Suzanne Tamin who rose to stardom in the Middle-east with a few surgeries:
Tamim was married twice during her short life. Her second marriage — to her manager — broke apart to great media fanfare, and audiences began showing more interest in scandal than in her music… And many see the story’s moral lesson as difficult to ignore. Indeed, the singer’s life history has already passed into the annals of modern Arab myth. A young woman gets a big break, flouts convention, puts herself in the spotlight and dies as a result. (Putz)
So a female performer in the Arab popular culture had to manipulate her public image in order to become socially accepted along with popularity. But the new breed of female singers seem to defy the concept of public image and scandal as they boldly flaunt their secret lives, their raunchy appearance and their wild videos.
Women direct their power to intimidate men through socially acceptable channels by way of the bint al-balad idiom. As with any environment in which little recourse exists for a woman who has been cheated or physically violated, pre-emption via intimidating behaviour can be instrumental in securing for the woman a space in which to act and perform. Due to social stigmas, many women of the iddle to upper classes who perform in nightclubs are forced to choose between continuing to perform or to maintaining a marriage, so that those who choose to perform are in fact “women without men”.65 It therefore becomes necessary for these independent performers to create an image of women who are perfectly capable of defending themselves. For many, the male aspects of the bint al-balad idiom suffice. Some, however, go a step further to ‘masculinize’ themselves beyond the framework of a feminine cultural icon – in other words, to adopt a ‘manly’ identity, at least in the workplace.
The question that arises is if the transgression of women into the man’s shoes is considered moral or immoral by societal construct. Any woman who wishes to advance her public career must, at least to a certain extent, adopt some masculine mannerisms in order to understand her professional world and make herself understood. Due to the fluidity of gender definition, a female identity often subsumes masculine mannerisms, as in the case of the bint al-balad construction.
The New Generation of Female Singers
The era of women who flaunt their attire and private life to assume popularity has emerged in the Arab media. The media in the Arab world are burning with debates about women singers who have shed the stereotypical roles and behaviour of women in public. These women have traversed the path of public sphere which has been predominantly been dominated by men all over the world. These new generations of female singers are establishing their norms in terms of women’s clothes, music, sexual freedom, and above all gender freedom.
Women breaking barriers of society and gaining public acclaim tries imbibe masculine traits or masculinise their persona in public in order to attain public sanction. The idea is to identify with masculinity. In order to do these women tries to be a man’s woman in order to attain social respectability. This has been seen in case of Suzanne Tamin who had series of love liaisons till she was actually murdered (Putz)5. Other women try to masculinise their behaviour or image so that their persona gives out an image of unavailability to the others to ward off the vulnerability that attends her female body and her profession as a pop diva. Further it also help in portraying an image that helps to maintain safeguard her honour, since a woman interested in sexual relationships with men would naturally accent her femininity, not her masculinity. “The expression ‘I am a man’ finally means ‘I am a respectable working woman’.” (Nieuwkerk 33) But the Arab pop divas presently are not portraying any of the conventional images that had been the observed earlier. They are employing a more radical and bold step to maintain their feminine aspect and flaunt their beauty and body in public in order to gain public attention and acceptance. For instance, Nancy Ajram’s provocative video in an all men bar or a woman appearing on stage in an ankle length evening gown (Hong; Keddie).
Further many Arabic singers took the strategy of popularizing their political inclinations in order to gain popularity. Umm Kulthum and Fairuz were prominent singers who raised concern regarding the concern of nationality in the Arab world. The concern that they demonstrated was related to “In some societies, imitations of European dances became a means of upward mobility, much as the speaking of European languages and the wearing of European dress could become markers of prestige and status.” (Reed 510) Political message in Fairuz’s recent performance was apparent:
“…she came here to deliver a veiled message. The musical comedy she chose, ”Sah el Nom” is about a cruel and corrupt dictator, with Fayrouz in the role of a woman who speaks truth to power and reforms him. Whatever the truth, Fayrouz’s performance underscored the difficulty of separating art from politics in Syria, a country where even soap operas hint obliquely at forbidden social critique.” (Worth)
Many singers and musicians also have trouble situating themselves within a nationalist category that will resonate with the larger Arab public. This is almost like the musical division that the Arab Jews face in Israel and the Turkish and Moroccon Israelites (Saada-Ophir) In fact; nationalists are often the first to condemn ‘improper’ entertainers who they consider to be corrupting the values that ‘bind’ the nation together. Though he pop divas like Hiafa Wehbe, have expressed their political inclinations, but unlike Fairuz or Umm Kulthum, not through their songs. For instance Haifa Wehbe has expressed her support for Hezbollah:
Haifa Wehbe who expressed that the person who causes her heart to skip a beat is the leader of the “resistance” [in reference to Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah]. (Al-Zaydi)
The raven-haired former beauty queen [Haifa Wehbe] has emerged as an unlikely supporter of Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, 46, the militant Shia group’s portly firebrand leader. (Hirst)
Haifa Wehebe showed her political inclinations through her song after the assassination of Lebanon’s Rafiq Al-Hariri stating that “The Story Is Not Over Yet,” but the song’s political implications start and end with the title itself (Kazimi).
The nationalism of pop divas like Haifa is embedded in the interests of Lebanon may not be accepted by the rest of the Arab world. The success that many genres of songs achieved and diffuse the borderland (Saada-Ophir) has not been achieved though the songs of the pop divas. Thus their appeal of feminist freedom in the Arab world is constricted to their own views and not the larger sentiment of the region.
Despite Haifa’s open acknowledgement and support for Hezbollah (Bayoumi) she failed to gain respect in the public eye. The reason was embedded in her prioritizing her individual freedom of herself over and above the national political sentiments. She strives to bring forth freedom of women by liberating her from the conventional norms, attires, and image, but at the cost of the political sentiment of the people who detested this cause as infidelity. In fact, nationalists are often the first to condemn ‘improper’ entertainers who they consider to be corrupting the values that ‘bind’ the nation together. The Arab audience does not welcome a woman’s desires to transgress nationalist and gender norms. Haifa’s open embrace of the westerns culture and bold attires and public appearances has transgressed her status as a nationalist singer. As Judith Tucker has argued, despite women’s participation in nationalist movements, “‘women’s issues’ have, by and large, been subordinated to the ‘larger’ national or revolutionary task”. (Tucker) Female individualists like Haifa found that her people’s desire for collective freedom from imperialism stood in the way of her own striving for personal independence. Their ideas were constricted in gaining sexual freedom for women and help in removing the ‘veil’ but to what avail? Their stances though are extremely popular has been described as tricks to attract public attention as their song do not bear such messages rather their appearances on stage or in videos show this through their scanty attire.
Arab Pop Culture and Objectification
The Arab popular culture has undergone dramatic changes with westernization of the media business. Every other element that has public demand and can sell has been shown through the modern cultural mediums. Popular culture has commoditized religion in airing music videos of pop religious songs which have become very popular more during Ramadan and throughout the year (Kubala). The same music channel that broadcast videos of singers in videos which show “…notorious and controversial style of racy music videos, labelled “burnu klibhat” (porno clips) by critics, that the genre of music videos as a whole has become associated with” (Kubala 61) these channels are said to have been the carriers of vice in form of videos which show females in provocative attires making implicit or explicit sexual gestures:
“While the banal lyrics, hackneyed tunes, and apolitical nature of these videos also draw criticism, what audiences and critics object to most are the revealing clothes and overtly seductive dance moves of the female models and singers. These sexualized representations of female entertainers, as well as the considerable outcry against them, echo the centuries-old debate in the Islamic tradition over the moral character of artists and the potentially dangerous affect of music and entertainment upon the subjectivity of the audience. ” (Kubala, p. 61).
This demonstrates that the Arab media is eager to commercialize anything from Religion to female sexuality. They have tried to infuse unveiled female adopting new roles in the videos which preach religion. These though seen by masses are not accepted.
The pop singers with their new western style revealing clothes and their flirtatious mannerisms on screen try to establish a new trend in the Arab world of feminine dame who have come out of their veils and shown their beauty to the world. The pop culture here tries to become what George ‘Beau” Brummell and Billy Joel did to construct the clothing fashion of men since the romantic period (George). As has been stated that they shaped the way men chose to dress:
Brummell’s appearance in history coincided with a major shift in the social patterning of costume in Europe and elsewhere (George, p. 11).
The female pop artists are popularized in order to intensify the “great visual divide” which had created men’s fashion in Europe and now will shape the fashion of women in the Arab world. This is primarily objectifying the attire of the singers in order to make it appealing enough to be accepted by the society and drawn to commoditize their appearance. Thus the pop culture is trying to give out a message of modernism and an overt message to change “embodies cultural tensions around [Arab feminism], fashion, performance, gender, and sexuality” (George 3). Hence the cultural depiction of women in a socially taboo-like situation where the pop singer Haifa is seen in sexually provocative attires and expressions are not acceptable to the societal norms:
While the banal lyrics, hackneyed tunes, and apolitical nature of these videos also draw criticism, what audiences and critics object to most are the revealing clothes and overtly seductive dance moves of the female models and singers. These sexualized representations of female entertainers, as well as the considerable outcry against them, echo the centuries-old debate in the Islamic tradition over the moral character of artists and the potentially dangerous affect of music and entertainment upon the subjectivity of the audience (Kubala, p. 61).
But still the pop culture that has caught the young generation of the region have been influenced by the bold western attires that the pop divas wear and have taken to wear them as a sign of protest:
This phenomenon took on further gravity when the cameras captured the massive anti-Syrian demonstrations in Beirut’s streets. Political activism suddenly looked hip. The spirit of that demonstration was captured in a photo of a young Lebanese woman who had painted her national flag across her cleavage. Jordan’s talented cartoonist Imad Hajjaj seized on this and had his principal character, Abu Mahjoub, watch the youngsters of Lebanon defy the old order, which got him excited about political activism only to turn away in horror from a gathering of dour faced Muslim Brotherhood oppositionists huddled around discussing politics in his hometown of Amman. (Kazimi)
Here is a clear indication of commoditisation and objectification of both Islamic religion and female body through media and all through the present pop culture of Arabia. The affect is seen on the youth of the region:
The populist consumption of pop culture with icons such as Heifa, Nancy Ajram, Mai Hariri, and many, many others, is so ubiquitous, that if young Iraqi Shias were to discover that Heifa is a Shia coreligionist then I’d bet that Sistani’s posters would go down to make way for her pin-ups. Teenage fads may seem a given fact of life in the West, but in the Middle East it is a potent new force doing away with many taboos in a new age of technological dissemination and commercialism. (Kazimi)
Thus the conservative Arab society and their women view the female in the popular culture as socially unacceptable but acknowledge their popularity. Exposure of female body has been seen in the contemporary arts in Arab, but they are not criticized as the pop divas. Emily Jacir (2003) a modern painter says that the female body in the Arab world has always been “comodified”:
Most people kept interpreting [that] it was about the repression of Middle Eastern women when it wasn’t. It was about my discomfort with being in a society Whose women were completely commodified. Being back and forth between these two spaces — one of commodification and the other of banning the image of the female body — which [sic] was equally repressing and equally discomforting. (Jacir)
This commoditization of the women’s body has been seen in case of the pop divas too. The Arab pop world has made pop music to come to a place where the core of the musical attributes has changed dramatically. The pan-Arabic music channels which air religious music videos which has developed in the aesthetical and pious pop culture also air songs of women in sexual in revealing clothes and expressing their implicit desires through their songs.
The emphasis that was earlier laid on musical excellence, innovation and creativity has taken the form of physical attractiveness of the singer and the earlier core attributes have become the subsidiaries. The Arabic musical tradition was rich with its songs and the lyrics are not found i the pop divas’ songs. Their musical talent too is limited:
What’s missing, some say, is a really genuine Arab voice, such as lyrics that explore taboo topics and more storytelling, in place of haphazard shots of exposed arms and legs. But other critics say the videos have definitely affected public thinking. After all, they’re everywhere, from Damascus cafes and restaurants to hotel lounges. The cumulative effect, they charge, is that women have been turned into commodities. It’s a sentiment some religious leaders agree with. (Farah)
But with all the hue and cry of the bold pop videos and their even bolder and hugely criticised divas in the Arab pop world are not achieving any freedom for the “veiled” women of the region. Their videos are selling their bodies and no music or culture:
“Elissa’s low-cut, form-fitting Christian Dior dress in her chart-topping video “Aayshalak” (“I live for you”) doesn’t reflect any kind of shift in attitude toward ideas about freedom or women’s equality, but merely an eye for Western fashion… We take the tattoos, the long hair [from America], that’s it… Indeed, for the University of Damascus student, sitting on a campus bench in an ankle-length trenchcoat and white headscarf, attempting to establish a link between clothing and freedom is a superficial endeavour.” (Farah)
The objectification of women’s body to preach female liberty and freedom in a society that respects the “veil” is apparent. The lack of provocative images in the Middle East has helped in the process of objectification of the woman’s body. Earlier the women behind the “veil” was objectified as a commodity to be oppressed and now the popular culture creeping into the conservatism of the Arab society (Buller) is making woman’s body an element to be objectified through mass media.
The Arab women in the pop videos show that they are the women who have the courage to blatantly defy the erstwhile shackles of the conservatism of Islamic society. But they end up as pin-up girls in the mind of the people who lose respect for them for their public exposure of their skin and their private lives. But the popular opinion is against these female singers who allegedly have very little talent but have gained popularity by exposing their body in their performances. This has serious implications for multicultural feminism, which believes that these pop divas are confused about their roots. They are going through serious cultural identity disorder wherein they fail to understand where they are from – the West or the orient. The performances of these pop stars are criticised to attract attention of men towards women’s body unlike other iconic singers like Umm Khultum or Fairuz whose singing assumed national political interest. Singers like Nancy and Haifa are more eager to beautify their body surgically in order to attain public attention, but fail to realise that these very same audience rejected them before those surgeries. They fail to realise that their ‘bodies’ are in demand rather their musical talent. The songs of Nancy or Haifa have no lyrical or poetical value neither do their voices show the classic Arabic melody. Elissa has been criticised to have been “using sex to sell her songs” (Farah). These pop stars are more famous for their sizzling videos rather than for their singing. Others, like Suzanne Tamin, made their public life common knowledge to gain popularity (Putz) The element of femme fatal in the Arab world is not uncommon, especially in a land of “One Thousand and One Nights”6 but the blatant showcase in television was the first time in the Arab world and had that is why has gained such critical and acclaimed popularity. Thus, the process of objectification of women’s body in the name of popularising individual freedom has shrunken many cultural beliefs and values of the Arab society. But it should not be overlooked the great importance of these women in the feminine history of the Arab world. These women who are being subjected to public criticism for being too bold and “commercial” are the rebels of the Arab society which through generations have repressed women, but their contribution to liberate the Arab women (even if only though their attire) must be acknowledged.
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- Bayoumi, Yara. “Interview: Hezbollah chief wins unlikely fan in sexy.” 2006. Reuters. 2008.
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- Shohat, Ella. Talking Visions: multicultural femonosm in transnational age. Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2001.
- Tucker, Judith E. “Women in the Middle East and North Africa: The 19th and 20th Centuries.” Moghissi, Haideh. Women and Islam: Critical Concepts in Sociology – Vol. I: Images and Realities. New York: Routledge, 2005. 80-110.
- Worth, Robert F. “A Lebanese Diva, Performing in Syria, Creates Drama in More Ways Than One.” The New York Times, 2008.
- “These music videos” refer to the numerous videos aired through the satellite sitcom in the Arab world of the new genre of “pop stars” like Elissa, Nacy Ajram, or Haifa Wehbe.
- Haifa featured in the American celebrity rating website Askmen.com as top 99 women on 2009 based on their sexual desirability. The website states in showing why she is famous as, “Haifa Wehbe has been a sensation in her native Lebanon and in the Middle East for the better part of 10 years — first as a top fashion model, then later as a singer. In addition to her two albums, Howa el Zaman and Badi Aish, Haifa Wehbe has attracted attention for a number of scandals and publicity stunts.”
- These female singers were courtesans or slaves and were not Muslims.
- “Heifa’s… album is called “I Want to Live,” and she plugs her new collection as music with a message for individual freedom.” (Kazimi)
- “She was famous for her voice, but also for her parade of lovers. She was popular, but truly loved by only a few. Suzanne Tamim’s life, which came to a violent end in July, had the elements of a fairy tale, but its end belonged in a penny dreadful” (Putz)
- “One Thousand and One Nights,” oral stories that date back centuries; feature plenty of sirens starring in sexual exploits.