Norient: "Learning from Feminism"

Norient: "Learning from Feminism"

Nov 27, 2018

As the #MeToo movement galvanizes the globe. the focus on feminism also reveals other discriminations. In music, sexism often works in tandem with exotosim, as experience by the Egyptian musicians Dina El Wedidi and Yousa El Hawary. To resist both aspects of the industry, they offer a language of inclusion as well as resurrect an old emancipatory claim: the personal is political. 

Youssra El Hawary live on her US tour (Photo © by Luis Fermo, 2018)

Exotism, like sexism, is everywhere, and it is as stealthy. It creeps in like cigarette smoke through an open window. It’s in the video of Beyonce and Chris Martin’s «Hymn For The Weekend», it’s all over mass media. Sometimes exotism and sexism collide, as evidenced in a lecture I attended last year. The European presenter concluded his lecture on African music by saying, «Being from Europe, it is our responsibility to save African music from Africa before it disappears». When I confronted him, he wagged his finger at me, and yelled like a father scolding his young daughter with all the patriarchal vigor that he could muster. At other times, sexism and exoticism subtly intertwine in the presumptuous journalism that asks, «What is it like being an Egyptian female musician or artist?» This coalescence is often punctuated when Arab artists perform abroad. But there are certain musicians who continue to suggest new pathways set against the «language of difference, otherness, and exclusion», as described by Martin Stokes.

In October 2018, I joined Egyptian musicians Dina El Wedidi, Youssra El Hawary, and the respective bands on the Center Stage tour. They made their rise in Egypt during the onset of the Egyptian revolution in 2011. Youssra arrived with her viral, politically satirical song, «El Soor» and in the time since has released her debut album No’oum Nasyeen. While both emerged as part of alternative music scene that has roots in the late 1990s in Cairo, and was later galvanized by the revolution, Dina El Wedidi surfaces far above the underground. With 1.5 million followers on Facebook, Dina’s fan base has largely been acquired through her many musical roles – singer, songwriter, composer, producer, instrumentalist – with indie folk as heard in Tedawar W’Tergaa, and the Nile Project.

Intimacy as Strategy

Dina and Youssra mediate their gender and geography in similar ways with a language that provides intimate attempts of necessary inclusion. But their use of the personal also affects the audience’s understanding of the political. Following one of Youssra’s shows in New Mexico, I met an older feminist talking about #MeToo, and how she is proud to see the way in which each generation builds upon the previous in the fight for gender equality. It its through discussions that I’m reminded of the «the personal is political», iconic for the second wave of feminism. Popularized by Carol Hanisch after publishing her 1960s essay of the same name, the phrase draws connections between personal experience and political structures. This idea emerges again when watching Youssra perform.

Dina El Wedidi live on her US tour (Photo © by Azema Photography, 2018)

To understand every song in its context, Youssra draws from tradition of Arabic singing and from her own rich theater background with brave vulnerable and personalized storytelling. Even if her audience does not understand the lyrics, this personalization creates an intimate sonic atmosphere. Youssra finds it «interesting that many people in America are shocked to see an Arab woman leading a band of five guys.» «Others want to know about the Arab Spring» of which she maintains the usage of «revolution», and while her songs are not usually overtly political, it is how she presents the politics of the personal stories found within her lyrics that we can get a sense of the environment in which Youssra exists, and how to relate to it.

Language of Inclusion

Dina too, uses the personal to mediate the political, and the gender assumptions imposed on her culture. One can hear it in her songs; they are self reflective, poetic, and painfully relatable as heard in her recent solo album, Slumber. But we also hear this in how she responds to the media. «I always get this question, you’re a woman, how are you able to do this work in Egypt with all the taboos? Or how do you suffer as a woman, so at first, I used to find it offensive, but later I found out that they have no idea what’s happening in Egypt, in this generation, about the music, or the music scene, or the politics.» Instead, she finds that the more personal the music is, the broader these stories will reach. She doesn’t deny that there are glaring gender inequalities and violence in Egypt, but she does not see them exclusively bound by geography.

There is an urgent need to talk about gender within the global era of #MeToo – but the lazily constructed questions regarding gender are all too often loaded with stereotyped assumptions about Arab women, and they propagate a language of difference and exclusion. Conversely, by articulating a language of inclusion, Youssra and Dina offer an antidote to patriarchy and colonialism. The «personal is political» helps to liberate us from the boundaries of the exotic or sexism, and instead offers other points of connection.