Finding My Own Voice

Deeyah Khan, March 2014


My journey started in Norway. 

My father grew up with his father and stepmother in Pakistan, before moving to Oslo in the 60s. My grandfather was well-known and respected as one of the founders of the Norwegian Muslim community, revered as a deeply religious and traditional man and uninterested in any world beyond his own traditions. His unwavering beliefs pushed my father to an opposite position: radical, liberal, open-minded; interested in philosophy, art, poetry and politics.

He was determined to raise his children within these expansive, deeply humanist principles.

“My mother was a quieter kind of rebel.”

For my grandfather, the only book worth reading was the Qur’an, but my father loved all kinds of books and music: cabinets bulged with vinyl LPs, bookshelves were crammed with works as diverse as histories of colonialism and the ancient civilizations of the Indus Valley, mythology, theatre and innumerable collections of Urdu poetry. From cramped student accommodation to a semi-detached house, this precious resource of human knowledge traveled with the family, growing ever larger. And this was not the only resource my father collected: our house was a gathering place for intellectuals and dissidents, often sharing their criticisms of General Zia a-Haq and his Islamization project for Pakistan in the 1980s.

For women this meant that the veil and the four walls of their homes were considered vital to the sanctity of the family and society at large. Conversations and cigarette smoke drifted in the air over countless cups of strong tea; my brother and I played on the carpet while serious matters of world politics, art and culture were debated above our heads.

The strength of the Pakistani feminists I encountered in these gatherings inspired me: they seemed to have an exuberance and enthusiasm for life that was hard to find amongst other women within the communities.

My mother was a quieter kind of rebel. An Afghan Pashtun, she left home at the age of 17 after disagreements with her parents about an arranged marriage. In 1976, while visiting her sister who was working in Pakistan, she met my father. Eventually, she came back to Norway with him, where she worked in a kindergarten and other schools, as well as other professions.

While as a child desperate to fit in with my blonde classmates, I dreamed of a mother who could cook pancakes, our kitchen had a permanent air of savory frying onions and fragrant garam masala: homey aromas that I would miss painfully later in life. My mother was often busy making sandwiches for the immigrant children she taught, who otherwise might have gone hungry. She was an ocean of love, not just for us, but for everyone who needed it: she helped in women’s shelters, often with women who had been rejected by their own families. As a teacher, and as an interpreter, she helped people deal with their problems, unsparingly generous with her time and attention.

A young Deeyah with Pakistani feminist artists and activis Ms Salima Hashima and Nazish Ara Ullah

It was through her I first learned of women who were forced into marriages, who were beaten, and who kept their silence in the name of family ‘honour.’

To be human is to be frail, but sometimes falling apart is the first step to rebuilding yourself.”

My family was different; our parents own struggles for freedom had given us a measure of liberty, but still, in extended family and community gatherings, there was a palpable sense of us and them, West and East: two worlds in collision, and I was crushed between them.

In those days, there were few ethnic minorities in Norway. I was called Paki and Black Bitch in the streets of Oslo, and in school the friendships I found were with other outcasts. Although a quiet student, if one of my friends were threatened, I defended them with all my strength. One of the closest and most precious friendships was, and remains, and will always be, the one I share with my brother Adil, who is now a well-known actor. Even today, we share our frustrations and hopes in the same way as we used to, back in that small room in Oslo.

An initiation

It was in music I found my real identity, even though it was not at first, my own choice.

My father, despite his liberal politics, demanded excellence from his children. When I was just seven years old, he overheard me singing to myself outside our Oslo home. The next day, he took me by the hand, collected all of my Barbie dolls and other toys in a rubbish bag and threw them out, marking the end of childhood and the beginning of my apprenticeship to music. After this unceremonious farewell, they were replaced with a small electronic keyboard and music lessons, which I was expected to combine with educational success.

Deeyah and her brother at the 2013 Emmy Awards in Los Angeles

My father required excellence: whether my throat was sore, or I was tired, all my hours outside school were passed in studying music; and I was expected to excel in my studies no matter how demanding the regime of voice training and music lessons. Socializing was wasted time; infractions were punished severely.

One day, I skipped practice to play football with my brother, and when caught, gave a silly excuse. I spent the rest of the summer paying my dues, practicing to the point that I developed nodules on my vocal chords. I realized that none of my friends lived under such fierce discipline, but I respected it. Although my father was strict, and I lived in fear of not meeting his expectations, in music I found a sense of worlds opening, of a potential for expression: of finding a place for myself in a confusing world where I didn’t fit in anywhere.

He decided I needed a music teacher, but most did not want a female student, which would not look good on their roster. Many considered Western-born children to be spoiled and undisciplined. Eventually, he persuaded Ustad Bade Fateh Ali Khan, one of the masters of Khyal music, to accept me after an exhausting battery of tests in which I finally impressed him through talent and discipline. As a girl I had to work twice as hard as any male to prove myself worthy of his patronage. Every weekday we started at 5am, sometimes working upon a single note for an hour or more. This is a contemplative practice whose purity began to connect me to the spiritual side of my art.

Learning more than the techniques of music, my teacher taught lessons about life through the stories he recounted between my lessons and the time I left for school. My perseverance finally impressed him.

In a voice which mingled resentment and pride, he said ‘You are my student. You are the one.’ It was like winning a small war.

I was performing from the age of seven, with my first recording contract at the age of 13. Music and art became home to me, the only constant element of a life I would spend on the move and in exile. My art was my true home, and also a passport to undiscovered territories, granting me citizenship within the global community of artists in the world of creativity, a place with no boundaries.

Deeyah with music mentors in Norway 1992

I kept singing

Growing fame had propelled me into the uncomfortable position of being a poster child for multiculturalism and diversity, an irony for a person who still felt torn between two worlds.

In one respect, I felt that I was bridging divides; presenting a positive image of immigrants in Norway; and breaking down the stark divisions of us and them through music, shaking off the cruel slurs of my childhood. But to maintain this fiction I had to hide a different and unexpected source of hostility: that which came from my parents’ community.

Each kindness and each betrayal, each surprise, I learned.”

This became more intense the more successful I became: a hardcore of fundamentalists identified women singing and working as agents against the doctrine of the four walls. First fundamentalists targeted my father, demanding that he prevent me from singing and performing publicly. When this failed, they moved on to my grandfather, a man with a reputation for piety, who they felt would be more sympathetic to their aims. But when it became clear that no male authority could stop me from singing, their aggression came squarely at me.

On one occasion, I was threatened with a knife, and on another, a failed abduction attempt. My discomfort around performance was doubled by the sense of threat and surveillance, most pointedly at an anti-violence concert in Oslo. It was my home-town and many of my friends were in the audience, so I was determined to put on a good show. A few songs into the set I could see fights breaking out at the back of the crowd. I moved towards the front of the stage, and some corrosive chemical was sprayed in my face and eyes. Blinded, I desperately tried to signal to my bandmates that I couldn’t see, turning my back to the audience, but they didn’t pick up on my signals. My eyes refused to open: tears ran down my neck. The pain was unbearable. I kept singing.

Deeyah speaks at Swedish Parliament

I tried not to speak about these problems at first: I didn’t want to cause repercussions or undermine the positive messages of communities bridging their differences that my career had been used to exemplify. The confusion was devastating. I was in a topsy-turvy world where the achievements I was most proud of were considered shameful, yet I was enduring discrimination and fear from members of my ancestral community in order to protect them. I feared increasing discrimination against this very community if their behavior was known by the wider Norwegian world. It became clear that I was at risk. My parents could not protect me; even my fierce and determined father seemed broken.

After months of attacks and threats and harassment, with my mother’s tearful encouragement, I bought a one-way ticket to London, just after my 17th birthday.

A few days before I left while queuing at the post office, a girl around my own age in a headscarf, asked shyly if I was Deeyah. I braced myself for criticism, but she leaned close and whispered to me: ‘Thank you. I wanted to thank you. I want you to know that I know it is really difficult for you. Because you are the first. You have to stamp down the snow, and then we will come after you and follow you. I’m very sorry that you’re the first one, because it is your head that will always be the one on the chopping block. But it is going to help us. So thank you.’ I started to cry from gratitude, for this small gesture of solidarity that I hadn’t realized I craved so deeply.

New horizons, old threats

Moving initially felt like a liberation and a step into adulthood: a fresh start, and a chance to blend in, to cast off the pressures of my life in Norway, and lose myself and my history in London’s chaotic and vibrant streets and lanes.

“The pain was unbearable. I kept singing.”

I was alone with neither responsibilities nor worries. For ten days I stayed with a distant family friend, although for fear of abusing their hospitality, I would spend every day trudging the streets, or sitting in a café in Oxford Street pondering my next steps. Naively I paid a huge upfront sum for a flat in Camberwell, which was rife with crime, and where the tenancy was illegal. Eviction notices piled up almost from the day I moved in. But I had money from my earnings as a recording artist in Norway. And I learned. I got to know London intimately. I learned to find better places. I learned about trusting and not trusting.

Each kindness and each betrayal, each surprise, I learned.

Slowly I established myself on the music scene. Signed by the chairman of Warner Brothers, we developed a team of talented people and I returned to writing music. Met with enthusiasm Steven Fargnoli, who had previously worked with Prince and Sinead O’Connor, became my manager. I had come to rely on him and was sad and at sea when in 2001, he died of cancer. In 2004-5, we were producing commercial pop music which sold well.

Deeyah with Scotland Yard Dectective Caroline Goode

Motivated as much by a desire for acceptance as the need to pay my rent, the music was increasingly colored by my own frustration and anger at those who wanted to silence me. Commercial success revealed that what I had thought of as a fresh page was actually soiled with the attitudes I had left Norway to escape: the harassment of female artists by fundamentalists.

Growing fame was more like infamy: I was jostled on London’s busy streets by angry men, hissing at me to ‘watch my back.’ Floods of anonymous phone-calls, vitriolic emails, and verbal threats followed. Some of them described how I would be killed. I became worn out from living with constant threats, and I became angry. They were trying to steal my voice again. My mother on a visit saw me flinch when some South Asian men entered the café, because I was constantly anticipating harassment. She was heartbroken to see that her solution, of sending me to the UK was not enough, that male rage followed me wherever I went.

So I kept running.

Back in 1999, Steven had introduced me to friends in the music business in the United States in the city of Atlanta. And it was there I retreated when I could not deal with the pressure one moment longer.

Hearing the call

In Atlanta, mentally and emotionally exhausted, I took two years to recover.

These were years spent blankly pointing my eyes at the TV, welded to a shabby sofa, or lifelessly watching the wind lift the leaves of the trees through my window. Everything felt enormous: roads which went on for miles through an urban sprawl that connected to nowhere. I felt small, and lost, and alone. Even finding work didn’t ease my malaise much: I felt disorientated and isolated, going through life mechanically.

Deeyah at age six

To be human is to be frail, but sometimes falling apart is the first step to rebuilding yourself. An artist is shaped and reshaped by her or his life and experiences, and I was not just recovering: I was finding my own purpose and my own voice.

“An artist is shaped and reshaped by her or his life and experiences, and I was not just recovering: I was finding my own purpose and my own voice.”

What eventually shook my torpor were the emails I received from fans: voices not raised in anger and rage that sought my silence, but softer voices who sought my help. Fans, mostly young South Asians who were having personal difficulties within their families, reached out to me for support. Like my mother I helped as much as I could. Young men facing violence, even death because of their sexuality; young women forced into marriage who had been raped, beaten and abused. Sometimes I slept with my phone on my pillow, worried for their safety. Through each of these lives ran the common call to family honor, community values and tradition as excuses for violence, oppression and silence.

And I had had quite enough of silence. A new sense of purpose reawakened me to the intensity of life.

Emerging from a tunnel of anger and self-doubt, I found inside an activist as well as an artist. Linking with women’s rights activists recalled the passion and commitment of the Pakistani feminists gathered at my father’s house, so many years ago. The experiences of the attempts to suppress my music led me to take an active role in support of the Freemuse organization, who stand against the censorship of music, not just of those silenced by fundamentalists, but also those subjected to state persecution for their politics. Our first co-production was Listen To The Banned, a compilation CD of musicians who had persisted with their art through imprisonment, censorship and injury.

This led to finally finding it in me to speak up. My anger and disappointment with Western societies for their failure to address the problems of young people and women in minority communities, raised a voice that had been buried in grief.

Western confusion about multi-cultural respect led to seeking the approval of so-called community leaders, people who openly advocated the suppression of women, even the death of women, rather than hearing the voices that needed to be heard, the voices I could hear, the voices of my friends, my fans, my peers: voices like mine.

Deeyah accepting her Emmy Award

Some of them were young women who wished for the same kind of liberation through creative expression that I had had, but who faced opposition not just from their communities but also from their own families. Out of this the Sisterhood project was born. Sisterhood is an initiative for young people to provide a platform for female Muslim musicians. Sadly, even this gentle project attracted criticism. One Muslim organization in the UK issued a statement saying that music was not an ‘acceptable pastime’ for girls. Enraged, I was also proud of challenging this attitude in such a positive way, and proud of the contributors and their talent.

“Through all of these stories and experiences, the connecting thread has been about personal liberty, whether to sing, to love, to study or to work according to the calls of one’s own heart, to realize our potential in the world, to raise our voices without fear.”

A love story

In a quest to know more about ‘honor’, which seemed to sit at the center of so many terrible experiences, I decided to make a documentary. I had no story, but I did have obsession, dedication – and contacts. Initially we envisioned an educational or training movie to be screened by women’s groups, and possibly entered in some niche film festivals. Then after initial interviews and research, I found the story of Banaz Mahmod.

Banaz was a 20 year old woman who was forced into marriage by her family. Viciously abused sexually and physically, she fled this marriage and eventually developed a new relationship of her own choosing, for which under her disobedience, she was raped, tortured and murdered by her father, uncle, cousins and a group of family friends.

I met Caroline Goode, New Scotland Yard’s Detective Chief Inspector in charge of the case, to ask her if she would take part in the film. She was a consummate policewoman with a guarded professional demeanor, but I could see that this case had touched her on a deeper level.

Banaz: A Love Story film banner

The years of effort and care, and her team’s sustained and innovative police work yielded prosecutions of remarkable accomplishment. She had lived and breathed Banaz’s story. Towards the end of our meeting, she dropped her guard: ‘I love these women,’ she said. Instead of being a horror story, this film became an unconventional love story, built on Caroline’s human compassion for another woman, a compassion like that of my mother’s, a compassion that transcended boundaries. I felt Banaz had been adopted and finally received some of the love and care her own family had denied her.

We did not wish to hide the horror of the story: there has been too much hidden already. But Caroline gave the story a heart inside the horror. Banaz herself gave it a soul: she was a strong and determined woman who happened to be born in a community which demanded that women follow a script written by their fathers and brothers, uncles and wider community members, in which they are expected to die if they do not perform their roles to the satisfaction of others.

In some ways, although my life so far has not been easy, I know I am privileged. I have not only survived challenges, I have developed the power and strength to confront them, and have managed to tread down the snow a little more. Winning an Emmy felt like a validation of my efforts and sacrifices and those of my parents, friends and colleagues as well, but most meaningful is that Banaz’s voice can finally be heard.

“. . . I could hear, the voices of my friends, my fans, my peers: voices like mine.”

My father’s determination, my mother’s compassion and my brother’s support have all been parts of what I have been able to do, and they will remain with me whatever I do. Many other people, white, brown, black from every sort of background have contributed to the films, websites, concerts and projects that have been born from the effort to find a voice and raise it. The effort is to further the emancipation of women and men from fear and hatred, to find compassion and love, to shed light on hidden stories, to amplify silenced voices, to explore the dualities between East and West, masculine and feminine, nature and culture, politics and spirituality, us and them.

Through all of these stories and experiences, the connecting thread has been about personal liberty, whether to sing, to love, to study or to work according to the calls of one’s own heart, to realize our potential in the world, to raise our voices without fear. This is my vocation and my art, whatever form it may take, music, activism or filmmaking, and whatever follows.

My voice will be raised for human rights for as long as I have breath.

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