Women’s Voices Thomson Reuters Foundation about Deeyah

By Chris Crowstaff:  http://www.trust.org/trustlaw/blogs/womens-voices/deeyah-pop-star-to-activist-the-challenges-of-a-muslim-singer-songwriter/

Deeyah: From Pop Star to Activist

Over the last year I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to talk to many different women involved in women's right's work.

Each conversation has helped to open my eyes to the world beyond the stereotypical images and viewpoints often presented in mainstream media.

This is a very strong passion of mine, to find out what is really happening in the lives of women throughout the world. From women in Iran to women in Uganda, each time I am learning something new.


A few months ago I talked with former pop star Deeyah, about her life and her work as an activist.

Deeyah is a critically acclaimed singer and composer from Norway - first hitting the headlines as a child - and is now a prize winning human rights activist.

Deeyah was born in Norway to Muslim immigrant parents of Punjabi and Pashtun descent. Her success was a mixed blessing. The Norwegian media initially heralded Deeyah as an example of their new multi-cultural society. However, many in the Muslim community did not view her success in a positive light. Deeyah became the subject of threats, controversy and abuse.


"For the first few years, the abuse was directed at my dad - "How you could you allow her?" Music and entertainment were not considered a respectable profession. "We wouldn't even allow our sons to do this".

I felt I had to leave Norway. I wasn't known outside Norway. But where to go?

I had always remembered a short holiday Mum had taken me on, at age 12. I remembered that there were more people who looked like me. I had felt like I fitted in.

So I had a romantic notion of London. In London, there had been immigrants for a lot longer. Whereas I was really among the first Norwegian generation of immigrants.

In April 1996, when I was eighteen, I left Norway for London.

I was leaving behind a successful career and a family. I went to stay with a distant family friend in London, the only person I knew there.


I thought that London would have a 'centre', like the cities in Norway have. I imagined that was Oxford Street. So I went every day to sit in a cafe in Oxford Street, not knowing what to do.

I asked someone how I could find a flat to rent. They suggested Peckham, so I found somewhere there. I didn't know London. I didn't know that Peckham was a high crime area.

I felt really, really lonely, in a tough city with no job or school to meet friends.

I actually went and asked to work for no money, which I did, just to meet friends and have a social life.

Then mum came to visit and we went for a cup of coffee. She saw how I was still in shock and nervous.  She told me to get a grip.  She said, 'You flinch every time there's a brown man behind you'.  It was subconscious.  I had no idea I was doing that.

In 2005 I moved to the States. I felt that was truly the end of my career as a performer and singer. I wanted to bury it.

Metaphorically, I dug a hole in the ground and buried myself. I needed time to breathe. I felt that there was a curse which followed me.

Tired and burnt out

I thought, "You have to want success - and I don't want it. I am tired, burnt out. I hate music. Music is a source of pain and danger". But music was the only thing that had kept me sane.  So I was pissed off.  My one home had gone.  Music was the only thing I'd ever wanted to do.  I had no other options.

I did one last album called Ataraxis with Andy Summers (from the band The Police) and pianist Bob James in 2007. I did it just for my own peace of mind and not for public release, but a Norwegian record company insisted I allow them to give it a small, understated release. I could care less at the time so I gave them the album to release.


I had always tried to be of service. Not charity balls - not that type of thing.

One on one. Kids would write to me through the music years.  I'd been writing to some for years.  So I stayed in touch.  And helping at women's shelters.  That had been with me since a child.  It was a given that I would always do that.

It was the only other thing where I felt useful and helpful.  So I dedicated more and more of my time to activism.

In 2007, I set up the  Sisterhood for Young Muslim Women Network. An online network.

I started getting emails from young girls who wanted to go into music but weren't allowed to.

So I started to build a platform, to bring together young girls and women - to give advice and provide support and a sense of belonging and community that I wish I'd had.

It is a really nice thing.  I want to extend it beyond music to other creative expression - journalism, art etc.

It can be positive and wonderful.

Women are programmed to compromise.  Our expectations are decided by men in every society. The breaching of codes and lines of behaviour vary, but the enforcers are men - and some women who go along with it.

We compromise. If we break the boundaries we are called immoral, slut, prostitute. And threatened with sexual violence.

For men to say that this is because they are being righteous and pure is entirely the wrong language. To also say that they would get an obscene pleasure out of raping me! These thoughts don't even occur to me - to react with such violence.

Why do they think like that?

The only thing I can say is that it's made me much stronger.

But I think I can be of better service helping others than being at the forefront. Working from a different seat - one with a bit of padding.

I can't over-emphasise how hard it's been.

For some time, in the US, I looked like a bag lady. I didn't eat and sleep. Wouldn't bother dressing up, doing my hair or makeup at all, was just so sick of it all - having been in front of the camera since age seven.

I had neglected the emotional impact. It was wearing me down. I needed friends, people and just some peace.

But I can also say completely from my heart and gut that I have never considered myself a victim. I am very fortunate to have done what I've done and to do what I do.

Freedom to Create Award

Yes that was in 2008. It meant so much to me to receive the Freedom Award- and it felt like a great privilege. It happened at the right time!

I was nominated by the organisation, Freemuse.

I came across Freemuse, during my worst time - from 2004 to 2006. They were understanding and supportive and used to musicians who were getting negative reactions. It was very, very, very meaningful and desperately welcome.

I was very appreciative. And to be learning what other musicians were going through. People everywhere. For all different reasons.

I wanted to support Freemuse, in any way possible.

Listen to the Banned

In 2008, I asked if they'd considered doing an album. I wanted people to hear the music from these people. They said they loved the idea, but they had no resources or means.

I thought, "This I can help with. I can't do the academic organising, the reports, the research. But this is music, my language. I'll do this".

I was ready to reconnect.

This was a huge part in reintroducing me to my first love. I felt, "this is where I belong."

I didn't want to do the music any more. I was getting more satisfaction doing something for someone else.

The result is the CD - Listen to the Banned - which features artists who have suffered censorship and persecution.

Deeyah's latest project is to help raise awareness about Honor Killing. I asked her what motivated her to do this

Honour Killings represent the ultimate in control and oppression of women.

The whole idea is that, because these women have 'transgressed', their existence is perceived to be a stain on the reputation and standing of the men, so the disgrace must be 'rectified.'

Often the intention of perpetrator, or perpetrators, is to wipe out any memory - photos, clothes, attachments. Like they were never here.

On 7th April this year, I launched my new site, Memini, which is a virtual site of remembrance for victims of Honour Killings.

Honour Killing is not really a crime of passion.

It's pre-meditated. And it's not the crime of just one person. It's typically planned by a number of people, and not something that happens in the heat of a moment of passion or insanity between one person unleashing violence against another.

It's very much a symptom of a patriarchal society and it's used as a threat to other women.

In its essence it's about controlling women's behaviour. So long as she doesn't transgress before marriage, then she's pure and not tainted. Or fall in love with someone the family doesn't approve of.

It's about removing the woman's complete free choice in matters of marriage, career/education and even style of dress and friends.

Speaking Out

It's important that everyone speaks out.

That women stand in solidarity with women.

To stay on a safe platform would be a betrayal.

We need to work tirelessly, passionately, day in, day out and be available for what we are asked to do.

These victims are martyrs for love. They must not be wiped away, forgotten.

It's very difficult. But we need to be very, very honest. There must be no compromise on the reality. But humility and respect is needed - not sensationalism.

If you worry about offending the Muslim community by criticising honour killings, then you are complicit in perpetuating it. It's not Islamophobic to protest against honour killings.

I'd rather hurt feelings than have throats slit. Women need to stand in solidarity and break through stereotypes.

If you are respectful and sensitive, that will come across. But don't water down the truth.

Otherwise it appears that I, as a brown Muslim woman, am worth less because you won't hurt the men but brown women get hurt.

We need to show that we hear. That it does matter. That we will support them. That we want to build an inclusive, respectful society.

We don't want the very extreme religious leaders. But one who cares for our own community, based on love, respect, dignity and equality.

~ ~


Share this story Facebook,Twitter

1 Comment

  1. Women's Voices Thomson Reuters Foundation about Deeyah | Deeyah | Today Headlines says:

    [...] from: Women's Voices Thomson Reuters Foundation about Deeyah | Deeyah Share [...]