Sing out sisters

Muslim rap is developing a large following in the US and UK, yet female artists trying to break into

n the male-dominated world of hip-hop, female rappers have always had it tough. But, as Neelo fer Mir will testify, it's even tougher if you are a devout Muslim woman. Mir, a 27-year-old south Londoner, is a huge fan of artists such as Jill Scott and Alicia Keys, and has long held dreams of emulating their success as a rapper and spoken-word poet. As she established a following on the open-mike circuit, won an award for her work and attracted offers to collaborate with the likes of the Mercury Prize-winning DJ Talvin Singh, it seemed that her dream was coming true.

Unfortunately, her family and other Muslim friends and acquaintances don't share her vision. Mir has had to battle their suspicion that she is just using her love of rap and performance as a cover to behave in what they feel are un-Islamic ways: going to nightclubs or meeting men.

"Baring your soul on stage is hard," she says, "so when you're leaving your family home to go and perform, you want to feel support. Instead, you feel as if you're two inches tall. There is an old-school mentality, very much alive today, that women really don't belong in performing arts - they should remain in the domestic arena. And me being a strong-minded, very opinionated female from a Muslim family, it's difficult for me, because I'm seen as going against the grain. The criticism I get is hurtful and it's really difficult to be who I want to be, both as an individual and as an artist."

Mir is not alone in wanting to break into an industry that is seen by the more conservative elements in Muslim communities as highly undesirable for young women. She is one of more than a dozen artists whose work is featured on Sisterhood, an online mixtape of previously unreleased songs by up-and-coming female Muslim rappers, MCs and poets from the UK, US and Europe. Their music deals with a range of issues that each has been affected by on some level.

For example, 18-year-old Lady Dizzla, a rapper and dancer of Yemeni and Indian descent who is based in London, contributes a track called "I Won't Cry", about the physical and emotional scars of rape. "Open Soul Closed", by Angel MC Shay, a Sheffield-based rapper and writer who has been creating lyrics since the age of 12, was written at the time when the British government was debating the merits of going to war in Iraq. Lyrical Lailah, from Bradford, addresses the silence surrounding violence against women.

Judging by the success of the recent Dangerous Ideas tour of leading MCs and rappers, there is a big audience for Islamic hip-hop in the UK. Artists from all over the world played to sold-out venues during the tour, the aim of which was to showcase contemporary Islamic culture and encourage young British Muslims to express themselves through the arts. Both here and in the United States, Muslim rap artists are gaining popularity among young Muslims, who want a form of entertainment that reflects both their mainstream musical tastes and their religious beliefs. The internet has fuelled the market for Islamic hip-hop, building an international fan base for Muslim acts such as Native Deen, from the US, and the UK's Mecca2Medina.

Within this growing scene, however, female rappers are facing a tough time. "In many Muslim communities, there is virtually no support for young women who want to express themselves as creative artists," says Deeyah, the singer who founded the Sisterhood project from the hundreds of songs submitted to her through her MySpace page. "It's not one of the professions expected of a woman.

"Many are actively discouraged from expressing their thoughts and dreams through music. A big part of the problem is the cultural expec tations placed upon women. There is the association of music with sexuality and a westernised form of expression. The main aim I had in putting together the Sisterhood project was to let young Muslim girls know they are not alone in their struggles to get their music out there."

Deeyah's own experiences show just how bad it can get for a Muslim woman who insists on freedom of artistic expression. Born in Norway, she was dubbed "the Muslim Madonna" after the release of her first album, a mix of classical Pakistani music, jazz and folk. The record was a huge commercial success, and Deeyah went on to work with internationally renowned artists such as Jan Garbarek and Don Cherry.

However, her act alienated her from Norway's Muslim community. Following the release of her self-titled second album, the opposition grew louder. Norwegian Muslims claimed she was a bad role model after promotional videos for the album showed her with her back exposed and dressed in what was deemed to be sexually alluring western attire. Deeyah received verbal threats against herself and her family. And during one concert in 1995 she was attacked onstage.

The following year she came to London, hoping that things would be different, but the problems were soon to return. When the video for her single "Plan of My Own" was aired on an Asian music channel, featuring the singer dancing seductively with a man, the death threats and harassment started again. She is now based in the US and needs the constant protection of bodyguards. "People have said to me, 'If you wore more modest attire, toned your act down a little, you'd be OK.' Well, you know something? I've tried wearing traditional costumes onstage and I'm still the whore. I'm still the person who's wrong."

Muneera Rashida, of the leading London rap act Poetic Pilgrimage, agrees that wearing more conventional attire such as the hijab when performing often does little to appease critics. "I personally want to wear the hijab," she says, "but that's got nothing to do with what you think of me onstage or how you think I should look. That's between me and my Lord and it should be the same with Deeyah. But when we perform as Poetic Pilgrimage we face people who say: 'You're a Muslim, you're wearing the hijab and you're mixing your religion with this type of music. How dare you?' Whichever direction we turn in, there will be someone with something to say.

"Those opinions are not necessarily the majority," she stresses; "they're just the more vocal opinions, often expressed by the people who own the mosques and the publishing companies. They feel this gives them the right to shout louder than anybody else."

Dr Daud Abdullah of the Muslim Council of Great Britain argues that the traditionalists have a point. "If you look at the case of Janet Jackson, who caused such a furore a few years ago when she exposed her nipple during her performance at that year's Superbowl, it shows that even among non-Muslims, there are clearly understood ideas of decency," he says. "Many Muslim women do perform to audiences of other women at weddings, for example, because the sexes are strictly segregated. Those performers enjoy a good career. It's when women perform for wider, mixed audiences that differences of opinion emerge.

"These objections are based on the Islamic view that women should not draw unnecessary attention to themselves, because of the impact this will have on a male audience. The moral framework of Islam has already been laid down and women should not push beyond its boundaries for the sake of commercial gain."

Ishmael Yasin, a rapper with Mecca2Medina, believes that opposition to artists such as Neelo fer Mir and Deeyah is slowly losing ground. "Many of the Islamic arts programmes which have sprung up in the past few years need government funding, which clearly stipulates that you can't discriminate on the grounds of race or gender. So, organisations putting on events now include women performers where they would never have thought of doing so before. That has opened up the doors for acts like Pearls of Islam and Poetic Pilgrimage.

"People like myself and others I work with understand that you need to encourage this. In Asian and Arabian cultures, from which many Muslims in this country originate, women are not really prominent in the life of society. Often a minority of men from that cultural background share a chauvinistic mentality and try to use Islam to mask it."

"Sisterhood" is available at www.myspace.com/deeyahpresents