Accolade: A Girl Band in Saudi Arabia?
I often write about religious issues on this blog, and since one of the central issues in religion these days is Islamist terrorism, many blog entries have dealt with this big issue, but countervailing forces are also moving in the Muslim world.
The two posts prior to this one, for instance, have investigated 'Muslims' returning to their Christian 'roots' in Kosovo. An earlier post reported on a Christian television program in Arabic that is spawning debates among Muslims about early Muslim texts. Also in that same post -- which concerned the broader topic of change in the Arab world -- was a portrait of Muslims working in Dubai who are less interested in religion than in making money.
I suspect -- and not being an expert, I can only suspect -- that the history of Islam's spread cannot be readily extrapolated from its early religious texts. Islamists may like to ground their version of Islam in terrible certainties about rigid puritanical conformity, jihad against unbelievers, and humiliation of the conquered, but we see from the historical reality of Islam's spread that the full story is more complex, Islamization occurring rather slowly over centuries in a gradual process even resisted by Islamic political authorities themselves, who were fearful of losing their tax base if the higher-taxed Dhimmi population were to convert to Islam.
And in our modern times, powerful forces are gathering in even the Muslim world that can turn people against Islamism, particularly those who have to live with it firsthand, especially the young. While young Muslims living in Europe turn to Islamist radicalism, young people in the Muslim heartland, Saudi Arabia, are turning to rock music. A recent article in the International Herald Tribune by Robert F. Worth, "A Saudi girl group that dares to rock" (November 24, 2008), tells of a girl band in Jeddah (or Jidda) -- calling itself The Accolade -- whose three members are pushing at the boundaries of the acceptable for Muslims, especially for female Muslims:
Dina and Dareen wear their hair teased into thick manes and have pierced eyebrows. During an interview with the band at a Starbucks here, they wore black abayas -- the flowing gown that is standard attire for women -- but the gowns were open, showing their jeans and T-shirts, and their hair and faces were uncovered. Women are more apt to go uncovered in Jidda than in most other parts of the country, though it is still an uncommon sight.And the inspiration for their music is hardly Islamic:
The band gets together to practice every weekend at the sisters' house, where their younger brother sometimes fills in on drums. In early November, Dina, who studies art at King Abdulaziz University, began writing a song based on one of her favorite paintings, "The Accolade," by the English pre-Raphaelite painter Edmund Blair Leighton. The painting depicts a long-haired noblewoman knighting a young warrior with a sword.The reporter, Robert Worth, doesn't shy away from adding that parenthetical remark about Saudi repression -- and I'm glad for the honesty -- for he wants to remind readers that pushing too hard against the boundaries in Saudi Arabia can have harsh consequences even if "more than 60 percent of Saudi Arabia's population is under 25, . . . [with] many younger people . . . pressing for greater freedoms."
"I liked the painting because it shows a woman who is satisfied with a man," Dina said.
She had thought of writing a song based on the "Last Supper" by Leonardo da Vinci but decided that doing so would be taking controversy too far. (In Saudi Arabia, churches are not allowed, and Muslims who convert to Christianity can be executed.)
The reality is complex:
[T]his country's harsh code of public morals has slowly thawed, especially in Jidda, by far the kingdom's most cosmopolitan city. A decade ago the cane-wielding religious police terrorized women who were not dressed according to their standards. Young men with long hair were sometimes bundled off to police stations to have their heads shaved, or worse.The reporter attributes these changes to reform in the wake of 9/11:
Today, there is a growing rock scene with dozens of bands, some of them even selling tickets to their performances. Hip-hop is also popular. The religious police -- strictly speaking, the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice -- have largely retreated from the streets of Jidda, and they are somewhat less aggressive even in the kingdom's desert heartland.
The change has been especially noticeable since the terrorist attacks on the United States of Sept. 11, 2001, when the Saudis confronted the effects of extremism both outside and inside the kingdom.I'm not so sure that the Saudis have genuinely confronted extremism, which is well-entrenched in Sauid institutions, including the education system. Saudi textbooks for middle and high schools reportedly still admonish students to "hate" non-Muslims. Rather, I think that the push for change is coming from below, from a younger generation that -- like the younger generation in Iran -- wants more personal freedom.
I hope that they get it, too, and perhaps they will . . . even if incrementally.