Exclusive Interview with Deeyah – AKA, The Muslim Madonna

Exclusive  Interview with Deeyah - AKA, The Muslim Madonna

Deeyah was originally born in Norway and was signed to Warner Music in the 90’s. Since leaving her label she has spoken up for Muslim women who have been suppressed by Muslim men across the globe. In some cases this has led to threats against Deeyah herself. She now lives out of a suit case traveling across the globe, recording and bringing to light issues which media may not cover normally in-order to bring about change.


– Since your last release in the UK where have you been and what have you been up to?

I have been spending most of my time in the US where I have been writing new material for two separate solo albums. I’ve been doing a lot of work with Freemuse (Freedom of Musical Expression) and ICAHK (International Campaign Against Honour Killings) over the past few months and will continue doing more work with them. I am also in the process of putting together a mixtape that will feature Muslim and Asian female artists from Europe and the US. The purpose of this mixtape is to promote the female talent out there.

– Recently you’ve helped highlight a story of the public stoning of a young 17 year old girl in Northern Iraq, you even managed to get this horrific event into the international media, why did you do this?

I first read about the story of Dua Khalil in a Norwegian newspaper and was shocked by her grotesque public execution and by her perceived “crime” which was simply falling in love with a sunni Muslim boy (Dua belonged to the Yezadi religion). I continued doing more research about this story and learned even more details from the wonderful people at ICAHK (International Campaign Against Honour Killings). I was shown the mobile phone footage of Dua’s stoning which made my stomach turn. I was disgusted that by the minute by minute coverage of the Anna Nicole Smith paternity case in the American media yet the death of this 17 year year old girl had received little or no international media attention. I got in contact with journalists and reporters who have interviewed me in the past and who I’ve kept in touch with on and off over the past few years. I begged them to please do anything they could to give this story any level of attention. After a couple of weeks I got a thank you email from The Volkskrant (a national newspapers) in The Netherlands saying they had now carried Dua’s story on their front cover and another note from CNN who ran a piece as well.

– You are the most popular female muslim artist on Myspace with over 100 000 registered friends. When we see most music pages on Myspace we tend to see mostly just info relating to the artist their tours, events releases and etc but reading your page and blogs there seems to be more posts from you about women’s rights and human rights issues than promotional material about yourself, your music–you’ve posted a lot of stories about women’s rights abuses like honour killings, why is this?

I think internet sites like Myspace are a great way of reaching people directly and raising awareness about issues that are close to my heart. I started posting blogs and bulletins on Myspace covering stories that I believe need more attention and that wouldn’t normally get very much attention. What I like about sites like Myspace is the direct connection with people out there and the fact that there is no censorship or barriers in the distribution of information.

I actively want to promote the great work that the International Campaign Against Honour Killings does. There are more than 5000 women who lose their lives in the name of honour and honour based violence. Honour based crimes, despite what a lot of people think, is a practice not rooted in religion or any one particular country or people. It is based on tribal traditions and rituals that pre-date Islam. This is something that unfortunately is still going on and even more awareness needs to be raised about this issue. Not only are women in 3rd world countries suffering from this horrific practice but young women in the West are affected by this. The ugliness of this issue can not be excused or avoided, work has to be done to highlight these stories and changes made so this does not continue happening in this day and age.

– Do you think you are treated differently in the music industry because you are a Muslim or a woman?

There are not many Muslim women in the mainstream music industry and that’s with good reason. From my own experiences of more than 10 years in Norway and the UK the problems I have been faced with is very different from what a white or black female artist deals with. The music industry is a tough business to be in as it is the additional cultural expectations of what is and is not acceptable behavior and choices for a woman makes this an even harder career to be in.

– In your controversial music vide What Will It Be, were you surprised that the video was banned by certain Asian TV channels?

I was surprised at the extent of complaints that the TV channels received. I was disappointed that the channel was sent violent threats for airing the video. I am sorry that the channel had to endure this sort of treatment from some of their viewers. I know that the channel staff and executives actually support me and the video I did and for this I am grateful.

– Why have you decided to compile an album of artists who have been censored for their music and views?

I became aware of the essential work that Freemuse does after doing an interview with them a year or so ago. Freemuse stands for “FREEdom of MUSical Expression” and is an independent international organization advocating freedom of expression for musicians and composers worldwide. I will be executive producing a compilation album with Freemuse that will highlight the music and stories of various artists from around the world. The reason I wanted to work on this project is a believe strongly in the artists rights to freedom of expression and I was touched by the powerful stories of some of the artists that will be featured on this album. These artists have been banned and censored for their social and political views and some have been chastised simply for being musicians and women in societies where individuals and especially women are not allowed to perform publicly.

– Do you ever feel that you are in any way shape or form in danger by extremists because of your outspoken views on the role of women in modern day society?

Although I still receive threatening and violent messages on Myspace and my official website, I’ve been spending time away in the US so I feel more comfortable knowing that I will more than likely not be in an area or situation that could prompt a physical altercation compared to me being in the UK. In the past when visiting the UK I have had people with me who watch over me and can be helpful if something was to happen. They are with me more as a deterrent.

– Do you feel discrimination against Muslims has increased over the past few years?

Yes I think so. I feel the post 9/11 world has changed the place of Muslims in Western society. Muslims are scrutinized and viewed in a far more negative light than ever before. I think this is a sad development and something that has collectively made our reality far more unpleasant which has made a lot of Muslims feel as if we are constantly under attack and question. I think a lot of our youth is treated unfairly and are discriminated against on some level. There seems to be a lot of fear mongering going on that directly affects many Muslim youths and this is truly disheartening. I think this does not just affect the UK but is a problem across Europe. In my humble opinion the only way to progress from this climate of fear and intolerance on all sides is to create more understanding between Muslims and Europeans. Muslims have to become more vocal and reclaim our culture and religion from the hands of criminal extremists who want nothing more than to continue preying on this instability and the discontent of young Muslim men. We as Muslims have to learn how to be honest about some of the issues that face us within our community before pointing fingers to the outside. We can not blame everyone else for our problems we have to stand accountable for some of the ills within. With regards to Westerners/Europeans I think tolerance is key I don’t mean to say that they should become complaisant and feel muzzled by political correctness. I think discrimination against Muslims plays an important role in distancing the two communities from each other rather than building understanding and tolerance. Honesty is what’s needed first and foremost in dealing with the issues we’re all faced with right now.

– Do you see a place for music in Islam?

To me music is another form of devotion to God (Allah). The purity and truth in music helps me get closer to my creator. I do not believe that music is impure or not allowed in Islam.

– Allegations have been made over the past couple of years that you are in fact Hindu and not from a Muslim family and that the death threats you have received are not true because you have not reported them to the police. Why do you think that certain organizations have claimed that your experiences are not true?

I reported the threats I have received to the Met police about 2 years ago and have since kept in regular contact with the officer in charge of my case. Initially I did not want to go to the police because I didn’t feel they would be able to help in anyway until something had actually happened. Based on my experience in Norway of people telling me this was my culture, my community and my problem that I needed to deal with it myself. This is what I initially tried to do in the UK. I thought I would have to deal with this myself and if anything, that an official statement from a Muslim organization could prove to be helpful more so than the police. This was not the case. I went to the police and I am very happy I did so. The Met Police have been extremely understanding, supportive and helpful in providing me with advice. I was struck by the depth of understanding they have for the cultural intricacies and mentality which is something I very much appreciate.

It is no secret that my birth name is Deepika which is traditionally a Hindu name. I have been known in Norway since I was 7 years old and there are a host of Norwegian newspaper articles online that date back more than 10 years that refer to my Muslim heritage. I find it ludicrous that certain organizations have attempted to strip me of my identity and are perpetuating a complete fabrication to further their own agenda, rather than even bothering to do some research on my background before accusing me of lying about my own religious and cultural belonging. This is nothing short of slander. I would like to tell you a quote that the police officer I work with said to me regarding these allegations — it’s a quote from the Qur’an, from the book of Jonah, “After the truth, what is there but error”

We hear that Salman Rushdie is a fan of yours, how do you feel about that?

I received a very nice email from him about a year ago. I was extremely humbled by his words of support and solidarity. Subsequently we’ve met several times and keep in contact. He is a very intelligent and charismatic person who has suffered a great deal of pain. One thing I have learned from him is you can not be scared away from living life and standing up for what you believe in.

You’ve lived all over the globe. How has a diverse experience helped you become who you are?

I have always believed that traveling and living in more places than where you grew up is quite healthy. Being exposed to a variety of people, lifestyles and cultures is of benefit to everyone. I think it’s helped my outlook on life and people in general. It’s made me more able to adapt to different environments and develop a better understanding of people.

You have songs with lyrics in Pashto, Punjabi and Urdu. Can you speak these languages fluently? Does language shape your outlook of the world?

I can speak Urdu and Punjabi fluently but don’t know Pashto too well although it’s my mother’s language. In fact not understanding and speaking Pashto is one of my biggest regrets. For me personally I think knowing more languages most definitely helps shape even change one’s outlook on life. To me it helps give a better understanding and appreciation of the depth of emotion in art, culture and literature. Urdu poetry in particular is something I greatly enjoy.

Who have been your musical influences? Who coached your talent?

My musical influences are quite diverse from growing up listening to Abida Parveen, Reshma, Farida Khanum, Iqbal Bano, Mehdi Hassan, Usad Fateh Ali Khan, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan to Marilyn Manson, Alice In Chains, Faith No More, The Who, U2 to Michael Jackson, Madonna and Prince.

I started singing when I was 7 and became the student of Ustad Fateh Ali Khan from Pakistan of the Patiala Gharana and Ustad Sultan Khan. I feel very honored and privileged to have received the training of these two incredible artists and learning under their strict discipline and guidance for many years.

How has your professional career helped you shape your views on faith and gender issues?

My professional career has not shaped my faith or views on other faiths. My faith is a part of who I am because of my upbringing and my parents.

The music industry can be quite a tough and unpleasant business at times and I would say my faith and background has probably helped me stay grounded and away from certain elements of the industry. Because my chosen profession is music I quickly learned the hard way that being from the background that I am this would be an uphill struggle for me. This industry is very tough as it is, but my identity being what it is and being a woman has made life even harder in my case.

From the very beginning of my career in Norway I faced a lot of prejudice from my own community name calling and a lot of negative talk which quickly turned into harassment, intimidation and violent threats. This has probably been one of the toughest things that I have had to deal with throughout my career in Norway and eventually in England as well. Other than feeling great disappointment with the reactions from my community it’s just been heartbreaking for me to learn and come to terms with the level of hatred directed towards me from my own for so many years now. Growing up in Norway and pretty much always being either the only brown kid at school or one of very few I experienced discrimination and racism, so I was always prepared for intolerance and prejudice from white racists I just never expected that I would be faced with way stronger hate from my own. All through this my faith has gotten stronger and it’s made me strong enough today after all these years to actually address these issues openly.

While you support the freedom of choice for women, how do you react to people who accuse you of promoting the objectification of women?

I do not believe I promote the objectification of women. The only thing I promote through my music, visuals or in what I speak about is the right of choice for women and for individuals irrespective of gender, culture or race. I do not believe that femininity is disgusting or impure.

We all have our own levels of comfort and limits on what we feel is and isn’t appropriate and this will obviously vary from one person to the next.

To some a woman wearing jeans and a tank top can be offensive and objectifying, to others it can be a woman in a suit jacket and skirt or a bathing suit– while to someone else a woman wearing a burka can be the biggest symbol of desire, temptation or even objectification. The bottom line is that this is all subjective and a matter of perspective. The level of respect a person is worthy of is not, in my eyes, determined by what they wear. The view that a woman is somehow not capable of being both feminine and intelligent I find quite patronizing.

The social taboos and hypocrisy attached to sexuality in our culture is prevalent and the source of a lot of pain and problems.

In our society as long as perceived illicit sexual behavior is kept discreet and not perceived to challenge the social and patriarchal family values, anything goes as long as you are a man. We are always up in arms about women who step outside of what is considered “acceptable” behavior yet through our silence and double standards we legitimize abuse, violence, honor crimes, gay bashing and continue to promote the segregation and seclusion of women. We as women bear the sole blame and consequences and the weight of the perceived dignity of the entire community. We are taught from a young age to live for others and to sacrifice our dreams and hopes just on the basis of “what will THEY say?”. Our choices are directed by THEM as in the community and if anyone steps out of line with that everyone’s claws come out in an attempt to discredit and shut the person who doesn’t say or do what is considered acceptable or appropriate obedient female behavior.

Once again, I have never once in my life said that I expect people to dress like me or follow my choices, but rather that women need to have the right to decide for themselves how they want to live their life — that women should have the right to make their own choices whatever they may be from the choice of career, life partner to something as small as dress. Most societies objectify women in one way or another whether it be covering and hiding us or pressurizing women to feel like they have to look a certain way in order to be desirable. Yet we put no pressure of responsibility and expectation of control on men and their behavior.

I fully support the complete and true choice of a woman if it is free from any pressure, intimidation or imposed expectations by others. This means I have nothing but respect for women who choose to wear the hijab, the burka, a miniskirt or bikini or whether she decides to become a doctor or a dancer. Whether she marries someone from a village in Pakistan or someone in Italy. I will always stand up for the right to free choice and expression.

Do you think it is important to highlight your religious identity as an artist?

I have always been very proud and comfortable with my identity, but I don’t believe it’s relevant to announce my personal beliefs to everyone. My faith is mine only for me and not really the concern of others. My Allah knows how I live my life and what is in my heart and that is the most important thing to me, not what others would like to think that they know. However, once I became known in Norway, because there had not been any artists before me with my cultural and religious background, the media highlighted this fact every chance they got.

I started singing and appearing in the Norwegian media from the age of 7 and my background has been common knowledge since then. Personally I didn’t really mind this. In fact I felt very proud. For once in my life I started reading articles in the national newspapers in Norway where the journalists were writing about a Muslim, born and raised in Norway, and only mentioning my musical accomplishments. This was instead of the usual newspaper headlines about Muslims only being violence related. So, since pretty much the beginning of my career in Norway, the public was made aware by the media of my background. It was never really up to me to make it known or to keep it to myself. It’s been out there and well known from the very start.

Being a musician and a public personality, how do you hope to highlight the issues you feel strongly about?

I feel music can give me the voice and ability to bring attention to issues close to my heart. Art asks questions even if they are unpopular or uncomfortable questions and to me music is one of the most truthful and universal forms of expression.

I am writing and recording 2 separate solo album project at the moment which musically highlights my influences and my musical background. Lyrically this is the first time I am writing and recording a body of material that touches on issues I believe strongly in while also commenting on the state of the world we’re living in today the post 9/11 climate of fear, paranoia, hate, war and politics. Some of the songs on the new album tackle racism and anti-Muslim feeling that is building around the world which is constantly being fueled by Islamic extremists who give our religion a bad name. I do think it is important to deal with the problems within our community in order to more effectively address the pressures and prejudices from outside.

Other than highlighting my views on war, human rights, racism and social issues through my music I am doing work with a few Muslim and Asian women’s shelters and organizations in bringing attention to the situation of our women. Since I started publicly speaking about some of my experiences I have received countless emails from young Muslim men and women who like me were born and raised in The West who find themselves being misrepresented, misunderstood and discriminated against not only by Westerners but also by other Muslims. A lot of these kids echoed my own feelings growing up in a Western country talking about the feeling of not belonging while feeling alone in our experiences. As a result of this I have decided to start an organization that will be launched soon. The name is BTC which stands for Be The Change (the name is based on the Mahatma Gandhi saying “You must be the change you wish to see in the world”).

I initially intended for this organization to be for young Muslims and young people of immigrant background living in Europe and the US. However I have decided to try and create a platform where like minded people can come together to air their concerns and issues regardless of race or religious background. One of the main purposes of this organization is to provide an open, judgement free and supportive environment for progressive people. Essentially BTC is a pro-active movement focusing predominantly on campaigning and promoting human rights and women’s rights issues, freedom of expression and freedom from discrimination. We often forget that each and every one of us has the power to affect change and make a difference in our personal lives as well as in society at large–and this is what BTC is all about.

Does Islam/Muslims need reform? What changes do you propose?

I feel we need to re-claim not only our voice but our identity as Muslims, which has been hijacked by people who claim to be Muslims yet who preach hatred and violence. I am not a scholar nor am I arrogant enough to think that I have the answers. What I do believe is we need to address a fundamental problem and confusion in the minds of many fellow Muslims. We desperately need to learn the distinction between local customs and cultural traditions that are perpetuated by many in the name of our religion. Despicable practices like crimes committed in the name of honor, female genital mutilation and violence against women being committed in the name of religion has to be rooted out and no excuses made for it. People who use Islam to sanction their own authority and use religion as the justification to instill fear in people in order to exercise control and stop anyone from questioning them is disgraceful. I think it is vital to encourage free thinking and the right to question self proclaimed religious leaders. Just because someone is in a position of authority does not make them exempt from scrutiny or beyond criticism. Representatives of our community or religion are not divine, only the Quran is. Not the people who interpret it or teach it.

I also think that our women should be encouraged to participate in politics and to play a larger role in religious affairs. Greater leadership roles for our women should be supported in our society with for example giving complete acceptance to female imams and female religious scholars.

I believe very strongly that we need to give a lot more attention to the personal problems our children and younger generations face in order to stop them from getting sucked up in hate mongering and falling into the hands of people that preach violence.

Unfortunately, I think there are a lot of people who don’t actually truly understand Islam. We all find it frustrating when non muslims make assumptions about Muslims and Islam without having much knowledge of the religion, but what is sadder is when people who claim to be “very good” Muslims don’t know very much about what they actually believe and why. I can’t stress this enough but I believe critical thought and free thinking is essential, it is not a sin to actually use the brain Allah gave us, but unfortunately many will blindly believe what they have been told without actually understanding or giving things much thought.

To me going through empty motions for the sake of it just because you think you should or have been told to do so does not make one a “better” believer–if one doesn’t understand that as Muslims the most important lessons we are meant to learn is humility, kindness, respect, peace, love and unity. It is not some sort of a competition with each other of who is a better believer judged by, for example, how you look on the outside. I find it quite disturbing that to some, the length of someone’s beard or the extent of how much a woman covers herself is the most important aspect of being a Muslim. In my humble opinion how we treat our fellow humans is what the true test is. If the motivation behind believing and doing certain things is for selfishness, financial gain, for power or reasons to control– then to me that negates the truth and honesty of your belief.

I would like to say religious fanaticism and extremism obviously does exist in all religions, but that doesn’t make things any better and is still no excuse to turn a blind eye to some of the wrongs within our community. If we as a Muslims don’t care enough to address these issues, who will?

We need to rid ourselves of the victim mentality that many like to adopt whenever faced with hard questions or problems. The denial about some of the issues mentioned above, like the situation of many of our women and youth, makes us responsible for the continued suffering within.

Who do you intend to bring on board for support?

People who agree that our religion and identity is being perverted by people who have their own agendas to divide and create fear and hate between people while they hide behind the shield of religion. I am doing what I am doing now not because I suddenly had the urge to talk about these issues. I have experienced great difficulty and pain most of my life yet I stayed silent about these problems because I was too scared and was constantly told I needed to shut up or else… I always felt the need to paint the entire Muslim community as perfect because I experienced my fair share of discrimination and racism. I didn’t want to say anything that the far right in Norway or other Western countries could use against Muslims and immigrant communities even though I constantly received more negative, aggressive and violent reactions from my own community rather than from racists or white people. All this simply because of my choice to do music in the western mainstream which was an “unacceptable and dishonorable” profession for the daughter of a Muslim to choose.

So am I looking for support? I don’t expect it anymore like I used to when I was a child because I know better now and have learned that the reality is quite different than we like to talk about. If people agree and can relate then that is nice to hear. It is not why I am doing this. I am doing it because we all have a responsibility to be honest in our life, our faith and in our work. I am doing this because I feel it is the right thing to do. I am by no means blind to the problems we face of discrimination from the western countries we live in and these are also problems I feel very strongly about and something I will be addressing on the new recordings and my future work. I just believe that before pointing fingers outwards we need to look inwards and deal with our own problems with honesty first.

Advise on what you’ve learned from life?

That life is valuable and a gift that we need to enjoy and experience to the fullest. That we all carry misconceptions about others on some level, but we need to realize that compassion and respect is far greater abilities to have than intolerance and prejudice. Passing judgement on others is not our duty as human beings and as Muslims it is in fact to be good to others and to love and respect. Only Allah can judge and truly know what is in a person’s heart. Life is very short and filled with so many hardships and struggles, which is exactly why we need to make our time here as positive as we can by being as caring, compassionate and understanding as we can towards others regardless of racial, religious or cultural differences.

I don’t judge anyone and if I don’t agree with someone’s views, choices or lifestyles I try my best always to respect the individuals right of choice and expression. I don’t have to agree with you but I still respect your perspectives. I do not impose my views on others and I would appreciate the same respect in return.

To me unity is more valuable than division and what makes us similar rather than different is more important to me. In my opinion it is essential to embrace and celebrate diversity. Humility and loyalty are probably among the most important personal qualities in my eyes and lastly being nice isn’t such a bad thing people should try it more often.

What is it that you’d like people to remember you by?

For my music and being someone who tried their best to contribute towards positive change and progress in society and for being a person who stands up for what they believe in.


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Website: http://www.myspace.com/deeyahmusic
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Name: Pedro Carvalho
Phone: 07831 556 951