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Women in rap of the MENA and Arab world

“Their passion and resilience enable them to shine brightly”

Arusa Qureshi is writer, editor and speaker with a passion for music, diversity and accessibility within arts and culture. Bylines include the Guardian, NME and the Scotsman, while her 2021 book Flip The Script, is a profile on women in UK hip-hop. 


In the 50th year of hip-hop, much attention has rightly been given to the pioneers of the genre, whose innovations in form, rhythm and lyricism were the catalyst for the genre’s dissemination all around the world. With this anniversary in mind, it’s also an interesting moment to take stock of exactly how far these innovations have travelled and how, in 50 years, there are vibrant and rapidly growing hip-hop scenes in some of the most unexpected corners of the globe. 


In the Arab world and the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region, hip-hop has gained significant popularity due to its strength as a cultural movement, combining elements of traditional Arab music, poetry, and contemporary hip-hop music and culture. Many rappers writing and releasing music in this region have made use of hip-hop’s long legacy as a tool for activism to address important social and political issues, tackling subject matters like government oppression, poverty, inequality, and the struggle for freedom and justice. In addition, the strong presence of women in hip-hop in countries like Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia, to name a few, demonstrates not only the unique flavours and personalities that exist per region but also the fact that there is an appetite specifically for their expression. 


British-Palestinian rapper Shadia Mansour, Morocco’s Soultana and Lebanon’s Lynn Fattouh, commonly known as Malikah, have all made their mark and garnered international attention beyond their native countries. In Egypt, Felukah is recognised for her mix of Arabic and English in songs, while Mayam Mahmoud made a name for herself on Arabs Got Talent with her raw rapping skills. Taffy, meanwhile, is part of the new generation of rappers coming through and taking influence from artists like Nicki Minaj.  


“I picked it up when I was 16,” Taffy says of her introduction to rap. “I started writing raps and posting them on Twitter with beats off of YouTube and I got some attention. I’ve been doing my thing since then and recently, I started writing music in Arabic.”


Though originally only composing in English, Taffy chose to embrace Arabic to build up her audience in her native Egypt and also to explore a more vulnerable side of her music. “Listen, I'm not gonna lie, when I started out, I was really just flexing and being extra,” she says with a smile. “But as of recently, I’ve been talking more about life and how people have brought me down. I just feel powerful and when people say my lyrics out loud, I want them to feel empowered too. The songs that I've been writing recently, they’re me telling women to not be afraid to be vulnerable. Us Egyptian women, we’re very sweet, we’re always trying to take care of everybody. So that’s something I want to show in my music and hopefully something that when other people listen, they’ll be able to relate to. I want to make something that’s like the Arabic music we’re used to listening to but in a more modern way.”


Taffy notes that Egypt has a thriving hip-hop community, with plenty going of events and collaboration but it remains largely male-dominated. “We don't get accepted a lot,” she explains. “Many audiences in Egypt are quite conservative and, to them, a woman being a rapper, speaking in her voice, giving her opinion…a lot of times, men are like, ‘you should go back to the kitchen’. That’s what most of the comments are like. So for us, it’s about trying to prove to the men in our country that we can be free and speak our mind. For us females, we have to push our pen game 10 times more compared to the men so they could actually even think of listening to a female rapper. So the scene can be not very supportive, but I feel like we really have to push ourselves and just put it in their faces.”


Taffy is proud of the women rappers in Egypt who she feels are all doing their own thing but simultaneously doing a great job representing the wider scene. When asked about other scenes of note in the Arab world, she is quick to answer: “Definitely Morocco. Moroccan music is amazing, their melodies are just on another level. Seeing how the Moroccan scene has grown and how you can hear everyone’s personalities in every song and how everyone does it so differently is amazing.”


Moroccan rapper and women's rights advocate Houda Abouz, better known as Khtek, can certainly attest to this. “The Moroccan hip-hop scene is a vibrant tapestry of diversity, reflecting the rich cultural mosaic of the country. It encompasses artists from various backgrounds, regions, and linguistic influences, blending traditional Moroccan sounds with modern urban beats.”


“What's remarkable,” she continues, “is that despite the absence of a well-established industry to support them, these artists thrive through their sheer independence and unwavering motivation. They harness their unique stories, languages, and musical traditions to create a distinct identity within the global hip-hop landscape, proving that their passion and resilience enable them to shine brightly, even in the face of industry challenges.”


Khtek initially became interested in hip-hop in 2013, and began writing verses in 2016 after spending a month in psychiatric hold for her bipolar disorder. “Lyricism became a tool of therapy and expression during that difficult period, and I kept writing and freestyling until I was mastering my craft,” she explains. 


Like Taffy, Khtek agrees that navigating the hip-hop scene as a woman can come with certain societal complexities. However, she has felt fortunate to receive an abundance of support from her fellow rappers and producers in Morocco, who have helped her carve out her own space. Still, she believes there are significant hurdles that remain in place for women wanting to get involved in hip-hop in the MENA region.


“Conservative social norms and traditional gender roles can limit their opportunities for artistic expression,” Khtek says of these hurdles. “These cultural constraints often discourage women from pursuing music careers that challenge established gender norms. The male-dominated nature of the rap and hip-hop industry in the region can lead to discrimination and exclusion. Women may struggle to find supportive networks and platforms to showcase their talents, facing barriers to access resources and opportunities. Additionally, the MENA region's complex political landscape and varying degrees of censorship can make it challenging for female rappers to address sensitive topics in their lyrics, limiting their creative freedom.”


For Khtek, the themes and messages conveyed in the music made by women in these regions can often shed light on critical topics and promote meaningful dialogue, and it’s exactly why the wider world should be paying attention to women rapping in the Arab world and the MENA region. “By paying attention to North African female rappers,” Khtek continues, “we not only support their artistic expression but also contribute to the broader conversation on gender equality and social change in the region, fostering greater understanding and solidarity globally.”


“Honestly, I feel like there's just so little people know about the Arab world,” Taffy adds. “I've had a lot of situations where people have asked me, ‘do you go to school on a camel? Do you live in a pyramid?’ It’s definitely important for people to hear our voice and know that we're just normal like everyone else. Of course everyone has their own different message, every single female rapper will rap about their own different things. But we’re all trying to show our personalities in our own way and talk about life and what we’re going through.”


Though women are often left out of conversations on the progression of hip-hop, despite their attendance since day one, we’re fortunate to be in an extremely fruitful era today.  Women in rap are shifting the focus away from the genre’s predominantly male output, and highlighting their contributions as well as the diversity of voices, experiences and insights that are in existence. This is true of scenes everywhere, including in the MENA region and the Arab world, where women in rap have used their music to challenge stereotypes and address gender-related issues, promoting wider gender equality in the process.


“These women are breaking down cultural and gender barriers by entering a traditionally male-dominated genre and asserting their voices in societies where gender equality is an ongoing struggle,” Khtek says. “Their presence in the rap scene sends a powerful message of empowerment to women and girls across the region, inspiring them to pursue their passions and challenge societal norms.”

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