Friday, October 23, 2020

‘Our voices are louder than the bullets’; girls from a Palestinian refugee camp speak out and resist through rap

By K. Künzl - November 19, 2019
Section: [Main News] [IN PICTURES] [Features]
Tags: [women‘s rights]

A group of six girls timidly shuffled around a conference room table in a room at the Shorouq organisation in the heart of Dheisheh refugee camp in Bethlehem. It is the first day of a new rap workshop offered for young girls. 

The manager, Mohammad Amzi, begins to bang on the table in a rhythmic beat, nodding his head and encouraging the girls to join in.  Once in unison they go around the room and improvise a song of their own, the others shout in support.

“I wish I could think without borders, binding me, holding me back from a deceptive reality, wish I could walk freely without a checkpoint stopping me,” are a few lyrics from Bala Hdood (Without Borders) a song by Ettijah, an all-girl rap group which began in Dheisheh.

Ettijah, meaning 'direction’ in Arabic, began in 2013 when the original twelve members, aged 10 to 12, attended their first rap class, organised by the Shorouq organisation which offers social and educational opportunities for refugees of Dheisheh. The workshop offered a safe space for young girls to express themselves freely, away from a conservative culture at home.

For Ettijah members, Diala Shahiin and Nadeen Odeh, music has been a vital outlet for them growing up to advocate for the struggles they face on a daily basis living under occupation.

“We are very lucky because our families are supportive. They were displaced and became refugees because of the occupation and they like the idea that we are speaking out about the injustices they endured,” Shahiin told Palestine Monitor.

“All the stress and madness of daily life I can release through my music, it is therapeutic,” Odeh said.


Over the years, Ettijah dwindled from twelve down to three girls. Mohammad Amzi, manager of the Shorouq organisation, Young Voices Support group attributes this to pressures girls face at home from family members.

“As the girls got older they have more responsibilities to the family life and more expectations to stay at home.  One girl asked me in a private Facebook message if it was ok for her to join the group even though she wore the hijab. These are the negative impressions our society associates with women rapping,” Amzi told Palestine Monitor.

“Our main objective is to break the stereotypes and empower girls...they are brave enough for participating in the first place, so it takes a few sessions to build their confidence,” Amzi explained. 

While growing up under occupation in a refugee camp in itself is difficult, as a woman it is even harder. Amzi claims that Palestinian girls are discouraged from choosing a non-traditional route such as entering the music business because it puts them in the public eye.

Odeh expressed dismay for the many hate comments Ettijah received after performing at the Palestine Music Expo festival in Ramallah this spring, she became silent when asked for specifics. 

“There are not many people in our society that support women's rights or even want to talk about the issue. They put pressure on us to remain quiet, we don’t have the space otherwise to raise our voices,” Odeh told Palestine Monitor.

The group released an album titled 'Journeys’ in 2017 featuring seven songs, going on to perform across the United States and Europe.

The album boasts titles such as 'Women’, 'Voices’, and 'Our Nation’, that are all about 'freedom’, as Ettijah describes; “freedom of movement, freedom for women, and freedom of choice,” Odeh stated. 

“I like rapping so much, you don’t need a good voice, just a powerful message. Sophie (another member of Ettijah) sings in English, we are trying to reach an international audience,” Shahiin said.


The lack of female representation in the Palestine rap scene has motivated the group to continue, forging a path for the Palestinian girls dreaming of a career in music but who are discouraged by a conservative community. 

“The Palestinian women rapping now are rare but are brave and powerful. They say they are singing for the women who cannot leave home, those that can only go back and forth to school and do not enjoy the same freedom,” Amzi said.

Ettijah is one of the many rising Palestinian music groups that are using song as a form 'lyrical resistance’ and peaceful protest.

The girls say their main inspiration is DAM, a Palestine-Israeli hip hop group founded by two brothers, Tamer and Suhell Nafar, along with the later addition of Palestinian female singer, Maysa Daw.  

Coming onto the scene in 1999, the group went onto release numerous songs about the conflict, women's rights, and the pressures their generation faces to get married young and settle down.

The group encourages a new wave of feminism in Palestine with songs such as 'Who R You’ which discusses the pressure girls face in society to be pure and demure and the unequal amount of shame that is attached if they do not uphold this image.

Additionally, in the song, 'Your Body or Theirs’, Maysa Daw can be seen rapping solo in the forefront of the camera as her male counterparts stand in the shadows. In this song, she argues that women’s bodies in Arab society are under the control of someone else, always dictating how to dress and behave.

Following the song’s release on International Women’s Day this year, a flood of videos were posted on social media by Palestinian girls chanting along with the lyrics.

However, Palestinian groups that sing about such controversial issues not only face a backlash at home, they also experience resistance from performing abroad.  

Shadi Al-Bourini and Shadi Al-Najjar, two Palestinian rappers, were barred from performing in Berlin at a solidarity rally in September in front of Brandenburg Gate after calls from the Israeli and US ambassadors.

The group was labelled as 'hate preachers’ by the director of the American Jewish Committee, Remko Leemhuis, claiming that their lyrics glorified acts of terrorism against Israel and had anti-Semitic rhetoric.

Shahin explained that no matter how much backlash they receive, she sees music as a form of resistance which she will never give up. “People will always try to suppress a dialogue about the conflict, but we will continue to sing.”


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