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The internet is abuzz with talk about an all new rock band, The Accolade. Nothing special, you would think, until you realize that not only are the members all women, but all Saudi women.
On the day the band made the front page of The New York Times (NYT), their ‘friends’ on their MySpace page went from 17 to 584. Today, only four days later, they have almost 1,000 friends, over 130,000 profile views, and comments from people in Italy, Spain, Korea, Sweden, Mexico, Germany and the USA (to name a few) saluting them and wishing them luck. That’s in addition to almost 1,000 fans on their Facebook page.
What can I say? It’s the magic of the media.
The band is made up of four college students: 21-year-old Dina (the guitarist) and her 19-year-old sister Dareen (bass guitarist), along with Lamia (vocals) and Amjad (keyboard). Here’s a short interview with them.
In the NYT article, Dina says the name of the band is based on one of her favorite paintings, The Accolade, by Edmund Blair Leighton (an English pre-Raphaelite painter) which “depicts a long-haired noblewoman knighting a young warrior with a sword.” (“I liked the painting because it shows a woman who is satisfied with a man,” said Dina).*
Their logo—according to their Facebook page—(pictured above):
“Is the simplified form of the Accolade painting. We express it by drawing the main elements in the painting: the Crown to express [the] princess and the sword and helmet to express [the] knight.”
Their music—also according to their Facebook page—is:
“Inspired from paintings that tell a story of certain situations in our lives. It’s a blend of art and music.”
Their first single, Pinocchio, is available on their MySpace page and has been played over 50,000 times—15,000 in the last three days alone. Its inspiration was a painting by Dina (pictured right), which, also according to their Facebook page:
“Is about liars and how a person can struggle from these lies and get hurt. If liars had a sign like Pinocchio things would [have] been different…less tragic and painless if we know how to recognize a Pinocchio.”
I’m no music buff, but I like it, as do hundreds of others.
(The song has even been featured in an quasi-ad):
But is the song great enough to warrant a front page story in the NYT? Of course not. As one blogger writes:
“While hardly a huge force of revolution in itself, the existence of such a band is encouraging and another testament to the potential of music as a force for social change. [Pinocchio] reminds me of Lacuna Coil – a piano introduction that soon turns heavy, and slightly accented vocals. Nothing extraordinary, but created under pretty extraordinary circumstances.”
The media, of course, has picked up on this story not because of the music but because the members are Saudi Arabian women “rebelling” against the “oppressive” Saudi culture.
One commentator on the Accolade MySpace page wrote: “Your music sounds like freedom.” One article elaborates:
“We […] are seriously bowled over by this kind of dedication to the rock. Because music really is a kind of freedom. And, like my mama’s daddy always warned her, it’s a pretty good form of rebellion, too.”
Another commentator, Matt, noted:
“Boy, we’re hearing more about you in the political news than in the music news here in Florida. Let’s hope they start focusing on the music sooner rather than later.”
But what Matt doesn’t realize is that it’s the so-called political dimension that makes the story newsworthy. The media has chosen to frame the story, not it terms of the music, but in terms of what it means to have a Saudi Arabian women rock group. Whitney, another commentator, tells the group:
“Two days ago you were just rockers; today you are an internationally famous symbol for reform in the Arab world. Nice work.”
The fact that there is a rock group in Saudi Arabia isn’t anything new. According to this article in Arab News, there are approximately 60 bands in Saudi Arabia, some of which actually hold concerts, though as Kamal Khalil, the guitarist and vocalist in a heavy metal band named Deathless Anguish tells the paper: “sometimes we’re forced to cancel our concerts by order of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.”
There is no law in Saudi Arabia against playing rock music or performing publicly, which is interesting considering the Saudi Society of Culture and Arts refuses to recognize rock/ heavy metal bands. This, in turn, means the Ministry of Culture and Information forbids the sale of those bands’ albums in the country. But basically, there is music in Saudi Arabia, and there are rock bands, although not without their own hurdles to overcome. But female Saudi rock bands?
One Saudi commentator writes:
“These girls are brave, but I guarantee you that a lot of other girls have been rocking out too, even 10, 20 years ago. I love this new generation, they don’t take no for an answer and they make the internet work for them. That IS revolution. […] Music has always been a source of support and inspiration for Saudi youth, whether it’s Amro Diab or Iron Maiden; there is a lot of monotony to break up. […] These days satellites beam everything in to the country, you’d be surprised how typical girls like these are. What’s new and important is that they’re putting themselves out there as a band and want to play mixed gender gigs. Ultimately the members of the Accolade are like any other alternative minded girls. I don’t find this a feminist issue at all, just human. Which Saudis are you know, human beings.”
The New York Times article was fair, with Robert Worth writing about the band without going into a tirade about Saudi society’s treatment of women compared to ‘superior’ Western society, though of course he had to slide in:
“In a country where women are not allowed to drive and rarely appear in public without their faces covered, the band is very different.”
But I believe he had to include this, since it is because of Saudi society’s treatment of women that the existence of the band is newsworthy. I do take issue with the fact though that Worth painted the four women as “iconoclasts” and aberrations of Saudi society for the way they dress and their body piercings.
He explains that Dina and Dareen do not cover their faces, “wear their [uncovered] hair teased into thick manes” and have their abayas (black gown worn over clothes) opened to show their jeans and T-shirts. So far, they sound like the bulk of young women I’ve seen in Jeddah.
As for piercings—which he takes care to point out, telling us that Lamia has piercings on her left eyebrow and beneath her bottom lip while Dina and Dareen have pierced eyebrows—well, they’ve actually become very popular in Jeddah, with “young Saudi men and women […] increasingly getting their bodies tattooed and pierced.”
I get what Worth is trying to do—show that the women are unique, but does the way they dress, rather than the way they think, really make them so? Are they really so different from the hundreds of Saudi women involved in quote unquote “progressive” activities that break with Saudi customs and traditions?
As a side point, with regards to dress, one Facebook comment I thought was really insightful by Dale from Washington, D.C. said:
“Hi Dina, Dareen, Lamia, and Amjad. Great song. You women rock. I wonder if perhaps you are starting to realize just how much power you have? I believe you can help people, both in the west and in your own country, to understand many things. Even perhaps to help us both better understand Islam. I think folks in both places may be just as likely to misunderstand you.
Have you considered how powerful the image a veiled woman with a guitar could be? That may not be your style, and you might not imagine this as an image you want to convey, but I think it could convey things you might want to say. Like respect for Islam, and perhaps even some respect for cultural traditions that present huge challenges to you. It would surprise folks and make them think. People want to see photos of you performing. Would you consider doing that in abayas and veils? Could performing veiled actually HIGHLIGHT an obstacle that cultural traditions can impose, WITHOUT showing any endorsement or disrespect? If so, it might be great. I can’t get the image out of my head.”
Dan, along with many other bloggers, asked for photos of the group performing, with one blogger saying:
“The weirdest thing for me about the AccoLade’s Myspace page is that there are no pictures of the musicians: talk about culture shock.”
The idea of musicians needing photos to project a certain image and what it means if they don’t is interesting to think about.
But I digress. Back to Worth.
One thing I really liked about Worth’s article is him not attributing the women’s actions to them being raised abroad or having “tasted Western life” (though he does mention he met them at Starbucks)—pointing out that they are “middle class and have never left the country,” and quoting Dina as saying that change from within the society is part of the reason they are able to do this now.
Other articles, however, of course demonize Saudi culture and introduce Orientalist stereotypes about Saudi women. In an Entertainment Weekly article we are told:
“For the AccoLade to rock, they have to exist in the shadows, rehearsing in secret, shrouding their face-piercings under traditional garb, and shying away from being photographed because they live in a country where women aren’t allowed to drive cars or walk outside without their faces covered, let alone play the Devil’s Music from the West.”
In CIOL News (spelling and grammer mistakes their own):
“They live in a country the females have no right to expose their face, leave alone raise their voice in public. In a country where a woman has to think twice before driving a car, it is unimaginable to set up a music band.”
Likewise, many blog posts (and there are a ton of them) are ignorant/ insulting/ exaggerative. Take this one:
“Don’t know if Rock ‘n Roll can change the world, but there’s a rockin’ chick band in Saudi Arabia […] They are brave young women because most chicks still can’t go outside without throwing a tent over their head. Can you say religious fanaticism? Can you say most of the hijackers came from Saudi Arabia? Rock on Saudi Chicklets! And don’t get caught playing hide the salami, or you’ll be learning the Middle Eastern version of Dylan’s “Everybody Must Get Stoned.””
“An all girl metal band is awesome enough, but an all girl metal band that could be executed for revealing their identities (!) takes awesome and ties it to a rocket and fires it directly into the sun resulting in a supernova of awesomeness the world has yet to match.”
In any case, kudos to Accolade. It’ll be very interesting to watch them and see what they do, not only in terms of their music, but in their inevitable role as representatives of the “new” Saudi Muslim woman.
*The Accolade, or “dubbing,” was a ceremony performed in the Middle Ages to confer knighthood