I could not resist this story because it speaks to the inevitability of gender parity in Islam in the 21st Century. Not only will music become a fully accepted part of the every day Muslim lifestyle but new art forms and expressions are bound to thrive. If this can happen in Saudi Arabia, we're in for some huge quantum leaps in Muslim self-expression.
By Robert F. Worth NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE
November 24, 2008
JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia – They cannot perform in public. They cannot pose for album cover photographs. Even their jam sessions are secret, for fear of offending the religious authorities in this ultraconservative kingdom.
But the members of Saudi Arabia's first all-girl rock band, the Accolade, are clearly not afraid of taboos.
The band's first single, "Pinocchio," has become an underground hit here, with hundreds of young Saudis downloading the song from the group's Web site. Now, the pioneering young foursome, all of them college students, want to start playing regular gigs – inside private compounds, of course – and recording an album.
"In Saudi, yes, it's a challenge," said the group's spiky-haired lead singer, Lamia, who has piercings on her left eyebrow and beneath her bottom lip. (Like other band members, she gave only her first name.) "Maybe we're crazy. But we wanted to do something different."
In a country where women are not allowed to drive and rarely appear in public without their faces covered, the band is very different indeed. The prospect of female rockers clutching guitars and belting out angry lyrics about a failed relationship – the theme of "Pinocchio" – would once have been unimaginable here.
But this country's harsh code of public morals has slowly thawed, especially in Jiddah, 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.
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 Jiddah, and they are somewhat less aggressive even in the kingdom's desert heartland.
The change has been especially noticeable since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when the Saudis confronted the effects of extremism both outside and inside the kingdom. More than 60 percent of Saudi Arabia's population is under 25, and many younger people are pressing for greater freedoms.
"The upcoming generation is different from the one before," said Dina, the Accolade's 21-year-old guitarist and founder. "Everything is changing. Maybe in 10 years it's going to be OK to have a band with live performances."
Dina said she first dreamed of starting a band three years ago. In September, she and her sister Dareen, 19, who plays bass, teamed up with Lamia and Amjad, the keyboardist.
They were already iconoclasts: Dina and Dareen, both strikingly attractive, wear their hair teased into thick manes and have pierced eyebrows. During an interview with the band at a Starbucks, 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 Jiddah than in most other parts of the country, though it is still an uncommon sight.
The band gets together to practice every weekend at the sisters' house, where their younger brother sometimes fills in on drums. Early this month, 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.
"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 "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.)
Dina held out her cell phone to show a video of the band practicing at home. It looked like a garage-band jam session anywhere in the world, with the sisters hunching over their instruments, their brother blasting away at the drums and Lamia clutching a microphone.
"We're looking for a drummer," Lamia said. "Five guys have offered, but we really want the band to be all female."
Although they know they are doing something unusual, in person the band members seem more playful than provocative. Unlike some of the wealthier Saudi youth who have lived abroad and tasted Western lifestyles, they are middle class and have never left their country.
"What we're doing – it's not something wrong, it's art, and we're doing it in a good way," Dina said. "We respect our traditions."
All the members are quick to add that they disapprove of smoking, drinking and drugs.
"You destroy yourself with that," Lamia said.
Yet rock 'n' roll itself is suspect in Saudi Arabia in part because of its association with decadent lifestyles. Most of the bands here play heavy metal, which has only added to the stigma because of the way some Western heavy metal bands use images linked to satanism or witchcraft. In Saudi Arabia, people are sometimes imprisoned and even executed on charges of practicing witchcraft.
The first rock bands appeared here about 20 years ago, according to Hassan Hatrash, a 34-year-old journalist and bass player who was one of the pioneers, and their numbers gradually grew. Then in 1995, the police raided a performance in Jiddah, hauling about 300 young men off to jail, including Hatrash. They were released a few days later without being charged. (There is no actual law against playing rock music or holding public performances here.)
Hatrash, who has graying shoulder-length hair, recalled how the religious police used to harass young men who advertised their interest in rock 'n' roll. He was once taken to a police station where his head was shaved.
In recent years, with the religious police on the defensive, bands have begun to play concerts, and a few have recorded albums.
The Accolade plans to move slowly, Dina said, with "jams for ladies only" at first. The band members' parents support them, though they have asked them to keep things quiet.
Eventually, Dina said, they hope to play real concerts, perhaps in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
"It's important for them to see what we're capable of," she said.