Patriarchal pop: the latest sexist trend in Arabic pop music

Lyrics demanding that ‘women shouldn’t argue back’. A song title that translates as Do You Know How to Shut Up? We question this disturbing new trend

Album cover of Ramy Sabry's Al Ragel. Courtesy Mazzika
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It starts innocently enough. The opening synth-piano effects of Al Ragel (The Man) meet tasteful Oriental drumming, before a sweet croon arrives to declare: "I want you to listen as I have something to say."

That voice belongs to Ramy Sabry, an Egyptian singer known for his sensitive ballads – the expectation is usually lyrics expressing admiration for his latest love interest.

Instead, the 39-year-old reels off a list of admonitions to females disguised as tips to achieve domestic bliss: “When the man speaks, the women shouldn’t argue back/ She shouldn’t say ‘yes sir’ and forget the next day/ She should understand and appreciate his value if she wants to continue the relationship with him.”

And this is only the first verse. Sabry continues his diatribe with suggestions regarding a women’s modesty, private and public behaviour.

Perhaps sensing such instructions are abusive, he ends the track by basically telling his prospective lover to keep his indiscretions private.

“The woman who keeps her house, and its secrets, she’s perfection/ And the woman who accepts her lot will see a quick correction/ But the woman who causes problems will find nothing but rejection.”

Ever since its release in July, the title track of his album has amassed more than three million views on YouTube. in addition to being a mainstay of Arabic pop stations regionwide.

In an interview with Egyptian newspaper Al Mal, Sabry seemed rather miffed at the online backlash he received regarding the song.

"Al Ragel provoked some females because of its lyrics," he said. "But I ask, why don't they take this song as form of advice for them?"

Perhaps even more disturbing is the May release of Te'rafy Teskoty by Medhat Saleh. It translates to Do You Know How to Shut Up? and the veteran Egyptian singer released a complementary video where he and partner get into a heated argument in an elevator. The reason behind the row is that she became jealous of Saleh taking selfies with young female fans.

Saleh’s face is full of controlled rage throughout the elevator scene. He almost spits out the lyrics, which begin from the relatively benign – “Do you know how to shut up, stop getting ideas” – to the more unpleasant – “Do you know how to shut up or should I shut you up?”

Saleh’s attention to detail even includes his hands balling into a fist at about the 50-second mark.

“This is something new. Arabic songs never really had songs with such hurtful meanings,” stated the Jordanian novelist Fadi Zaghmout on his popular Arabic popular-culture blog The Arab Observer.

“This only popped up in the past few years, where men seem to feel they have the right to be vocal about women’s behaviour, stating what seems to them be social criticism and disapproval on how modern women are claiming their independence and equal status.”

Indeed, Sabry’s and Saleh’s tracks seem to be the latest additions in a growing list of patriarchal pop songs – let’s call it pat-pop – that stretches for nearly a decade and spans various genres.

There is the gentle balladry of Mohamed Eskander's 2010 hit Joumhoureyet Alby, in which he scuttles the notion of his wife (or daughter) getting a job: "Your work is my heart and my emotions/ You're not going to have time for anything else/ It's enough that you are the president of my heart."

There is the relatively humorous Dola Maganeen (They Are Crazy), a pun-filled ditty by Egypt's Abou Elleef, in which he implies that mental imbalance is genetic in women: "They are loony/ Those who understand them have a headache/ What's there to understand, you moron?"

Lebanese bad-boy pop star Fares Karem has always had a more-direct approach. His testosterone-filled brand of thumping Lebanese folk is best exemplified in his 2005 hit El Tanoura (The Skirt), with lyrics that border on verbal stalking: "Her skirt is very short, a hand span and a half/ And her blouse is see-through."

Karam, who is no stranger to criticism regarding a body of work that includes other alpha-male anthems Neswanji (Player) and Shefta (I Saw Her), says that his songs merely reflect the conversations being conducted in society.

"It is because I am talking about daring issues," he told The National in May. "With respect to my peers, none of them are as direct as me. I talk about real-life situations that people face, but in a way they identify with."

Syrian-American academic Dana Ghazi, from Portland State University in Oregon, broadly agrees with Karem's logic.

She says that the success of songs such as Joumhoureyet Alby and Al Ragel lies in achieving what successful pop songs do.

"They strike a chord with the people. Men connect with it," she says.

“They hear these songs and they say: ‘Yes, this is what I need to do or be to be in control’.”

Ghazi is not surprised by the seeming glut of misogynist Arabic pop songs. The notions expressed in these songs were always there, she says, but the explosion of privately owned television and radio stations have allowed these songs to find a home.

"This is not just confined to Arabic countries," she tells me. "You are seeing such misogyny also in western songs from pop to hip-hop music. But what happened in the region [is] before you only had access to state-run media. Now there are so many privately owned channels.

“The fact that these songs are shown on these channels, which are for profit and with no regulation, points that there is a whole industry regarding these songs.”

Which begs the question, what is fuelling such a demand? Some of the answers, Ghazi says, have more behind them than sheer entertainment. Instead, she thinks they are part of grievances stemming from the Arab Spring.

But she cautions that these songs are not mere hangovers from the social unrest that swept the region from 2010 to 2012. Instead, they are the latest salvo in an ongoing struggle for gender equality in the region that came to the fore during the demonstrations.

“What we seen from the Arab Spring is that when women are on the streets calling for change, they don’t just talk about politics. Everything is out in the open, from systemic privileges, marginalisations and all kinds of challenges. That’s because social diseases and politics are a reflection of each other,” Ghazi says.

"Now, if you can recall, the minute women were in the public sphere, sexual harassment started to happen. The message was to move them back into the private spheres, whether it is through violence or the lack political representation. These songs are merely part of that conversation."

That means an added responsibility that Arab songwriters must now bring to their work, says Lebanese artist Tania Saleh.

The indie singer-songwriter is one of the small contingent of female lyricists working in the Arabic music industry; her list of collaborations includes songs for Egyptian-Belgian singer Natacha Atlas and the soundtrack to Lebanese films Caramel (2007) and Where Do We Go Now (2011).

Her five albums of Oriental folk have evocative lyrics dealing with societal issues from a female perspective, in songs such as Hal Ouyoun, Lezim and Reda.

Saleh also sees a correlation between lyrical subject matter and social problems plaguing the region, not to mention the lack of artistic integrity caused by the demands of a profit-driven Arabic pop industry.

"I am sad to say this, but we are in big decline," she says from Beirut. "That's why we as a society have become nonchalant, we don't care anymore about these songs. Yalla, we say, it is just fun.

"Also, if you notice, this wasn't the case, decades ago during the apogee of the Arabic song, the 50s and 60s – you would never think about writing such things. Think of the classic songs of Umm Kalthoum and Mohammed Abdel Wahab. They sang about deep and sensitive emotions. And who wrote those songs: men."

Saleh believes cultural bodies should be set up to monitor the subject matter discussed in songs and, if needed, ban those deemed harmful to society.

As an artist, Saleh doesn’t see her position as potentially problematic.

“There are limits to everything my friend,” she says. “Also, artists have one of the biggest responsibilities in society. They set the trends and involuntarily teach people what is wrong and right. Before pouring all that ugliness into society, artists should think about what they are producing and to whom.”

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