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The rhythm of empowerment: female rappers from Morocco to Gaza

Amina Semlali's picture
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This blog is part of a weekly series that we hope will provide some food for thought on the critical questions outlined in the forthcoming MENA Flagship Report on Jobs.

Rapper Shadia Mansour. Photo credit: Ridwan AdhamiIt’s messed up, I had to lose an eye to see things clearly” Alia said, shaking her head. My charismatic and confident classmate then carefully tucked her hair under her veil.  “Bushwick Bill?” I asked.  She smiled and showed off her perfect row of teeth. “Yes!” She seemed pleased, yet slightly embarrassed that I had noticed that she was quoting an old-school rapper. I was intrigued by Alia’s story and by the words she used to describe how fortunate she was compared to her “sisters” in the poorer parts of the city. “Do you listen to hip hop?” I asked. “Do I listen to hip hop?” she laughed, “not only do I listen, but for your information, I am the most talented yet least famous undercover MC* in all of Cairo. Matter of fact, not even my parents know of my musical accomplishments!”  I leaned back and listened.

The year was 1993, I was a high school exchange student in Cairo. It was the first time I had heard of the growing underground hip hop/rap movement in the Middle East – a movement in which young Arab women played a prominent role.


South Bronx in the late 1970s – also known as the birth place of hip hop – was plagued by unemployment and racial discrimination. At the same time, the civil rights movement helped establish a sense of identity for minority and marginalized communities. It also helped shape the hip-hop mindset and movement, empowering the young and disenfranchised and giving them a creative outlet to share their stories of growing up in the inner city, about feeling ignored or being taken advantage of.

American hip hop’s engaging and controversial style has been adopted and adapted around the world; undergoing a process of constant reinvention with each new culture it passes through. In the Arab world today, and much of the developing world, hip hop has once again come to represent the empowerment of the disenfranchised. In the words of Lebanese MC Malika: “Arabic hip hop isn’t just entertainment, it’s a possibility to speak up. It’s our turn to show what we’ve got!” Another female MC added:“I don’t care to rap about bling, fame and money. I rap about the poverty I see, the unemployment women and youth face. I want to send a message, the way the old-school rappers did”

Their Side of the Story

Hip hop has allowed some Arab women to tell their side of the story. Although both male and female MCs address their social and political circumstances, certain themes are more prominent among female MCs: a new sense of identity and opposition to punitive social policies and underrepresentation of women in the labor market. “I can talk about it because I can feel it,” Moroccan MC Soultana said.“Women understand each other. We have a whole generation that is confident and ready to go on stage and rap about these issues.” Some MCs touch upon the role elder women can have in perpetuating outdated views on women in the workforce. One example is a supportive husband who has to lie to his own mother about his working wife’s whereabouts. The non-apologetic lyrics transcend borders and resonate throughout the region.

Years after my conversation with Alia, the messages conveyed through these lyrics still resonate with me in my work with the World Bank’s MENA Social Protection team.  In the same way that the female rappers remind us of what’s important, face-to-face consultations also help us stay focused on the issues that directly affect the women and youth of the region. The message is loud and clear: youth and female unemployment.

While acknowledging that unemployment impacts both women and men, most in the region agree that it’s much more of a pressing issue for women and new labor market entrants - of both genders.  Two other thoughts were brought up in our recent consultations:  that women tend to acquire specializations that meet public sector needs (which rarely leads to work opportunities in the private sector) and that the Arab world has invested so much in female education that it is now time to capitalize on that  investment. As one young Tunisian woman told me, “We need to discuss both practical and cultural constraints to female labor market participation” – something the MCs have been doing for quite a while.

The recent World Bank regional flagship report on jobs in the Middle East and North Africa attempts to address these constraints. It proposes policies that could help reduce barriers to women’s participation in the labor market.  There is a need to ensure women have access to child care, transportation to work, and a safe workplace, and to increase women’s capacity to start and run their own businesses (which are compatible withprevailing social norms). These are all fundamental starting points to empowering women in MENA. As the region’s female hip hop artists put it: more voice and more choice. 

Please join the virtual discussion! In the comments section below please share your thoughts on this blog and on Female Labor Force Participation in the MENA Region. Thank you!
*MC stands for “Master of Ceremonies” or “Microphone Controller” An MC is a skilled rapper and the only person using the microphone at a gathering.

This blog is part of a weekly series that we hope will provide some food for thought on the critical questions outlined in the forthcoming MENA Flagship Report on Jobs. The common thread and objective of these blogs are to spur a conversation on “
what to tell your Finance Minister.” This was in preparation for the World Bank Annual Meetings in October 2012, where the report's main messages and the results of the live chat were presented to MENA policy makers.

Read the previous weeks' blogs in the series:
  • Let’s have a conversation about what exactly I should tell your Finance Minister
  • Why jobless? Privilege not competition in the Private Sector
  • Is working a privilege in the Middle East & North Africa? Who is most affected by MENA’s Joblessness Trap?
  • Is being employable enough to get a job in the Arab World? The double transition from education to work in MENA
  • Governance and Public Sector employment in the Middle East and North Africa
  • Why jobless? The growth pattern
  • Jobs in the Arab world are about stability as much as prosperity
  • Labor market intermediation: where jobs and people meet
  • The path to more jobs in the Arab World starts with a dynamic private sector 
  • What's going to get MENA's young people to work?
  • Comments

    Submitted by Nahla on
    I am soooo happy finally these courageous women rapping are getting more attention. My favorite is Soultana from morocco, she even take on such difficult subjects such as prostitution showing the reasons women are forced into it: poverty, female unemployment. She sais in her lyrics they have to do this kind of work because she has to support her orphan brothers. It is a problem of the market, not many alternatives for young women. Thank you for showing this important side and that there are ways to make more employment opportunities for women. I agree safe transportation and safe workplace is very impoirtant policy.

    Submitted by Amina on
    Dear Nahla, Thank you for your comment. I am glad that you found the topic interesting! You are right, rappers such as Soultana have taken on sensitive subjects (at time even taboo subjects). The good thing is that it seems as if their music is contributing to a discussion around these topic and the underlying reasons/problems. Also regarding your comment on the necessity of having safe transportation for women, I just wanted to mention that in a World Bank survey conducted in 2011, women expressed that the lack of safe and reliable transportation constitutes a main constraint to their ability to work. There are several ways the problem can be addressed. In several countries around the world such as Japan and Mexico you can find gender segregated public transport so that women can travel safely. Moreover, for example the private sector can undertake certain measures to ease mobility constraints for women, e.g. by providing bus transportation for women from their homes directly to the workplace. This constraint should be relatively inexpensive to address and could significantly increase female work participation. Thank you, Amina

    Submitted by Kevin on
    Thank you for this blog, very interesting! I had heard that there was a hip hop underground scene in the Middle East with some male rappers being arrested during the revolutions - but happily surprised to learn that also women are taking part of this! Hip hop is a reflection of globalization, of change on its way and the aspirations of the young. I do think that this is partially how people begin to reflect on certain norms/ways in society. Hopefully these vocal women will contribute to improving the views of working women. I am sure they will.

    Submitted by Amina on
    Dear Kevin, I agree with you fully when you say that hip hop is a reflection of globalization. In an article titled "Japanese Hip-Hop and the Globalization of Popular Culture," the author gives an example of globalization/hip hop and how strange it can be to fly from New York to Tokyo and find teens decked out in the same hip-hop style as those he just saw in the United States. But he points out that, while everything seems the same, it's not. The borrowed hip-hop culture is imbued with local cultural dynamics. Indeed, these female MC’s in the Middle East are adding their voice to the mix and contributing to a reflection of certain norms/ways in society. Best, Amina

    Submitted by Amina on
    Dear Addis Tunes, That is a good question. The most famous ones you should be able to find on popular music sites (you might have to pay a bit more for freight if you are based in the US). The less famous ones have a more difficult time, mostly sold through pirate copies on the streets or circulated via the internet. I agree that it is very important to support the creative arts. Good luck and please do let me know if you have any success, tips! Amina

    Submitted by FAY MOGHTADER on
    this is amazing,the middle east is changing so rapidly and in the midst of all the change,there are so many women,including these great artist,shaping and controlling these changes.bringing social and moral and economic issues to the surface,so it becomes more readily understood. women in these societies tend to suffer from these hypocrisies a lot more than men. thanks to these courageous women,one can only imagine how hard it is for them to send their message out thru their art form.all i can say is BRAVO.....

    Submitted by Amina on
    Dear Fahimeh, Very nicely put, indeed these women are bringing social issues to the surface through the arts. I too am amazed at the creativity you find amongst the young in the region. Thank you for your comment, Amina

    Submitted by Awinash Bawle on

    Thank you for bringing badly needed attention to an under-reported phenomenon: how women in the Arab world are finding a new vehicle through music to openly express their hopes, fears, dreams, and frustrations. It is shopworn to discuss how those voices have been muzzled for years or decades, and thus it is critical to highlight how the courage of women, combined with their creativity and use of technological media, enables those voices to slowly but triumphantly emerge from the shadows of discontent in this day and age. Hopefully, hearing these voices will manifest in a community-led public policy discourse that will augur the implementation of specific policies designed to address these women's needs and wishes that have been ignominiously ignored for far too long.

    I would be curious to know if institutions like the World Bank, or the civil-society promotion groups that traverse in their orbit, have developed a strategy for either finding a conduit or establishing a link between the expression of these ideas and the instruments for change through public policy. In other words, beyond the recommendations of the World Bank flagship report on jobs in the Middle East, can these organizations encourage, amplify, and institutionalize those voices themselves by funneling these musicians into advisory bodies that allow them to become agents of change outside the walls of parliament?

    I agree with the author's assertion that hip-hop represents the empowerment of the disenfranchised in the Arab world. While this is obviously true elsewhere too, in this region it is particularly relevant because women there are often excluded from direct or meaningful participation in the movements for social change, or more precisely, those movements do not focus specifically on alleviating the injustices that plague them.

    Submitted by Amina on
    Dear Awinash, Many thanks for your comment, I read it with great interest. Good question. I do believe that these young rappers already are agents of change to a certain extent. And yes, it is always important to encourage and amplify the voices of the young generation. At the World Bank we have an initiative called “The Youth Voices initiative” which is part of the larger effort of to engage in a systematic dialogue with young people, either as individuals or as youth groups, so as to include their perspectives and needs in the development process. The Youth Voices program was first launched in Peru in 2002 and afterwards implemented in different countries across the world such as Bosnia-Herzegovina, Georgia, Albania, Serbia, Moldova, Peru, Macedonia, and Yemen. In addition many World Bank teams now arrange in-country consultations with a broad range of people including civil society, young people, and government representatives, depending on the type of project. These gatherings provide the Bank team with an opportunity to get input directly from some of the people who can benefit from a Bank supported effort before the work begins and the strategy is set. Another approach, entails reaching out to citizens –in addition to face-to-face consultations - via twitter, Facebook, live chat and blog posts (like we are doing here now!). The aim is to create an enormous virtual discussion table and to seek input on specific topics. The idea is that citizen feed-back will directly help form more nuanced and pertinent World Bank products. Please have a look at my earlier blog “Arab citizens demanding a seat at the virtual table” for more details on this: Best, Amina

    Submitted by Sofian Alm on
    Interesting blog. Glanced through the executive summary you linked to. It all makes perfect sense, however, will the World Bank work with governments so that they can make the necessary changes? Or is the report meant to only provide recommendations and leave it at that? Curious to know. Thank you.

    Submitted by Amina on
    Dear Sofian, Thank you for your question. I am glad to hear that you liked the report overview. In answering your question, yes: the World Bank works with many of the governments in the region on labor market projects, such as supporting Small and Medium enterprises etc., all of which are in line with the recommendations of the MENA Jobs Report. Upon request by the Government the World Bank, will accompany and assist with implementation of the recommendations of the report. Thank you and hope you will continue follow the Jobs Blog series. Best, Amina

    Submitted by Nesta on
    What a marvelous piece. The rap scene as an expression of defiance and freedom is fascinating. Last year I spoke to a Persian student group after watching a movie about the rap scene in Iran and how it has proliferated and the lengths young people have to go to in order to function without the authorities knowing about them or their performances, such as padding the walls to make them sound proof, or watching for when the neighbors leave their homes so they can perform. I asked these young people how they manage and they answered "Oh, we do everything we want, we just don't do it in public."

    Submitted by Amina on
    Dear Nesta, Many thanks for your kind words. Thank you also for sharing the discussion you had with the Persian student group regarding the Iranian rap scene; and how they pad the walls to make them sound proof or watch when neighbors leave their homes so they can perform. I found this very interesting. Best, Amina

    Submitted by Raghada on
    Thanks a lot for drawing on such a topic. I'm living in Egypt and this is my first time ever to know there are MCs/ rappers females in Egypt or the region,,,my ignorance!!! I'm impressed by how rappers vary from women to men in the issues they tackle, and the issue of youth employment is one of these highlights. It is a great work your doing here by shedding light on the specifities of each country and , though the issue of employment is global, but it has been addresses and expressed differently from one country to another as you genuninely described. Very valid blog full of wealthy knowledge using innovative approach.i.e, The femalerappers, which gives a fresh and young spirit to the profound article. This is new to World Bank related writings and a very value adding tone.

    Submitted by Najlaa on
    This is an excellent approach to use art ans music a form of empowerment. Art and music have always been a classy way of self expression, a creative tool to promote social change and now an excellent mean of empowerment. This leaves me with very little to say. Just keep up the great work. All the Best, Najlaa AbdElBary

    Submitted by Linda Forsberg on
    A truly wonderful perspective on young women's agency is found in this story about female rappers. I much appreciate the personal tone and the vibrant descriptions in your text. As a professional, that have worked with promotion of gender equality and gender mainstreaming for over a decade; I find we far to often come to focus on women as passive, as victims, as women in need of assistance to become empowered etc Your story points to the inherent strength of young women that is utilised for self-empowerment as well as empowerment of peers. This is a source of wealth to tap in to. A resource to build on! It would be interesting to know if and how the World Bank can work to bring these voices to be heard beyond the safety of the young women's homes. It would be interesting to explore how these voices if heard in a wider context including descion making foras could have a potential for policy change.

    Submitted by Gabool al-mutawakel on
    Thanks for sharing this ! ..I have always worked with young women in Yemen.. was always inspired by the much energy, commitment and ambitious they have.... In my opinion the way for Women Employment is to employe themselves... Have their own companies. . . businesses .. be the leader. Leadership opportunities for women are very limited in governmental organizations... they are very stereotyped in civil society sector which is only focused on women and human rights issues ... and are located in the bottom lines of private sector ... The opportunity available to break bureaucracy of government and stereotypes of civil society and private sector is to have women lead their own businesses. .. This may change not only how society look at women but also how women look at themselves ! We have a project called "Khadija"..we named it Khaidija referring to first women in Islam Khadija who happen to be the wife of our prophet Mohammed. .. that is not the end of the story... Our prophet himself was a worker and a supporter for her work.. that brings not a model for women only but for young males as well... ! It tells that women leadership and men supporting women leadership is in our social , religious and cultural norms... ! Women in this project were not put alone in corners with only women..they were put with their males counterparts... they learned how to to to win and also how to lose... ! Women leadership is the key for women progress... women leadership in private sector as entrepreneurs is the entering opportunity for broader women leadership!

    Submitted by Saad Belghazi on
    From several field surveys about the garment female workers, in Morocco, from 1996 to 2008, I observed two kinds of women participating to the labor market. The first and priviledged category are the women who are enabled to finish their education and access university. For this category, their diploma is the key to get a good job and revenue.

    The second category, the majority, had left early the school for diverse reasons. Mainly, because their family view is that the school will not help them to get a husband and that to be married is the better way of life for a woman.

    In the first years of the working life, some women, from the second category, the one with the low education level, are happy to participate to the labor market and to get a job as wage earner. This helps them to discover the world, to flee from their house and from the family control. Is this happiness sustainable? Not when the young women get married, became mothers and family supports. This situation forces them to stay out their house. The daily time became too short. Not enough time from their children, not enough time to rest after the work and to serve the family. This women participate to the labor market because they need additional revenue. Of course, if the husband wage was sufficient to cover the family needs their participation to the labor market would not be required and the women would prefer to stay at home parenting the children, talking with their female neighborhood and spending their time in other social activities, watching TV and commenting the stories.

    Submitted by Lotta on
    Thank you Amina for a most interesting article and perspective on poverty, democracy and unemployment among women.

    I'm wondering whether you have any experience or data on women and girls with disabilities in this context? Women and girls with disabilities are often the poorest of the poor and the most stigmatized, being faced with multiple discrimination.

    Look forward to reading your next piece!

    Submitted by Nahla on
    Hello Amina, I am happy you sent me a response. Thank you for telling me about ways to help women join the working force and that it does not have to be very difficult, example of separate transportation makes sense. I read the report summary of the World bank Job report and I learnt some more interesting things. To be honest before I did not know World bank worked to help unemployed in different ways in the middle east. I will read your next blog soon I hope. Nahla

    Submitted by Dr. Moushira Khattab on
    From: Dr. Moushira Khattab, former Minister of Family & Population of Egypt, Ambassador and Human rights activist advocating the rights of children and women

    I am proud to learn that women of the Middle East have stood up against another taboo. They have freed themselves from cultural inhibitions. They have managed to freely express themselves through means that have great impact. We need to shed more light on this. We need to raise awareness around women's right to free self expression and the right to be heard. This is critical now, as MENA region is entering a phase where the space available for women is shrinking by the day.

    I would tell my Minister of Finance to allocate more money towards education. I would tell the Minister of education to pay more attention to ensure that especially poor girls enjoy their right to free quality education. They have the right to quality active learning. An education that instills self confidence and critical thinking. An education that make them competitive in the labour market. An education that eliminates all forms of societal discrimination against girls and women.

    Finally I send my deep respect and appreciation for these couragious women and tell them please spread the word. Women need their space and need to enjoy equal rights.

    Submitted by Rami G on
    Dear Amina,

    I came across your article on a blog forum where some people were discussing it and whether the fact that arab women are rapping about sensetive issues will lead to some sort of change.

    One guy insisted that it will lead to nothing as it is the old people that lead the countries in the mmiddle east and they don't listen to rap. I argued against him (as did most others), sayin that true, it is the old people that rule --- for now. But they must have realized that they can not ignore the opinions of the young... the fact that people more openly talk about issues that did not used to be discussed is in itself an achievement and the seed of further change. I like the example of the supportivbe husband lying to his own mother about his working wifes whereabouts! It sais a lot!

    I myself live in the US but I know for a fact that most of my young male cousins and relatives in the region are so much more open-minded than their fathers AND mothers! They want an independent, smart and active wife! There is often alot of talk of men being the problem... good that you mention that also women (the older) have a role in trying to keep the young female generation back. shokran

    Submitted by Jean on
    nice to know this, we always hear about women as opressed and no influence. nice way to influence via music. glad you shared.

    Submitted by Mohammed Ali Loutfy on
    Amina, thank you for this blog, very interesting and glad to see it has created further discussions related to female employment in the Arab world!

    Lotta, I was glad to see that someone brought up the topic of women with disabilities and your interest in learning about the additional challenges they face. I have worked on these issues in the MENA region for many years and I will share my insights below. I will also provide some recommendations for the international community.

    Women with disabilities are often neglected by the society and policy makers. Of course, this neglect comes as a result from the overall cultural tradition of stigma practiced against women, persons with disabilities, and thus women with disabilities, since the reason for oppression is obviously doubled.

    Despite few serious efforts here and there by disability organizations in MENA, women with disabilities are still not represented fully and equally at levels of leadership and engagement with decision making. Of course, counter efforts for an inclusive opportunities for disabled women by governments and international development are almost absent as well. Thus, we yet find that rights of disabled women to employment, education, health care, accessibility …etc. are completely not recognized.

    As a result of this situation, data on women with disabilities in the labor market in MENA does not exist. In fact, this is not surprising, as disability data in MENA does not exist unfortunately. Governments have not conducted any projects for creating data on disabilities in either field whether education, employment, health care or even in relevance to demographic sensuses. Thus, it seems a matter of default not to encounter any data on disabled women in general or with regard to jobs in particular. Moreover, families, due to the general stigma against disabled women are not willing to share any information about even the existence of disabled women among their household members.

    Considering this dark situation about the status of disabled women in MENA, more serious efforts for inclusive development should be done. International organizations should allocate further funding for the implementation of projects and programs that would target the transformation of such negative cultural stigma against women with disabilities. Furthermore, disability organizations should conduct more intensive empowerment efforts for women with disabilities as well, particularly by giving them equal opportunities for participating in leadership programs and decision-making. Last but not least, socio economic rights for women with disabilities should be fully granted in disability rights laws and national policies. Thereby, employers should be targeted by nationwide campaigns for creating and insuring equal, accessible, and safe opportunities for disabled women in the labor market.

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