by Kristin Waterbury
Song, particularly hip hop, provides women with a unique platform to amplify their voices, combat stereotypes, and address social issues. The importance of music to women around the world is reflected in the lyrics of Palestinian artist Shadia Mansour:
On May 20, Dr. Angela Williams, Associate Director of the Center for South Asian & Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, gave a presentation to 52 educators around the U.S. and the world about hip hop and women’s voices in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The session centered on what can be learned and taught about the lived experiences of women through the art they create.
In the presentation, Dr. Williams shared songs from four artists in the MENA region representing Morocco, Iran, Egypt, and Palestine. The lyrics in these examples pertained to themes of resistance, colonialism, liberation, and agency, among others relevant to youth. She demonstrated the pedagogical benefits of incorporating hip hop music in the classroom, as it allows students to engage with global cultural issues, learn about the lives of MENA women, and identify connections to their own lives.
One musical collaboration featured Shadia Mansour and Ana Tijoux, a Chilean rapper. Attending teachers appreciated hearing the solidarity across geography between two very different artists. “Music is a medium that connects people from all over the world,” one teacher stated. Together, the female artists rapped about resistance:
Dr. Williams also used musical examples to combat stereotypes about women. Female artists, she stated, fight against strict legal and social codes in their songs. Egyptian artist Mayam Mahmoud’s lyrics highlight struggles that women face:
Mahmoud’s lyrics combat exoticism and challenge who determines how women act and dress in society. Sharing lyrics such as these opens up an opportunity in the classroom to discuss stereotypes of women in the Middle East and North Africa, and also invites conversations with students who may be struggling with similar issues.
Many in the audience voiced the challenges of finding musical examples to share in the classroom, and Dr. Williams’ session gave them plenty of materials to center women’s lived experiences and voices from the MENA region. “The session was wonderfully thought-provoking,” one teacher remarked, “immediately relevant to the content I teach, and inclusive of resources that will resonate with my high school students.”
Dr. William’s presentation concluded our series “How to Teach about the Middle East—and Get it Right!,” which offered five interactive sessions between January and May 2021, and provided resources and strategies for teaching about the region relevant to both in-person and virtual teaching. The series was a collaboration between the Duke–UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies and the Center for Middle Eastern & North African Studies at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, both National Resource Centers funded by the U.S. Department of Education.
To view recordings of each session, click here.