Why Mona Haydar’s New EP Validates an American-Muslim Feminist Like Me
Writer’s Disclaimer: I’m aware of Mona’s recent statements on her Instagram of not wanting to wear a “culturally Arab looking hijab” in order to feel comfortable in certain spaces, and choosing to wear a beanie which allows her to “pass.” Like many of you, I find that problematic for a number of reasons, however this piece was written prior to those comments, and is meant to be a reflection on the accomplishment of the EP and what it meant for me.
On a quiet Friday afternoon, during my sophomore year of college, I was finally asked the question I had been desperately avoiding for the last year. I was tabling on campus for a women’s empowerment student group I had recently joined, called Woman as Hero. The question came from an older white woman. After stopping to absorb the words on our banner, her eyes slowly moved up to my face and she asked:
“Excuse me, but how can you be a hero when you wear that thing on your head?”
There were a million thoughts firing off in my brain as those words left her lips, and seven years later, it’s difficult to recall exactly what I said to her about such a personal decision that I had taken only a year before. Deciding to wear the hijab the summer before starting college was a complicated mixture of a sense of duty, identity, and desire to disconnect from the an unhealthy obsession with my appearance. I thought I was mature enough to handle the spiritual responsibility and was determined to not let wearing it deter me from my potential, or dreams. But in that moment, I remember how small and embarrassed I felt, sitting in that stiff, plastic chair, trying to keep paper sign-up sheets from blowing off the table.
When I heard about the release of “Barbarican,” an EP by Mona Haydar, a Syrian-American Muslim poet and rapper, I imagined someone like that old white woman discovering Mona, who also happens to wear a headscarf, and thinking, “Excuse me, but how can you be a rapper when you wear that thing on your head?”
Mona is happy to own her “otherness,” and invites us as “beautiful barbarians” to “decolonize” our bodies with her, a process I only wish my 10-year-old self had known how to do.
It’s been an incredibly exhausting year of hatred and fear-mongering towards Muslims and minorities in the U.S., so I couldn’t help but have high expectations while listening to the EP. I found “Barbarican” to be a compelling and unapologetic declaration of hope, power and self-love. It serves as both a form of art that speaks truth to power, while also uplifting people of color who are tired of educating ignorance and shrinking themselves.
When she defiantly opens her EP saying, “If they’re civilized, I’d rather stay savage,” followed by blaring trumpets, horns and drum beats throughout the song “Barbarian,” I found myself initially cringing at her directness. Growing up, I was obsessed with belonging, and fitting in with my white friends, with their long, straight hair, easily-pronounceable names, and cool holiday traditions. I was desperate to keep up with them, and hid as much as possible the ways in which I, the daughter of Eritrean immigrant parents, did not in-fact blend in. Meanwhile, Mona’s Arabness cannot be ignored in this pulsing, upbeat track as she interrogates why her cultural food, dress and features were looked down upon as a child, but in the present, they are all fetishized and commercialized by celebrities like Kylie Jenner and broader white culture. Mona is happy to own her “otherness,” and invites us as “beautiful barbarians” to “decolonize” our bodies with her, a process I only wish my 10-year-old self had known how to do.
She questions the obsession of the white gaze with her dress and their constant surveillance, two very real concerns I keep in the back of my mind when I go out of town, use public transit, or laugh a little too loudly in public.
Every Muslim person knows what it’s like to be seen as a 24/7 ambassador, and how frustrating it can be to not get to sit back and enjoy life, which the song, “American” explores. “All I wanna do is have fun at the beach,” Mona says, but unfortunately she has to deal with ICE and a travel ban. These traumatic events are layered over an electro-pop dance beat, putting a spin on the blissful all-American summer anthem.
She questions the obsession of the white gaze with her dress and their constant surveillance, two very real concerns I keep in the back of my mind when I go out of town, use public transit, or laugh a little too loudly in public. When she raps, “Why they acting like I’m not American? See me on the TV as a terrorist,” I am reminded of the amount of time we spend proving our humanity, and how exhausting that truly is.
Thankfully, the ethereal and haunting piano ballad, “Lifted,” is a chance to pause the sly playfulness and offer a sobering reflection on the chaos and pain many of us are feeling in the world. As she sings of burning palo santo and sage, and praying through the night, I was drawn to the number of self-care practices I have incorporated into my life to create a sense of peace, from poetry, to going out in nature, to getting my nails done. I appreciate her reminder that there is “so much worth dying for/ Even more worth living for/Balance is imperative.”
I believe “Barbarican” is a clever, in-your-face effort to subvert the narrative of the experiences of a Muslim woman born and raised in the U.S.
Now, the EP is not without its flaws. Mona’s flow is sometimes choppy, and her rhymes do get weighed down by an eagerness to reference numerous social justice, religious, and political jargon, which could stem from a desire to prove her credentials as a conscious hip-hop artist with a master’s degree in theology. It’s also important to note that many have taken issue with Mona as an Arab woman from Flint, Michigan being celebrated for her rap and hip-hop songs while the same level of enthusiasm is not shown towards Black Muslim women who’ve been rapping for much longer. All that aside, I believe “Barbarican” is a clever, in-your-face effort to subvert the narrative of the experiences of a Muslim woman born and raised in the U.S. Its very existence is necessary and deeply validating for many Muslims, women of color and marginalized people that live and breathe the ethos of social justice and liberation.
The other reason I had been anticipating Mona’s EP is because I also identify as a performer. Growing up, I played the piano and sung in my school’s choir and theatre groups. I assumed that part of my life was over after I started wearing the hijab, because there was simply no one who looked like me that performed. I was terrified of rejection, and judgement by non-Muslim audiences and conservative Muslims. So for many years, music was something I shared only with family and friends. The fact that Mona was able to overcome the negativity and discouragement of internet trolls, and holier-than-thou Muslims to own her place in the music world was nothing short of inspiring.
When I think back to what that white woman said to me as I was sitting behind that table, I remember desperately searching for the right words to express myself. I wish I had known that only years later, it would not be strange to find a woman who looks like me, rapping about how a “feminist planet is imminent,” and that anyone who doubted me could “miss me with that nonsense, rolling on that God sense.” I also had no idea that in the same year, I would get to mark a big step in my life as a performing artist when I was invited to sing and share poetry with a group of local artists at the Kennedy Center in D.C. I am learning that there are many ways to be a hero, but I am going to be the one my younger self could only have dreamed of.