A 22-year-old Yemeni rapper, who has become the first high-profile female artist of her kind in the troubled Arab nation, is receiving threats. Amani Yahya fled to Saudi Arabia due to the civil war engulfing Yemen and has dedicated her artistic career to shining a light on the suffering of Yemeni women and defying cultural norms for women in the devout Muslim nation.
Yahya, speaking to The Guardian this week, details the anonymous threats she has received for rapping on Yemeni streets sans hijab, opting instead for American-style puffy coats and baseball hats. “[People] panicked – they saw pictures of me without a hijab or abaya. I got anonymous phone calls and threats,” she says. “They said I should stop what I was doing, that it was haram and that I should be ashamed.”
Yahya, a dentistry student in Saudi Arabia, began rapping at the behest of her friends, who recognized her talent, and found the artform a vehicle for which to shine a light on the abuses of women in the Arab world. Her only recorded song so far, “Maryam,” tells the story of a woman Yahya met who was married off at age 11, not an uncommon practice, which Yahya has previously called “murder.”
“I have songs about women’s rights, child marriage and sexual harassment. People need to understand women can do things: they aren’t just born for marriage and children,” she tells The Guardian. “Trying to get an eight-year-old married when her body isn’t ready – girls have died because of this.”
Yahya says she has faced extreme opposition not just for being a woman, but for being a rapper and adopting an “American” art that is “not Yemeni.” Yahya raps exclusively in English; she finds it easier, she says, despite having learned English through watching television and osmosis. “To me, that’s sad because art has no nationality,” she tells The Guardian, noting that Yemen was once hospitable to female singers, before more restrictive interpretations of Sharia law have led to a crackdown on women in the public sphere generally.
Previous articles highlighting Yahya’s cultural efforts echo this. An article in the UAE’s The National depicted a common scene in which Yahya would rap on the streets of Sanaa, watched curiously by disapproving crowds. “Merchants and customers alike watch her closely. A military officer approaches, moving people away from her and whispering gently: ‘Don’t worry, do what you need to do,’” the article notes.
The government of deposed President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi appeared more open to allowing her to perform than the Shiite Houthi rebels who have taken over the Yemeni capital under the slogan “God is Great; Death to America; Death to Israel; Damnation to the Jews; Victory to Islam.” The Houthi takeover prompted the government of Saudi Arabia, which has received Yahya, to send troops into Yemen in defense of Hadi and an attempt to curb the influence of Shiite Iran in the region. While the Houthis maintained the upper hand for much of May, the Saudi government has begun to hit Houthi bases with airstrikes and shift the momentum of the war. The result has been a call for talks between the two sides.
Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president of Yemen deposed before Hadi, has welcomed a call for a UN intervention and negotiations between the two sides, so long as it means Saudi Arabia will exit the war. In response, Hadi told Al Arabiya network, “There will be no negotiations.”
The ensuing chaos in Yemen has proved a boon to terrorist groups based there, both the Islamic State and al-Qaeda alike.