Continuing my series on jazz and Islam at PJ Lifestyle, here is this week’s installment:
Recently Islamic supremacists in the Egyptian city of Mansoura made a statement: they dressed a statue of the revered Egyptian chanteuse, Umm Kulthum, in a niqab. Proud of their achievement, they sent photos of their handiwork all over the Internet. They should have been hanging their heads in shame.
Their statement was clear enough: they were calling for the imposition of elements of Islamic law mandating that women not go out in public unveiled. That they would choose a statue of “the first lady of Arabic song” to make this statement suggests also that they object to the very idea of an unveiled female singing about secular subjects: they object to her being unveiled; they object to her being female and yet an independent human being in her own right, not just the slave of some man; and they object to her singing and singing about non-religious matters, since the only music allowed in Islamic law is Islamic religious music.
In honor of Umm Kulthum, therefore, it is a good time to remember and celebrate some women we love, women who led lives and sang songs that were decidedly un-Islamic, and who would have left the world poorer had they forsaken the stage and recording studio, donned a veil, and retired to the inner recesses of the house in order to serve their menfolk. These five women never donned a niqab, and for that we should all be eternally grateful.
1. Bessie Smith, “I Need A Little Sugar In My Bowl”
Islamic law treats women as objects of fear and contempt; the very idea that a woman must cover herself before venturing outside rests on the assumption that it is not the responsibility of men to control themselves, but of women to make sure they are not tempted: female beauty and attractiveness, the very nexus of life, is treated as something to be despised, denied and shunned. And female genital mutilation, which is justified by statements of Muhammad and the edicts of numerous Muslim clerics, is designed to decrease female sexual pleasure, so that women will be more easily controlled.
It is a vision of the female that is, in a word, monstrous. And the monsters fear nothing more than a woman like Bessie Smith, with her cheerful, wry, untroubled and unapologetic sexuality. To Islamic supremacists, there is no distinction between female sexuality and desire and the breakdown of family and society. But Bessie Smith’s song here, with its playful innuendos, is not a paean to promiscuity; it is just a bit of harmless fun. As the Ayatollah Khomeini said, “There is no fun in Islam.”
There is more.