Zeyba Rahman (Chair, World Music Institute)

11.09.2009 - Interview conducted by Mailin Obermueller

For more than fifteen years, Zeyba Rahman has dedicated herself to nurturing and developing cultural programs across the globe, many of which are multicultural in their composition. An example of Rahman’s past projects is the August 2000 ‘Millennium Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders’ at the UN, for which she acted as artistic director as well as musical producer. The first ever gathering of this kind at the United Nations, this was an effort to bring together individuals who are normally separated by cultural divides, in order for them to discuss reconciliation and peace. To this end, the summit featured numerous artists crossing religious boundaries in their performances, including for example, the Iranian singer Sussan Deyhim, who sang Sephardic Jewish songs.

Zeyba Rahman’s success does not only attest for the enthusiasm she brings to her work, but also her ability to commit to a project. Indeed, among her long-term commitments was her ten-year engagement as the North America Director for Morocco’s ‘Fès Festival of World Sacred Music’ (1997-2007) and its companion ‘Fès Forum’. In recognition for the outstanding work carried out by this project, the Festival was awarded the Ousseimi Prize for Tolerance in 2006. More recently, Zeyba Rahman was the Senior Project Adviser for ‘Muslim Voices: Arts & Ideas’, the largest festival to celebrate Muslim cultures in U.S. history. Running in June 2009, the Festival’s goal was to showcase the rich diversity of Muslim cultures and thereby build knowledge and respect for these communities among Americans.

Zeyba Rahman’s current positions include being the President of Jungli Billi, a New York based consultancy that specialises in global projects for non-profit organisations, as well as Chairwoman of the World Music Institute. A personal ongoing project of hers, of which she is the director and producer, is the audio and television series ‘Women’s Voices From The Islamic World’. Furthermore, as a sought out public speaker, she continues to frequently participate in global events to discuss topics such as the importance of culture in the context of civil society, women’s leadership, human rights and Islamic world issues, as these are of special interest to her.

The aforementioned topics were also the issues focused on in the following interview, which she granted CD-News during Interdependence Day 2009:

Ms Rahman, could you tell me a little about what you hope to achieve with your work?

I use the lens of art and culture to highlight and communicate the most critical civil society issues of today as widely as possible. Art has the ability to open us up emotionally, as well as provoke and instigate reflection.  Such experiences can help to expand us.  In that moment, new ideas can occur, with the possibility of evolving our critical thinking further about certain issues. Such is the power of the arts. Therefore very often the initiatives I conceive and implement are part of an integrated platform, where people experience artistic programmes alongside vigorous discussions and debates to hone knowledge and explore solutions.  The hope is that they will become part of the solution by taking practical steps—individually and/or collectively—to resolve problems in whatever way is possible and help move the world forward.

Judging from your work it seems that you are a very strong advocate of culture’s power to connect people on an emotional level. Do you think culture is equally successful at changing opinions and countering stereotypes or shattering generalisations?

Absolutely, you’re exactly right. I do firmly— passionately—believe in the connectivity of culture. In my view, through culture’s wide reach and its ability to touch our emotions deeply, it is possible to use it to create openings for transformations in thinking to take place. And hopefully, these transformations will be very specific and concrete in nature, because when this is the case they can help the world work together in a positive, productive manner.

Turning to the topic of the situation of women in Islam, you have said that one of the key problems in this area is having a dialogue with—as you referred to them—‘tribalistic men’ and bringing them to change their point of view. How likely do you think successful communication with this particular group is?

I think the way I described them was ‘hard-core tribalised men’, but I would now like to call them ‘hard-core, testosterone driven, Neanderthal men, who are intractable in their position’! [Laughs]. But honestly, what bothers me is the fact that there are men who keep their barriers up. They insist on remaining entrenched in positions about women, without thinking them through with wisdom, in a judicious manner, and thereby resist adapting or changing for the betterment of their families and communities. And for me, this position is the most neurotic attitude one can have, because the fact is that there is never a wall between two groups—or more specifically between genders.  Both men and women are at their best when they move forward as equals: working together and sharing strengths with each other to realise common goals and aspirations. If we were able to leverage those attributes together, it would make us into an incredibly powerful force for change.

I also feel that if we could breakthrough to communicate this to these men and they bought into it, they would realise how they and their families would benefit—how they can leap frog ahead in every way through a rebalanced partnership with women. We would witness remarkable advances across the board. So I find the presence of men who take this exclusionary and repressive position is truly a shame because it holds us back. And importantly, this is counter to the teachings of Islam.  Bullying tactics against women have absolutely no place in Islam on any level. Islamic teachings very clearly state that women are to be respected and loved in every way and there are countless examples of how the Prophet Muhammad practiced this in his own life.  Those who do not follow his example are not practicing Islam; they are not being Muslim.

Have you ever been involved in a project where you yourself experienced a dialogue that managed to break through erected social walls?

Yes, on several occasions. Actually, now that your question is making me think about it more, I would say that I have certainly witnessed such breakthroughs on a personal level. For instance, I had such an experience while I was working in Morocco, where I was engaged in a humanitarian project for ten years. I had been invited by the founder of the ‘Fès Festival of World Sacred Music’, Faouzi Skali, to help develop the Festival across the board and bring it to the attention of the world, particularly the US. The festival, in turn, was overseen by several men from the larger administration. I was surprised to discover how different this group of men was from the Moroccan festival team.

The festival team was terrific: they were enthusiastic, incredibly hard working as well as committed to the project and its humanitarian goals. There were absolutely no barriers between any of us. On the other hand, the men who belonged to this overseeing structure, and they were exclusively men, had a real issue with me. In fact, initially they would not even acknowledge me. They would just walk right by me even when I had greeted them. There was a thick wall between us with no clear way of breaking through it.

It actually took several years of my working on the Festival to get them to appreciate my contributions and to respect me enough to acknowledge my presence. But I must say, after that point matters turned around radically; they became not only respectful, but downright supportive of me. We have even remained in contact now that I have left. So this serves as one really specific example of a situation that was very, very difficult to experience initially.

It’s great to hear that it ended well. Are you currently involved in any projects that have a particular focus on breaking down barriers?

All my projects now focus on dissolving barriers. One in particular, intends to broaden boundaries by showcasing women musicians. It’s working title is ‘Women’s Voices From the Islamic World’ and consists of a series of audio recordings of Muslim women musicians, accompanied by video footage and still photographs of those who feel comfortable having their picture taken. The idea of the project is to bring the art of these women to the attention of the world and by promoting it help empower the musicians and also encourage them to preserve their tradition of music. These women are torchbearers for several very important oral traditions. My personal wish is that this initiative will encourage listeners from around the world—from Muslim and non-Muslim countries—to really appreciate and value these traditions; and that it will especially encourage younger generations to educate themselves about these traditions, respect them and help carry them forward.

In the broader sense, this project looks at the role of women artists in our rapidly globalising world. So in this particular case it is the role of Muslim women artists that will be spotlighted, firstly within their own regions and then within the structure of the globalising world. Through galloping globalisation a lot of cultures have been flattened out. Certain big pop movements have, inadvertently, contributed to this as well. Therefore, projects like this are very important and make me feel even more committed to the work involved.

For the first part of the project ‘Women’s Voices From The Islamic World’, I travelled from the mountains to the Sahara in Morocco. En route, I recorded four different women’s groups in situ. That CD will be internationally launched and I also hope to have a series of photographic exhibitions accompanying it around the world—in Muslim countries as well as in non-Muslim countries. After this CD is launched and distributed I will move forward with the next CD in the series.

A point you made in a panel discussion was that it was important for women to be in positions of power. One of the ways of ensuring this is through quota systems. What do you think of these and what would you say to the opinion of some critics, who argue that by ensuring a certain number of women are hired, quota systems actually turn the focus away from the pure attributes that qualify a person for a role and leave the demeaning impression that a woman only landed her job because she is female?

Quota systems are controversial. In India for instance, we have a quota system that stretches from schools to universities to professional hiring, which requires the inclusion of minorities. I would say that within a quota system two things happen: firstly, you have very qualified people in positions they would not normally get; and secondly, you have people with a lot of great gifts who can develop them a lot more when given a chance and thus become highly desirable through experience. So I feel that giving these people an opportunity is, in this case, very important.

Personally, I believe that quotas are important because you need to draw in those that fly below the radar. These systems need to stay in place for as long as such quotas are needed. Once adequate representation has been attained, I think they can be modified or revised. And perhaps what should happen then is that another group that is underrepresented should become the focus. I can even imagine a point when we might need to have a quota system whereby men are allowed in. And actually, in certain parts of the world we can already see this type of development happening in schools and colleges, particularly in some professional school programmes where there are more women than men. So perhaps the stage where we need to bring young men into a quota system has already arrived in these areas.

But be it a gender, race or religion specific minority, underrepresentation is everywhere—sometimes even in the most surprising places. Because of this, I do think the quota system is necessary, but it also has to be constantly and judiciously evaluated and re-balanced accordingly.

I have a question for you about the discourse surrounding victimhood. What do you think of the argument that in order to make progress it is important to leave behind the “victim mentality”?

That’s such a hotly debated subject. From my perspective, we should use whatever works for us.  Victims of unfortunate circumstances can tackle it in two ways: a) they can say ‘we are victims and we need to fight from this perspective to get somewhere’; and b) they can work from the position where they say ‘we are not victims and are committed to making our own way as needed’. Taking women’s issues as an example, you could argue that we are not victims but rather creators and we can therefore be responsible for our development and path. This is a true and valid view to have, but then, another one might be equally valid. I think there are always two perspectives, perhaps even more than two. It can be entirely different within each context. There will always be two or more sides and I feel the different positions should move forward in whatever way is most helpful in attaining the best result.

In the case of women, we are oppressed. We are living under patriarchy. There is absolutely no question about this. Women have been and are brutalised by men physically, mentally and emotionally all the time. There are examples throughout history and it continues to be a huge problem now. Take rape as an example.  Women get raped, either for political reasons or because of some mindless kind of brutality with no systemic agenda. It’s just a fact of life and no dialectics can change it. It’s one of the truths—it’s one of the most miserable truths we live with. And these women are victims, but it is what we do with horrible things that happen to us that determines the outcome. So, a woman who has been raped or women who are helping to rehabilitate those who have been raped may choose not to take the victim position; in doing so, they may instead use their trauma to empower themselves and those who are in contact with them to move forward heroically.

As women, we need to continue moving forward no matter what; continue to articulate our dreams and aspirations and work towards them. We need to have our voices heard and find an equal footing with men in whatever field or way we choose. And here, it is important to keep in mind that we each have our own way of doing that. Some people feel that there is no problem between genders and so they do not want to work from a position of it being a problem because they feel it reduces them. On the other hand, some people do want to work from that position because they find it expands them.

As I said, I think both sides are true. And people who are taking one position can also change their positions, depending on the context. So being mindful of the context is also really key.

Are there any concluding remarks that you would like to make, on Interdependence Day or otherwise?

I would say that my personal position in terms of interdependence is that we are all in this together. We are here on this planet to combine systems and move forward together. So unity and being productive in a positive way is entirely to be encouraged, because it can only benefit us all. For me, movements like Interdependence Day are therefore essential to our wellbeing and advancement.

Thank you for your time.

Thank you, those were very thoughtful questions.