Women Rappers Rock a Palestinian Refugee Camp in More Ways Than One

The three-woman hip-hop group Ettijah faces pushback in the conservative Deheisheh refugee camp. A new documentary on the band shows how rap can help you fight the occupation – and your own society's social constructs

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Ettijah Palestinian rap group. In Deheisheh, a refugee camp southwest of Bethlehem.
Ettijah Palestinian rap group. In Deheisheh, a refugee camp southwest of Bethlehem.Credit: Doha Debates
Sheren Falah Saab
Sheren Falah Saab
Sheren Falah Saab
Sheren Falah Saab

In Deheisheh, a refugee camp southwest of Bethlehem, a dream was born nine years ago: 13 Palestinian girls striving to make their voices heard through hip-hop. It began at a cultural center in the crowded camp, where the girls took lessons and honed their craft and songwriting skills.

Soon pressure from local residents almost got the project shelved, but three girls carried on. They formed the rap group Ettijah, which today is a mainstay in some corners of the camp.

The short documentary “Raising Their Voice: Ettijah” was shown at the Amman film festival in July and was streamed last month by the website Doha Debates. The film, which is also on YouTube, looks at the three rappers' daily struggle making music under the occupation – and in a society that doesn’t approve of hip-hop, especially when women are rocking the mic.

'Raising Their Voice: Ettijah' movie trailer.

Ettijah is part of a series of films produced by Doha Debates, a Washington-based media group that documents young people at the margins of society in different parts of the world, Brazil to Greece and beyond.

Ettijah's members are Nadin Odeh, Dalya Ramadan and Diala Shaheen, today all 21. In the film, they take the viewer through the alleys of Deheisheh. They wander through the tightly packed neighborhoods and along the separation barrier – images of their life under the occupation.

“As a band we have a message to tell the world. For me, as a young woman who lives in a refugee camp without basic rights, this is the only escape,” Ramadan says in the film.

The film’s Palestinian director, Tamara Abu Laban, hadn’t planned to get involved; it was all by chance after Adriana Cardoso, who was supposed to direct, didn’t win approval to enter the camp.

“I took on the job to help and was with her throughout the filming, but remote communication was hard and didn’t really work,” Abu Laban told Haaretz. “In the end, she asked me to do it myself and not stick to her guidelines, because she saw that it was limiting me.”

Abu Laban, 34, was born and grew up in Deheisheh. After completing her studies, she moved to Bethlehem. She realized that making a film like “Raising Their Voice” wouldn't be easy.

“The challenge was bringing the female aspect of the band members side by side with life in the camp. I know the social and physical aspects very well, the crowded homes,” she said.

“It was important for me to show all this while letting the members of the band talk about what they face as young women striving to effect change through rap music. Their time was limited, and before we filmed they had to get permission from their parents.”

Incursions into the camp by the Israeli army presented another challenge. “They told us, ‘If you feel in danger, don’t film and we’ll make do with pictures from the archive.’ But I decided to take a risk and film, even along the separation fence,” Abu Laban said.

Fear of music

Ettijah first made a splash in Palestinian society three years ago with two of its songs. The first, “Bila Hudud” (“Without Borders”), addresses life in the camp and the yearning for freedom. The second “Man Jawati Hura” (“Inside I’m Free”), explores the role of Palestinian women in the struggle against the occupation.

They told us, ‘If you feel in danger, don’t film and we’ll make do with pictures from the archive.’ But I decided to take a risk and film, even along the separation fence.

The film’s director, Tamara Abu Laban

Tamara Abu Laban. 'The challenge was bringing the female aspect of the band members side by side with life in the camp'.Credit: Dana Alqad

The two songs won positive reviews and struck a chord with Palestinians in the diaspora – the group was even invited to perform in Palestinian communities in the United States.

Even though most of the film is devoted to the group’s success, a few scenes provide a glimpse into the price a woman rapper in Palestinian society sometimes has to pay. Hesitantly, the band’s members play down the problems.

“There’s a stigma against young women singing rap. I’m always being asked, ‘What are you doing?’” Odeh says in the film and recalls the pressure put on her after most of the girls dropped out.

“As they [Palestinian society] saw it, rap music in principle isn’t right for women. Not everybody can legitimately express themselves through music, but for me it’s a kind of freedom.”

Odeh doesn’t hide that she needed her parents’ approval to join the group; the idea sure seemed strange to them.

“Still, they supported me,” she says. Hearing her daughter, Odeh’s mother is frank. “Palestinian society isn’t ready to accept this – you get a lot of criticism,” she says. “But we’re supporting her.”

Ettijah members against the separation fence.Credit: Doha Debates

Unlike the band members, who remain ambiguous about the pressure put on them, a 22-year-old woman from Deheisheh who dropped out of the group told Haaretz what made her give up.

“It happened under pressure from my family and everybody around me. They told me that it would cost me my life. It was a veiled threat, and I had no choice but to stop coming to the music lessons at the cultural center and stop writing rap,” she said.

“There aren’t a lot of options for women in Deheisheh – the only way you can grow and develop is to get out of there. The ones still in the band are also studying at university, and that gives them more breathing space.”

This Deheisheh resident comes from a family of limited means. “My parents told me to forget this music stuff,” she said. “The expectation was that I would marry or find work, and not stray from that path. To them, rap isn’t appropriate and will only hurt the family’s reputation and the national honor.”

The problem isn’t only a patriarchal society. One Palestinian source noted that Palestinian musicians have to contend with society’s wider conservative currents, if not downright threats. He cited last summer's cancellations of cultural events and concerts featuring rappers in Ramallah and Beit Sahour near Bethlehem. That caused a storm on Palestinian social media.

“Palestinian musicians, both male and female, had to cancel performances because of this conservative pressure, which is above the law,” the source said. “The Palestinian Authority isn’t capable of confronting it or even protecting musicians.”

He also recalled the events in July at the Ashtar Theater in Ramallah, which included attacks on both artists and theater employees. That also triggered a storm on social media.

“They [conservatives] want a monotone society, even though nothing like that exists anywhere. They fear pluralism, diversity,” the source said. “There has to be intervention by the schools – we have to work with students to prevent the deterioration of the Palestinian cultural scene.”

He added: “The PA and the police are discouraging [artists], a phenomenon that's more and more noticeable. For that reason, not only does Ettijah have no future, neither do any young musicians who strive for diversity and change in Palestinian culture.”

'Bala Hdood' music video. A message that women can create, each in her own way.

Educated Deheisheh

Because Ettijah’s music focuses on the struggle against the occupation, the group has won the approval of ordinary Palestinians.

In the documentary, Shaheen discusses this. “From the day we were born, we’ve never understood what it is to be free, because we were born under an occupation. The first thing a child who grows up in a refugee camp learns is not to be afraid,” she says.

“Without anyone having to explain it, he knows that there’s no room to fear the Israeli soldiers who can enter any house they choose, or the sounds of gunfire. That’s just a part of our lives in the camp, so it’s important to make our voices heard through our music.”

As Abu Laban sees it, Ettijah has been a huge success and symbolizes the social changes in the refugee camp. “Deheisheh is different from other refugee camps – it has a population of educated people who grew up in the late '70s, when Palestinian refugees began to realize that education is the only key to success, the only way to break out of the camp and integrate into Palestinian society,” she said.

“Even though life in the camp entails a lot of problems, like a lack of services, fragile infrastructure, water shortages and crowding, there’s an art scene. People from outside the camp come for music, art, creativity and dabke folk-dance workshops. Every year there’s a festival for films on refugee life.”

Will the Ettijah rappers be able to develop themes outside the struggle against the occupation?

Palestinian women wait to cross the Qalandia checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem in 2017. 'We’ve never understood what it is to be free, because we were born under an occupation'.Credit: ABBAS MOMANI / AFP

Noam Zitzman, co-author with Naama Aviad of the book “A Soundtrack of Revolutions,” said: “They do what's expected of them as women, but actually with rap it's important that the songs and music reflect who they are as musicians – without staying in the comfort zone. It’s part of the Palestinian rap scene in the West Bank, which has been mobilized for the national struggle and opposition to the occupation.

“These songs have an audience, but the messages are always the same messages. That remains the case, though there are Palestinian rappers in Israel like Tamer Nafar, whose music is critical of himself and the society he comes from. He’s an example of a rapper who has broken through barriers and is challenging social constructs.”

As the 22-year-old woman who dropped out of the band put it, “Everybody interferes in everybody else’s affairs and with women’s decision-making, and the top priority is the Palestinian struggle. That makes it hard as women to talk about ourselves. So how do you expect us to criticize the patriarchy?”

Ettijah rap group. 'It’s obvious that the life of a Palestinian musician trying to create subversive music is in danger, and for a female musician that goes double'.Credit: Doha Debates

She points to the cancellations of Palestinian cultural events in the West Bank. “No one dares talk about it openly. Everything remains a mystery, but it’s obvious that the life of a Palestinian musician trying to create subversive music is in danger, and for a female musician that goes double,” she said.

Palestinian women in Israel, meanwhile, have it much easier. Zitzman gives as an example the Lod band DAM, which features Nafar, the female rapper Maysa Daw and Mahmoud Jreri. “Palestinian musicians in Israel have the privilege of coming out against the patriarchy. In Deheisheh, that isn’t an option,” Zitzman said.

He's skeptical about Ettijah's future. “Will the Palestinian patriarchy in the refugee camps let them develop ... will they be able to preserve the success they're enjoying now? This is the challenge they face,” Zitzman said.

Abu Laban won't make a forecast for the band, but she stresses the importance of their work in empowering Palestinian women. “As a director, the most important message I can send is one showing a Palestinian woman outside traditional social patterns. It’s important to show that women can create, each in her own way,” she said.

“I believe the film reveals an added dimension to what's expected of a Palestinian woman – to be a sensitive creature who cries or the mother of a martyr. It’s important to show a wide range of Palestinian women.”

At the end of the film, we see a meeting of the band with the next generation of girls from Deheisheh. It’s winter, and they stick notices on the walls inviting young women to join a rap workshop for beginners.

The meeting takes place in a room at the cultural center, where the members of Ettijah introduce themselves and talk about how music impacts their lives.

“Our job is to be a role model also for the generation that follows us, especially for young women, to help them grow and develop just as we did,” rapper Shaheen says in the film. “We have to give them a push, young girls, to live their lives another way. When they sing rap, they’re freely expressing what they feel and think.”

Katrine Dermody, executive producer for digital at Doha Debates, is optimistic. “This is the story of a generation that's often left outside the world media, and that's why the film about Ettijah is so important,” she said.

“It’s because of the place where the band grew up, which serves as an inspiration for them. Their message is relevant to anyone who has ever felt oppressed, alienated and not heard enough.”

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