5 Jazz Women We Love

Jazz and Islam, Part IV

Recently Islamic supremacists in the Egyptian city of Mansoura made a statement: they dressed a statue of Umm Kulthum, the revered Egyptian chanteuse, 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 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.

Umm Kulthum

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.”

2. Billie Holiday, “Come Rain or Come Shine”

Another woman singing as if she actually had some say in the direction of her life and her relationships. The infidel audacity!

3. Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, “Dream A Little Dream of Me”

Romance, with its mutual respect and regard, is not in the best of health in the West, but in Islam, with its polygamy and other Islamic laws that reduce women to the status of commodities, this kind of joyful and light-hearted interplay is well nigh impossible. Yet the human spirit is always greater than the shackles forged for it. But it is the West that has given the world the best expressions of such glorious states of mind and heart – and that is no accident.

4. Sarah Vaughan, “On Green Dolphin Street”

And here’s another.

5. Dinah Washington, “Drinking Again”

Yes, love has its downside. It’s understandable, if not excusable, why the framers of Sharia so feared it. Perhaps some of them had known the desolation of love lost, of walking the deserted streets until dawn, wondering if the hole in their heart would ever heal. It can certainly, as Dinah Washington knew, drive one to drink. But the proper response to that is not control, subjugation, niqabs and burqas and FGM. The proper response is to get up and enter the fray again, for love, as Leonard Cohen so indelibly put it, is “the only engine of survival.”

The culture that celebrates love and allows the feminine spirit to breathe is one that takes risks. When something is not controlled, no one knows what may happen. And that is the core of the diverging view of society between the West and Islam: one seeks control of all aspects of life, one seeks freedom. Freedom is uncontrolled, risky, even dangerous. But it is free. Is the human spirit worthy of freedom, and capable of freedom? It has been, although now many people the world over are choosing slavery, accepting Islamic restrictions on the freedom of speech, freely choosing a life of endless regulation and control by others.

Slavery can be comfortable. One is freed from the burden of responsibility, and of decision-making. But that is precisely what makes it slavery.

Mansoura means “victorious” in Arabic: the city gets its name from the Egyptian defeat there of the French King Louis IX during the Seventh Crusade in the year 1250. But the veiling of Umm Kulthum was anything but a victory. It was, rather, the public proclamation of an awesome defeat, one of unimaginable proportions – one that heralds the subjugation and suffering of untold numbers of women, and the increasing poverty and precariousness of free and joyful people everywhere.

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