Rajae El Mouhandiz: “Muslim women are still being pushed into the background”


After the albums Incarnation & Hand of Fatima the Dutch-Moroccan singer Rajae El Mouhandiz will release her third album at the end of this year. On March 8, during International Women’s Day, she launched a taste of what’s coming with the song Gracefully.

Rajae who? In Flanders Rajae isn’t nearly as famous as in the Netherlands and further afield. In November 2012 she proudly featured in the Muslim 500 list, the list of the 500 most influential muslims in the world, and for the fourth time at that. As the only contemporary artist in the list, among artists like Mos Def, Dave Chapelle, Sami Yusuf, Maher Zain and Youssou N’Dour. But Rajae is primarily a singer, songwriter and composer. I spoke with her in Antwerp, Belgium, about how she is going to conquer the world with her new projects.


Cover GracefullyRajae’s music is soul with an Arab twist. The part-Moroccan, part-Algerian singer gently flirts with pop, jazz and folk, mixing those with her Moroccan influences. She went into retreat for some time in the city of Leiden, the Netherlands where she recorded a string of demo’s. In the course of a few months she collected 25 songs. “I became stronger with each song. I just didn’t feel well. It’s a lonely process and I shared my music on Facebook, among others.” That way, Rajae received a lot of requests. She felt ready to really enter into the studio. Thus, she was offered to shoot her Gracefully video in Los Angeles. She recorded the song in Texas, in an environment awash with creativity.


© Mike Velvet Photography

 She chose Gracefully because it felt like that. “Gracefully is cheerful, full of love and is about friendship. It may apply to your sister, or a friend. There’s different ways in life to handle tension. From fleeing to becoming angry. I want my family and friends to deal with me gracefully. I am someone who needs time to allow someone into my life. I have experienced things that made me cautious. People who deal with you caringly and patiently are people there to staty. Real friendship and love is like coming home.” A metaphore for the stage she is in, which is spiritual, about friendship. “We are ourselves responsible for our happiness.”

In the video Rajae plays with her western side, but also with her muslim side. “It is a part of me. I have curly hair, but I also wear a headscarf. As a Moroccan muslima I want to express I can do otherwise too.” Rajae wants to show there is not just one muslima, but that it’s a diverse picture. That is what she continually wants to express. “Muslima’s in the music industry are still being pushed into the background.” Which she also shows on her single sleeve, where she’s depicted in the shade.

Gracefully will be released in a commercial dance remix version this summer too. She’s toying with the idea to release a single during Ramadan (the muslims’ month of fasting). “If there’s Christmas songs being released, why no Ramadan songs?”, she says.



“Muslim women are still being pushed into the background”

Rajae wanted more than just releasing a single. Just releasing a single she finds too superficial, but just a documentary would be too heavy. The combination of a carefree, cheerful video clip and a very deep movie reinforces the idea she wants to transmit. In her short documentary ¡HOPE! she discusses typecasting, but also dogma from both conservative western and islamic angle. Rajae, explaining why she does this: “I have fought hard. I have been fighting for 18 years. My dream has come of age and now I have to make a statement: there are too few muslima’s in the music industry. She felt the urge to write a text, that resulted in a short documentary.

The movie has a black and white atmosphere, with lots of shade, and breathes fashion, something that is becoming her trade mark. “Everyone who has seen the film has got to cry. Every muslima just bursts into tears. What I’m getting at, is that people are still being put in the shade. You can’t discuss women’s lib and freedom if you’re put in some kind of void.” Rajae wants to engage in a dialogue on the position of the muslim woman in the media, the movie and music industry. She feels it is high time there’s more support for this group of artists, that represents a large target group and is being pushed into the background both intentionally and unintentionally.


© Mike Velvet Photography

In the film, Rajae speaks out using images, emotion, storytelling and music. “Our archetypes have an image of oppression. In my monologue with the west I am speaking as Rajae, artist and woman. And I express myself with emotions; at the same time I’m constantly changing my appearance. Like the world sees us.” But at the same time she wants to encourage muslim women to go for an artistic career. Most of the time these women themselves want to stay in the background, despite the talent they have. “If we are to get a better image in the media, we have to depict stories. And as a religious person you can’t stop that. It happens in Morocco, Turkey and Malaysia, but in Europe we have a very fundamentalist attitude; you only have to travel to a muslim country where a lot is going on by way of theatre, movies, etc., to find out.”

The short documentary has a duration of five minutes. There is a second movie in the making that will be shot in Morocco. For Rajae, it feels like a blessed project. ¡HOPE! Has been entered in several film festivals, but also forms part of the Muslima exhibition Rajae has been selected for.


MUSLIMA exhibition, 4 countries, 4 museums

© Mike Velvet Photography

 ¡HOPE! will premiere during the launch of a pioneering international group exhibition, a joint venture by four museums, in Denmark, the US, the Philippines and the United Arab Emirates. Sixty muslim women, each expression a different vision, form the centre piece. Rajae is the only Dutch woman to have been selected. The exhibition aims to present a diverse image of muslim women and has been organized by the International Museum of Women in San Francisco. “There isn’t just one kind of woman. I am entering representing Denmark. How can I build bridges? There should be more effort to develop talent. It can’t be that you have to distance yourself from your religion to be accepted by the western industry. It can’t be you have to disown your background to get opportunities. Muslima is an opportunity for me and an opportunity for other women,” Rajae explains.

Through multidisciplinary works, various cultural, social and political subjects will collectively be discussed. Rajae’s short movie, photographs, single and video will be exhibitied and she will continue to produce work for the exhibition throughout the year, elaborating two themes: love and appearance. “How I deal with different forms of appearance. What the west shows is one image. You can’t portray muslim women in just one way. I show ten images and work together with the fashion industry. It is folklore, emotion and culture.” She distances herself from the works of artists Lalla Essaydi and Nesrin Neshat, who use photography to explore identity. “OK. But really the old world, I am looking at the blogosphere and Instagram, how they deal with appearance. That drives me wild. To confront people with appearance.” As concerns the love theme, during her shows she travels through love. “The love for Allah, for the umma (the community of all muslims), the love for human rights, the love for mankind, the love for my brothers and sister, the love for myself, and the love for my dearest one.”

Rajae isn’t busy converting people. “We have to learn another language to understand each other. Music is for all cultures. I’m ready to break through.” Nor does she want people to disavow their roots. “You have to be proud of your roots. Your roots are your compass.”

Rajae launched her single in the Netherlands on March 8 and presented her movie during the Lifestyle & Fashionevent EXCEPTION II, that was held at the Mozaïek podium in Amsterdam.

Rajae’s third album is to be released later in 2013.


This post is also available in: Dutch