and the [BANNED] played on: deeyah

She sheds her burka – one moment completely concealed in black robes – to standing at the edge of a swimming pool wearing heels and a bikini…

For young music artist Deeyah, born of Afghan and Pakistani parents, it may have seemed a provocative act to perform in a music video. For audiences made cynically accustomed to hearing about censorship in the Muslim world, such expression would seem an unsurprising and obvious target for censors. Yet Deeyah, born in supposedly liberal modern Norway, has faced censorship in her own country since she was 7 years old.

Before 2006, when censorship forced her retreat from the concert stage, Deeyah was a chart success both in Norway and in Britain, a classically-trained musician in the traditions of Pakistan and North India, while threading her unique bell-like vocals into modern pop and contemporary song. This multicultural background has lead to rare musical distinctions, the only female ever to be trained by classical maestros like Ustad Sultan Khan while pop-sampled by music stars including Janet Jackson.

For Deeyah however, her talents and her troubles began from childhood, the moment she started to perform. While her father keenly encouraged her to play music, many Muslims who had left their home countries for Norway expressed displeasure that a girl should be making public performances. From albums like the critically acclaimed Deepika, she caused uproar by dancing with men in videos, finding herself the target of death threats, abuse, pepper spray at concerts and an attempted abduction. It was a violent non-government censorship that followed subsequent career moves to Britain, continuing to dog her concert career.

The ‘burka-to-bikini scene’ from song  “What Will it Be’ lead to censorship in Britain, banned by UK station network B4U because of threats of violence. Deeyah has not been silenced however. 

Though no longer able to perform, she has turned her talented ear to producing the culturally rich, Listen to the Banned, a collection of modern and traditional songs from artists censored by religion, cultural and political persecution. Artists are sourced from countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Artists like Farhad Darya, banned by Afghan Taliban against music of all kinds, or Ferhat Tunç, imprisoned in Turkey for singing songs about the plight of Kurdish people.

In addition, Deeyah has produced projects for the free expression of music, while founding MEMINI to highlight the many women to have dissappeared through violent honour killings. From personal struggles, Deeyah has banded together the banned- ready  to be heard. ♦

A beautiful intro to Listen to the Banned can be heard here or ordered through and Amnesty International Shop.