Western media often portrays Muslim women as victims of a crushing patriarchal regime. It is such a widely-spread stereotype that many of us have even stopped questioning it. However, oppression doesn’t have to breed victimhood – it can be a source of motivation and change, a “fertile ground from which resistance can be weaponised,” as the Lebanese band Mashrou Leila remind us in the video of their song “Roman.”
Created in collaboration with Jessy Mousallem, a young female director from Lebanon, the 4-minute featurette depicts women dressed in figure-hiding Middle Eastern clothing and wearing an assortment of veils, ranging from headscarves to face-covering niqab. Throughout the video the women engage in a variety of dynamic, empowering activities. Even dancing becomes an expression of freedom, rather than a sexualized act meant to please the male gaze. The dance moves are energetic and irregular – a pure celebration of physical strength and endurance.
While the all-male members of the band are present in the video, it is never about them. They take a back seat (quite literally), as the narrative focuses on the women who band together to form a coalition. “The video purposefully attempts to revert the position of the (male) musicians as the heroes of the narrative, not only by subjecting them to the (female) gaze of the director, but also by representing them as individuals who (literally) take the backseat as the coalition moves forward,” reads the band’s official video description.
The song’s lyrics are fittingly powerful, lamenting the pain of abuse and betrayal, and building up to a refrain which is quite literally an incitement to push forward (“Aleihum!” which mean “Charge!” in Arabic) Meanwhile, the title of the song, and the concept of the Roman as a whole, is perhaps an allusion to cultural divide – in the Arabic tradition, the word Roman can refer to all non-Muslims in general. Therefore, the lyrics “How can you sell me to the Romans!/ How did I lose you to the Romans!” are arguably an imploration not to project the western-view of Muslim women as victims in the Arabic community.
Mashrou Leila, who refer to themselves as “extremely vocal feminists,” described “Roman” in the following terms: “The video self-consciously toys with the intersection of gender with race by celebrating and championing a coalition of Arab and Muslim women, styled to over-articulate their ethnic background, in a manner more typically employed by Western media to victimise them.”
Watch “Roman” here and let us know what you think!