Image via Instagram

transgender pop star haiifa magic is breaking down biases in the arab world

We spoke to Haiffa about how she refuses to let societal standards silence her.

by Bo Hanna
24 January 2018, 4:18pm

Image via Instagram

This article was originally published by i-D UK.

Music has long held an important place in the lives of Arabs. In the past century, a number of Arab women have been at the forefront of the Middle Eastern music scene, with some reaching international stardom. Most notably Umm Kalthoum, Fairuz, and Dalida. But in the past decade, Lebanese singers like Nancy Ajram and Haifa Wehbe made their voices heard outside the Arab world.

Human rights activists say they are experiencing the toughest crackdown on the LGBTQ community seen in decades in Egypt, the primary hub for Arabic pop. At the same time, a growing number of female artists have been detained in the past three years.

Last year, a court in Egypt sentenced pop singer Shyma to two years in prison for “inciting debauchery” in a music video in which the pop star allegedly eats a banana in a “sensual” way. Similarly, in September, Mashrou' Leila, a Lebanese band with an openly gay frontman, played a concert in Cairo where a number of attendees waved rainbow flags, consequently fueling an LGBTQ-crackdown and a wave of arrests affecting up to 57 people.

In conservative and deeply religious countries, women are urged by politicians to remain timid and modest so as to avoid male harassment and, naturally, alluring female pop stars operating in this context are considered highly contentious. Singer Haifa Wehbe has long been at the height of controversy in the Arab world for her choice of "provocative" outfits worn on stage. A scandal last year resulted in an official ban of the pop star performing in Egypt or acting in Egyptian movies, after she performed in Cairo wearing a miniskirt.

28-year-old Haiifa Magic, a Beirut-based pop star who rose to fame for her imitation of Wehbe’s provocative looks — isn’t only controversial because of her appearance. As a transgender woman Magic is getting a lot of attention, including recently being interviewed on the most popular television channel in the Middle East. She's receiving a lot of backlash from many in the Arab world. But Magic is also to inspiring many from younger generations. With her call for diversity she has over half a million followers on Instagram, mostly young girls who want to buy her products, and LGBTQ people who admire her courage.

On a recent trip to Beirut, we spoke to Haiffa Magic about how she refuses to let societal standards silence her.

Can you talk about the responses you’ve received from the Arab world?
Haiifa Magic: I’m something new; there aren’t openly trans women present in the Arab music industry. The commotion I caused was mostly because of my gender identity. Journalists were framing my gender identity in a foolish way and saying I was “converted from man to woman”. I have more than a half million followers on Instagram and over two million views on YouTube, not only because I’m loved, but also because they hate or don’t understand me. That’s why I’m magic. I always say: 'You know my name, not my story and what I’ve been through.'

Would you tell us your story then?
Basically, I left my parents in Beirut when I was 17 years old. My parents love me, but they wanted me to behave in a modest way, so others wouldn’t bother them with stories about me. I moved to the United Arab Emirates where I started working as a makeup artist. After working a few years there, I left for Thailand when I was 22, to look for my liberty. A world opened up for me. I started my own cosmetics label and opened four stores within a year and a half. I noticed that a lot of Arab girls were interested in my products and were inspired by my looks. But because I was empowering girls to look good and feel confident, I got a lot of critics. I even had my Instagram account hacked.

Who were those critics?
Mostly conservative and deeply religious people who were saying I was a bad influence on young people in the region. They can’t stand that I’m an independent and successful woman, even though my gender identity is controversial.

What influence do you hope to have on younger generations?
I want to inspire girls to be independent and beautiful, because a lot of people tell them to follow men and cover their beauty. A lot of my fans are girls who admire my looks and get inspired by me. I also want to show them that plastic surgery isn’t a big deal. We improve our societies with technology and people feel better because of it, so why not? Everybody has the right to decide what they want to do with their body. Young girls also message me to get advice about love and relationships. I do also have a lot of LGBT fans, but I don’t want to frame myself as only an LGBT role model. First of all, I wasn’t the first person to change sex in Lebanon, but the first one that got famous. At the same time, I think I’m a role model for people that have been judged in their life for who they are. But the only thing the media focuses on is my gender identity and I’m so much more. I’m a strong business woman!

What message do you want to spread with your music?
In the lyrics of my songs I play with the many judgements I get confronted with in daily life. I find the judgements hypocritical. I’m not hurting anyone, my haters are the ones hurting me. In my song "Motawatera" (“Agitated” in Arabic) I sing about how tired I get of people’s judgements about who I am, who I love, how I dress, and so on. In my song " Asfoor" (“Birds” in Arabic) I’m singing about how people stare at me and are obsessed with my identity and appearance.

Why did you return to the Middle East?
At some point I wanted to see my family again and my brother pushed me to come back, so I returned to Lebanon. But I felt that my parents were still afraid of judgements about my looks and plastic surgery. I told them that God created me this way, and that I am just improved myself. I fell in love in Lebanon, and people attacked my partner but I stayed for him and to prove these people wrong — that I can be an independent and successful person that has her own business and a serious relationship.

What do you think about the growing number of female artists being detained?
I feel like we’re becoming more prudish in the Arab world. There are plenty old Egyptian movies with sensual scenes, so don’t tell me sexy video clips are something new. And what about sexy belly dancers? I think social media caused a moral panic in the Middle East, everything is much more exposed and the young generations are influenced by figures like me. I think this is how the older generation tries to deal with the influence of social media. At the same time, being too provocative isn’t necessary helpful, but I don’t think Haifa Wehbe’s miniskirt really shocked Egypt. There are plenty of beaches in Egypt with people walking half-naked around, so I guess it’s symbolic politics against Haifa Wehbe and her growing influence on youngsters. Successful people are always targeted… I also had a lot of barriers to overcome, but I stayed true to myself and continued to spread my message of love. My identity is maybe provocative for others, but it’s not my intention. I stopped being afraid of people, I’ve already been through a lot and that brought me to where I am today.

What is your aspiration for the future?
I just released a new music video, called "Shireet omri (Tape Of My Life)" where I sing about being different and society judging me for my identity. I also put a picture in the clip of my transition and show my fragile side as well. I sing, “It’s enough now, please stop judging and let people live their life.” This year, I want to have a louder voice in the fashion industry and show that beauty and diversity isn’t a sin. We have to embrace ourselves and open ourselves and stop judging each other.

peace week
haiifa magic