A 27-year-old woman based in Los Angeles is getting continuous death threats on social media, and her only offense is her voice.
Rotana Tarabzouni grew up in Dhahran, a city on the eastern shores of Saudi Arabia. Growing up there, she wasn’t allowed to pursue her dream of becoming a singer. But since she moved to the U.S. three years ago, she has quit her job, gotten a Master’s degree, and launched her musical career.
“My relationship with music was internal for the longest time,” Tarabzouni, 27, told Fusion. “Music was never as something that was even allowed to be a dream.”
In L.A., Tarabzouni took off her traditional headscarf, stopped wearing the black old-fashioned abaya (dress), and started to sing at clubs. Meanwhile, females in Saudi Arabia are still not allowed to drive, study, or travel alone without a male guardian’s permission.
Her new path challenges many traditions and cultural expectations in Saudi Arabian society. “A lot of people are saying ‘Oh my God! Who does she think she is?’” Tarabzouni told Fusion. People back home sent her several death threats on Instagram. Others wrote “Blasphemy!” on her YouTube video clips. (In Saudi Arabia, depending on the judge, punishments for blasphemy range from public flogging to the death sentence.)
Tarabzouni is well aware that she publicly defied traditions, and she’s happy to have started a conversation. By following her dream, she has created a channel for virtual dialogue between two polar opposite groups in Saudi Arabia.
“Some people can’t handle for their beliefs to be challenged, and that makes them angry," she said. "And it makes other people happy. When those angry and happy people argue, I say that is fantastic!”
Commenters on Tarabzouni’s social media accounts seem to be split into two camps: the supporters and the haters. “They should take away your passport, and marry you off to a man who will make you forget the stupid singing thing,” one commenter wrote on her Instagram account in Arabic. Another comment reads, “I'm really proud of u because u r a girl from my country and u break the stupid traditions. KEEP GOING.”
“At the end, everyone just wants to be heard,” Tarabzouni said.
Tarabzouni has used her music to help advance political and cultural causes in Saudi Arabia. One of the causes she advocated for was women’s right to drive. A few years ago, she made her own version of the song “Team” by Lorde. In it, she sings the rewritten lyrics: “We live in cities you won't see onscreen. Not very pretty, but we sure know how to drive free.” The clip has gotten more than 350,000 views on YouTube since its release.
She writes her own music, too. “Never Going Back” is a song she wrote and hopes to sing on a stage in Saudi Arabia one day.“Hey, can you imagine answering to no one, only to your heart?” she sings.
Back home, Tarabzouni was a public relations specialist at Aramco, a well-known oil company in Saudi Arabia. After she decided to stay in the U.S., she went back to formally quit her job there. “I was the poster child of that company. Everyone loved me. Here I am two years later, going back not covered. It was tough,” she recalled.
Even though she managed her first trip into Saudi Arabia safely the risks still exist. It only takes a “snitch or one bored person,” to report her to authorities in Saudi Arabia, said Tarabzouni. Regardless of all her fears and worries, she is determined to go back. “I see no use in everything that I’m trying to build, if I can't go back and have a dialogue about it.”
Tarabzouni recently raised $45,000 in 30 days online to fund her very first song collection.
Alaa Basatneh is a human-rights activist and a writer at Fusion focusing on the Arab world. She is the protagonist of the 2013 documentary "#ChicagoGirl."