Burkha Rapper

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Sofie Ashraf is an artiste of her times, a creative force informed by the post 9/11 world, a daring new voice like none other

Yarabbi-bil Mustafa/ Ghallil magaa seedhaana/ Wa firlanaa maamaadha/ Ya wasiyal karaami (O My Creator Allah/Fulfill my aims in life/Forgive our sins/O Allah, you are the Greatest)

When you see me/ Is this all you see?/ Oppressed coz I’m dressed as my creed has decreed/ It’s my choice, my way to voice/ What I believe in and leave an identity/What is Islamic terrorism?/ This is quite an erroneous term/ Gimme back my faith/ Don’t hijack my faith/ Don’t hate me for an idiot’s mistake
Salaatullah/ Here’s my prayer/ All I want is Islam in the clear/ From those who pollute, convolute and misuse/ Their belief’s misconceived/ Spread your love, not your fear. —from Salaatullah, written after the Mumbai attacks and performed for the first time at the Justice Rocks concert organised by Youth For Social Change, in Chennai in December. The proceeds went to victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy.


SOFIE ASHRAF is political theatre. She is a girl in a burkha who raps on Islam in the time of terrorism. She is 21 years old.

The burkha rapper, they call her. Born to a devout, wealthy Malayali Muslim family, Sofie studies graphic design at Chennai’s leading arts college for girls. She calls her latest band Peter Kaapi. (Peter is a mocking term used by locals for those who insist on speaking English. And Kaapi, of course, is coffee, pronounced the Tamil way.)

That’s Sofie. She takes on multiple identities—the burkha, the rapper, Peter, Kaapi—smiles a trust-me smile, and throws them together. Kaboom! She likes the sound of exploding myths.

She’s the younger of two sisters, and the more extroverted one. She comes from a matriarchal society. When her parents were married, her father moved from Kerala into her mother’s home in Chennai.

The rapper adores her mother, almost reverentially so. She is her closest, most trusted ally, and Sofie realises how much she worries each time Sofie goes up on stage and dares the outrage of some misguided fanatic.

Music is only one of the million things Sofie has going on in her life any given day. But a singular theme runs through them all. Islam. Sofie is a huge fan of the Prophet, and she has found some ingenious ways to flaunt it.

She won’t be upstaged by terrorists and their propaganda. And she won’t be silenced by the dangerous prejudices that threaten her. What she will do is something that is impossible to ignore. Salaatullah. It was her declaration of solidarity. Her audience was ecstatic. She was a star.

Sofie’s life and art revolve around her religion. Her artistic pursuits live in harmony with her religious inclinations. Which is why a lingerie dispenser for young adults she designed during one of her internships is pinned up next to a poster with a verse from the Quran on it. One does not cancel out the other. They strangely and colourfully coexist on her wall, as they do in her life.

There’s also theatre. Sofie loves acting. But she only takes up roles that can be performed in a burkha. When she can’t act on stage, she does backstage work. What she also does, however, is write plays that have roles for girls in burkha. She has plans to start an Islamic theatre festival.

Watching Sofie rehearse with her band at her house for the second Justice Rocks concert only adds to the mystique of the person behind the veil. Darting across the room, setting up equipment, mixing sound, cracking jokes, composing music, serving refreshments, laughing, collaborating, getting things done, she is Activity Central. She is the smallest person (barely 5 ft) in the room, but Sofie is clearly boss. She calls the shots and knows exactly what she wants. When she talks, everybody listens. Her charm offensive spares no one. Time for a Q&A:

Q Why rap?

A Because I can’t sing! (laughs) But I love music, so it had to be rap. My sister sings really well... but I can’t sing to save my life. So, you see, it really is an inspiring story! It’s not a political statement, more a practical move? Exactly, although it turned out for the best. There is something about rap that is so cathartic. The essence of what you want to say is upheld by rap. It wasn’t as if I decided to wear a burkha and rap. It just happened. The burkha was my identity and I didn’t want to let go of it. Soon, the burkha and the rap formed an identity of itself, and people started recognising me as the burkha rapper. But at that time, I wasn’t rapping about Islam because I don’t believe in shoving my ideals down people’s throats. The Justice Rocks concert was the first platform where I felt the setting and timing were right to talk about Islam. The Mumbai attack had just happened and everyone was waiting for a proactive Muslim to come out and say what Islam was about. I was just blown away by the response. So many people came to me after the concert and said they really liked what we did and that they would like to hear more.

Q Why the burkha?

A I started wearing the burkha in my first year of college. Our lives have always centred around Islam. So, the burkha came easy. I tried it on for the first time during an Islamic convention and after that, I just didn’t feel like taking it off. It was just the comfort level. There are those who are not convinced about the burkha, sure. But most of us who wear it are comfortable with it. Now that we wear it, we feel empty without it, naked. We can’t go out in public without it. When I told my mother I wanted to wear the burkha, she asked me to think it over. Islam, she said, wasn’t some funky thing to do. But I was ready. In this household, nothing is forced.

Q Is there any displeasure from your community for rapping in burkha on Islam?

A There might be people who are against it, but they don’t approach me. They might have their reasons. If I am wrong, then maybe I should correct myself. But a lot of people are very impressed. Many Muslims today want the world to know who we are. But they are scared to do so or just don’t have the time or the opportunities. So many of my friends’ parents have actually come up to me and congratulated me for what I am doing. There is a line in the Quran that says: ‘To you your religion, and to me mine.’ And so they are letting me express myself the way I want to.

In 2007, Sofie started the Muslim Youth Culture, a weekly gathering of relatively well-off young girls, to help strengthen their Islamic identities. It’s a big hit, with people turning up in search of answers to questions about their religion, asked of them at their schools and colleges. The forum has discussions and debates on current affairs, history and inter-faith issues, apart from study sessions on the Quran and other religious beliefs.

But it’s also where the girls can have some serious fun. What colour to streak one’s hair? Is Facebooking ‘haraam’ (forbidden)? Thanks to Sofie, the study and practice of Islam around here has a cool quotient. “If Sofie was a boy,” says a member of the group, “my mother would have me married to her.” With that ringing endorsement, here’s another short Q&A:

Q As a young person, have you ever questioned the burkha?

A I grew up, watching my mum wear the veil, and it was natural that I start too. It was just a way of life. And sure, there have been times when I saw clothes that I really liked. And that is exactly why I started wearing the burkha. Now, I can just buy them and wear them under the burkha. I have a very eccentric sense of style, very punk rock. You see, I wear a tie with everything. When you are really passionate about something, it shows in everything that you do. It’s like when you really like a band, you wear T-shirts of that band. Well, we really, really like Islam, so we wear the burkha. This is just me wearing my convictions on my sleeve. I have never been scared of doing my own thing.

Q How did your friends react to your wearing it?

A My friends just accept me for who I am. And it is really cute when my Hindu and Christian friends remind me when it is time to pray, because they see me pray so many times. I think society is very open, and, masha’allah, I have been lucky. In fact, I have a lot of friends who respect me for wearing the burkha. Initially, people are a little wary of the girl in the burkha. They are like ‘Can I, like, talk to her?’ or ‘Can I crack jokes around her?’ People are so scared (laughs). But I don’t blame them. There is so much stigma around the burkha. But once they get to know me, they are very comfortable around me. But I have had some funny experiences. Once, a guy on the road screamed ‘Saddam Hussein’ at me! I don’t know what he was thinking. So I said ‘Yeah, we are related’. (laughs)

Sophie’s first rap solo, a remixed version of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, talks indirectly about why she wears the burkha.

Jus ‘coz I’m little, don’t you play with me/ Got a couple of questions/ What’s with all the tension/ First impressions aside/ Freshen your mind/ It’s an expression of beliefs/ My convictions on my sleeves/ This rendition of tradition/ I just don’t wanna leave/ You look at me and fret/ How I wonder what you are/ What you see is what you get/ This ain’t over yet/ Don’t you dare forget/ I’m gonna be a star

—From T.W.I.N.K.L.E, written during her first year at Justice Basheer Ahmed Sayeed College for Women

Sofie insists she is not a feminist. There are boundaries she will not cross with men. Her religion, she says, does not encourage too much physical contact between a man and woman. For starters, she does not shake hands with men. She greets them with a namaste. She prefers not to get “huggy and feely”, she says.

Yet, there is no hint of awkwardness when she jams with her band members, Ajay, Jitin and Parth. What there is, is great chemistry. Only, when the guys say ‘hello’, they do it with folded hands, and, of course, they can’t ask her out. Sofie plans to get married later this year.

Sofie accepts and defends such limits set for her by her religious tradition. “It is not that I don’t trust myself. It is just that I trust God more. I believe in playing within the lines. There is always a way to have fun and still abide by the rules of Islam. When you break rules, you end up hurting a lot of people.”

And so, Sofie walks the tricky path of following her heart, but not pissing people off. Her philosophy: “Speak your mind, but don’t hurt people.” She credits her mother for teaching her how to do that. Clearly, it is a strategy that works for her. She is, after all, theburkha rapper, and one people are pleased to have around.

No matter what the political leanings of her listeners—conservative, liberal, secular, religious—they cheer for her. She makes sure everyone has something to love about her. Everyone from her 70-year-old grandmother, who picks out a designer burkha for her to wear to concerts, to the 21-year-old IIT student who swears he hasn’t seen anyone like her.

Hence, the inevitable question. Has she thought about politics? She was, after all, president of the student’s union in college. “It is only one of the million things that I wanted to do. I doubt I’ll get into it. The only reason I thought about it was because it is unfair to complain and not do anything about it.” The new generation, she laments, is “completely zoned out when it comes to politics”.

When New York’s Twin Towers came down, Sofie got hooked to the news. She would eventually learn of Islamophobia. And with the spate of terrorist attacks within India, she felt perceptions of Islam shift and harden. “I was angry at the terrorists. There was also fear, but mostly anger, for (trying to) destroy a beautiful religion and the relationship between Indian Muslims and other Indians.”

For all her views, Sofie does not like to describe herself as political. She finds labels constrictive. “I would say I am more practical than political. The problem with ‘political’ is that you become associated with an ideology, you stand for something. But I am constantly evolving. If I make a mistake, I can change. Being practical allows you to experiment.”

That may be why the world somehow seems to always fall in place for Sofie. As she drives frantically to her next destination in her Maruti car adorned with floral patterns, she makes a playful confession. “There is this really cool anime (Japanese animation) called The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya in which the entire world is made just to amuse her, the main character.” And then, laughing, she adds, “I sometimes feel the world is created just to amuse me. Because things, masha’allah, always go right.”

But the real reason why Sofie gets her way is revealed by another confession. “People tend to think that someone who tries to be different and someone who breaks the rules are the same. I work within the rules, but I find those little loopholes that allow me to do my thing.”

On that note, here’s her voice again

Speak your mind and you get jailed/ Fallacy rules where art has failed/ Crude movies make super hits/ Intellect and passion’s called it quits/ Political speeches are a huge heap/ Of Beep Beep Beep Beep Beep Beep/ Even this song has been censored/ You just can’t talk free and unfettered

—A rap song penned by Sofie for a play.