Last month when LA musician-researcher Tomal Hossain interviewed me, I didn't expect I would answer his questions so honestly. But somehow I did. Reading this write-up on his website makes me realize that it was the first time I really opened up about my personal journey as a writer-performer. So here it is, just in case you're interested to read:
"My fifth informant this week was Wani Ardy, a writer and singer-songwriter currently based in Ipoh in the state of Perak, Malaysia. Although her father was previously a multi-instrumentalist, he discouraged Wani from pursuing music from a young age, claiming that it was extraordinarily difficult for people to “make it” in the music industry. Her father was the disciplinarian of the household, pressuring her to start wearing the hijab at age 13 particularly for religious occasions. Both her parents were quite religious and had high expecations for her academics, which Wani unabashedly told me weren’t all that great during her primary and secondary schooling days except in the realms of the arts. Wani struggled mostly with math and sciences, but she also failed to reach khatam quran status (an achievement marking one’s completion of reading the quran) during her early religious education. When she really started getting into music, she told me that she had to practice guitar playing in secret, even though her elder brother had free reign to play guitar openly, which she holds to have been a glaring double standard. Dissuading her from majoring in music in college, Wani’s father influenced her decision to instead pursue “performing arts”, screenwriting, and screen arts, for which she graduated with first-class honors. It was while in college, then, that she started getting into theater, film, dance, costuming, and more. At this point, Wani’s parents gave up on their wishes for her to pursue a professional field outside of the arts. Wani started performing in public at the age of 18 and became especially visible while completing her diploma at UITM, performing secretly without her hijab on at various local venues. Things became prickly between Wani and her father after he discovered some of these performances on YouTube at age 20.
Things started to change for Wani and her relationship with spirituality and God after moving to Sydney, Australia in order to complete her postgraduate degree in creative writing at Macquarie University. It was in Australia that Wani first experienced hate and discrimination based on her facial features and her voluntary choice to wear the hijab. Such prejudice inspired Wani to turn more towards understanding and embracing the religion she grew up with, i.e. Islam. While abroad, she no longer enjoyed the privileges held by Malay Muslims in Malaysia, which many Malay Malaysians have described to me as being analagous to white privilege in the United States. From their characterizations, it seems to me that government afforded advantages for Malays is even more endemic than what exists (if any at all at the institutional level today in the US) for White Americans. Ironically, in a context in which it was hardest for her to practice her religion, Wani became that much more committed to spirituality. Upon first embracing the hijab out of her own will after years of shirking her “religious obligation”, Wani shared with me that she did not quite see the lifestyle change associated with observing hijab coming. Though outsiders may not realize it, the hijab is more than just a piece of cloth that covers one’s hair. Theoretically, it is one’s commitment to modesty and upholding one’s dignity. Some hijabis (women who wear the hijab) interpret this commitment in part as restricting one’s physical interactions with non-Mahram men. Wani thus found herself, among other changes, having to think twice before casually hugging old male friends of hers back in Malaysia. Much to her chagrin, after arriving back to the Malaysian music scene with her newfound commitment to spirituality in her personal life, she found herself being criticized by skeptics and continually typecast as an emulator of the popular Malaysian artist, Yuna, who is widely known for also wearing the hijab during her musical performances. Wani told me that she hopes and prays that more people would care less about “what’s on her head and more about what’s in her head.” Indeed, Wani bemoaned the disproportionate amount of scrutiny that female Muslim artists face being in the public eye as compared with male Muslim artists, limiting women’s freedom to express themselves on stage to the extent that men are able to do so. Muslim women carry an especially heavy burden of “preserving their dignity and honor” in life, which can translate to various phenomena on stage: less bodily exposure, less body movements, less expressiveness vocally or musically, and more. Nonetheless, more and more hijabis are becoming performing artists in Malaysia, and all of them come from differing backgrounds with differing commitments to spirituality and differing motivations to make art."