Intersectional Perspectives on Music, Gender, and Sexuality

Ethnomusicology frequently deals with the music and dance of people who are perceived to be “different”. However, one needn’t travel to far regions of the earth to do so—Vienna itself is home to a varied range of musical cultures that exist side by side. At the mdw’s Department of Folk Music Research and Ethnomusicology (IVE), studying the musics of migrant communities as part of the Department’s focus on minorities has a long tradition. Migrant groups are frequently subject to structural and individual discrimination—and in this context of societal marginalisation, the importance of one’s “own” music is high. One diaspora group that has been forming in Austria since the summer 2015 migrations is that of the Afghans: this group of nearly 50,000 people, among them mostly young male refugees, is now Austria’s largest Asian community. The group’s music- and dance-related scenarios are the focus of a research project at the IVE that has been running since 2016.¹

The asylum status of many Afghan refugees living in Austria is not yet clear, leaving their futures uncertain—the number of rejected applications and subsequent deportations is on the rise. Afghans’ political oppression is joined by individual discrimination in everyday life as well as media coverage that successfully conveys the trope of the young, potentially violent, sexually aggressive young Muslim male. Gender and sexuality seem to occupy central positions in the European debate on displacement and “otherness”. In politics and the media, conservative voices hostile to migration have suddenly discovered the virtues of gender equality and sexual freedom, pointing to “divergent” concepts of gender and sexuality as being clearly indicative of unbridgeable cultural differences and “backwardness”. “Ethnosexism” is what Gabriele Dietze calls this “culturalisation of gender, which is particularly discriminating toward ethnically marked people due to their alleged problematic or ‘primitive’ sexuality or sexual hierarchy” (Dietze 2016: 178).

Young Afghans at a club event held at Arena34, 1110 Vienna © Marko Kölbl

In considering such overlappings of migration and diaspora with gender and sexuality, music and dance represent a particularly revealing field of analysis where—in the case of Afghan refugees—social categories such as ethnicity, nationality and/or resident status, age, education, and class are also in play. A detailed look at just how these different dimensions of inequality interact—theoretically framed as “intersectionality” in gender studies—not only enables us to point out multiple processes of discrimination and marginalisation. It also helps us to understand the factors that influence conceptualisations of gender and sexuality within the community, conceptualisations that become clearly evident in music and dance.

In Afghanistan, 40 years of consecutive wars have affected and continue to affect the politics of gender and sexuality as well as the status of music and dance. The Taliban era, specifically, represented a severe setback in terms of the opportunities offered by society to girls and women. Contact between men and women outside the family became nearly impossible. The Taliban further issued a music ban, with musical instruments and cassettes being burned in public and both dancing and music-making being made punishable offences. Even during the period since the end of the Taliban’s rule, their repressive policies have persisted in the form of societal conventions—which are, however, encountering resistance, particularly in the form of music.

The Afghan pop diva Aryana Sayeed, for instance, raises her voice in favour of gender equality, mounting a successful challenge to the conservative stances in Afghanistan. In her songs, she takes on topics such as violence against women, patriarchal oppression, and the disciplining of women’s bodies—through dancing in her music videos and stage shows, she questions sexual morals while her outfits go against established clothing conventions. This does occasion controversy: Afghan clerics condemn her “sinful” demeanour, she has become a target of politically motivated attacks, and concerts in Afghanistan often have to be cancelled due to security concerns. But it’s in precisely these respects that Aryana Sayeed is effectively driving forward the debate on women’s rights in the country. Her ability to challenge social conventions to this extent is due in no small part to her biography. As a child, she fled via Pakistan to Switzerland and she now lives and works based in London. As a diaspora artist, she wields a strong influence over musical life in Afghanistan—a fact that is actually quite characteristic of the Afghan music scene, which would be significantly poorer without its global diaspora network.

Stars like Aryana Sayeed regularly give concerts in the centres of the Afghan diaspora in the global North, of which Vienna is one. The offerings here are accordingly rich, including concerts by superstars, performances by local musicians, private celebrations, and weddings. An especially important element in all this is dancing, which enables a collective bodily discourse on diaspora identity—leading to the emergence of a positively connoted “Afghan-ness” apart from the anti-Muslim racism being peddled by media and politics. Since mixed-gender dancing is taboo in terms of sexual morals, dancing between members of the same gender—or, more specifically: between men—is the social norm. The characteristic and skillful bodily movements of men and the fact that they are dancing with each other show how closely intertwined dance, notions of gender, and cultural traditions actually are while also making visible alternative concepts of masculinity.

For Afghan women living in Austria, on the other hand, carefree dancing at public events isn’t something one can just do—and tackling this problem has become something of a personal mission for Sonja Latifi. This Austrian woman, who had to flee from Kabul to Vienna with her parents at the age of three, seeks to provide women with opportunities to enjoy music and dancing without having to worry about being ostracised. At the events she puts on, Sonja Latifi vigilantly makes sure that no photos or videos of attendees escape the concert venue via social media, since this could put her guests in compromising situations. She recalls the first concert organised by her event agency Khatera Event: “I saw how truly happy these women were. And when they came over to thank me after the concert, they hugged me and began shedding tears.” It was her own process of emancipation that inspired her to work for the empowerment of Afghan women: “I want to help these women. I want to enable them to keep developing, to obtain more education, and to be more confident.” Sonja Latifi’s longer-term vision is to normalise these social changes, ultimately and not insignificantly making it possible for everybody to dance together—independent of gender or origins.


Dietze, Gabriele. 2018. “Ethnosexismus. Sex-Mob-Narrative um die Kölner Sylvesternacht”, in: movements. Journal for Critical Migration and Border Regime Studies 2/1 (2016), pp. 177–185,–ethnosexismus.html (Accessed: 1 July 2018).

Baily, John 2017. War, Exile and the Music of Afghanistan. The Ethnographer’s Tale, New York: Routledge.


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