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Beats for women: Turkey's star hijabi DJ leads dance revolution

Turkey's popular DJ Safir says women love the freedom of her all-female shows regardless of their politics or ideology.

There has been an increasingly popular trend in Turkey and among Turkish expats in Europe: DJs in headscarves who entertain at alcohol-free parties that are ladies-only in both staff members and audience.

DJing is a complicated issue, especially as a woman,” writes Erel Eryurek, who played her own first professional set in 2007. In an industry where there are few women, a veiled DJ breaks additional stereotypes. By enhancing their visibility and taking space, they confidently claim a role in Turkey’s entertainment sector. The veiled DJs in particular smash perceptions of what visibly Muslim women can or cannot do.

Not everyone approves. Conservative Muslim men have claimed that veiled DJs playing music or doing any job at all is haram, or inappropriate for a pious woman. Some popular conservative writers have gone so far as to criticize the entire Turkish middle class: “From hookah cafes to baby shower parties, from Instagram hijabi influencers to tea romanticizing, a world of weirdness has infiltrated our lives,” wrote Yeni Safak’s Ismail Kilicarslan. He went on, “The conservative middle class and the secular middle class, hand in hand, went clearly insane.”

Nevertheless, the demand for women DJs at ladies-only parties has only increased in the last few years. Some of them have expanded their services and founded their own event companies — becoming players in the ever-growing entertainment sector. Some veiled DJs take part in not only Turkish weddings but also those of Arab or Iranian clients who reside in Turkey.

One of the most popular veiled DJs in Turkey works under name DJ Safir (DJ Sapphire). She told Al-Monitor that she choose the name “because it is one of the most precious stones in the world, and its blue color symbolizes trust, responsibility and honesty.”

This is her fifth year as a professional DJ, but music has been part of her life since childhood. She often sang at family gatherings, before learning to play and then teaching guitar. In 2015, she was invited to DJ an event as an amateur in Istanbul. She liked it so much that she signed up for courses in a DJ school in Istanbul and immediately started work upon finishing. From the very beginning, she chose to invest in the best technological equipment on the market.

Today, through media appearances, a social media presence and magazine interviews, she has become a trend-setter in the sector. “People didn’t use to know what being a DJ means,” she explained to Al-Monitor. “We have introduced in Turkey the meaning of the profession and the kind of performance it can entail.”

Her manager Huseyin Melikoglu clarified that there are hundreds of women DJs in Turkey today, but their quality can be questionable. “This job cannot be done with a laptop alone,” he said. “Otherwise, everyone could be DJing at home. There needs to be a training process, to get to know the technical aspects of it and music as well, to master stage performance, tone, diction, etc. Unfortunately, in Turkey, so-called DJs who have set playlists, go to wedding and salons and work like that. Calling them DJs is one’s choice, but eliminating them would leave DJs who do the job in the real sense of the word.”

With a thriving online presence including a popular hashtag #kizlarhazirmiyiz (#girlsareweready), a phrase the audiences say together at her performances, DJ Safir has built a brand of her own. Her performances in Turkey usually last three hours, while events in Germany or elsewhere in Europe, where the Turkish diaspora is concentrated, can go for five hours of non-stop music. She uses no playlists but creates unique sets depending “on the flow and the energy” from the audience. Usually, the clients — who may range from private companies and municipalities to women staging bachelorette parties — can suggest songs or genres, but the general agreement is that DJ Safir holds reins. She has a couple thousand songs stored in a few flash drives and carefully organized based on genre and time period. She plays both foreign and local music, including a wide array of beloved hits from the previous decades as well as new ones. Rihanna is popular among young Turks, who enjoy dancing to foreign pop music.

DJ Safir is in high demand. The performance she has booked for Aug. 23, for example, was arranged 18 months earlier. Her record for one month was 23 shows and she has sometimes done two in a single day. The month of March is usually very busy because of numerous Women’s Day celebrations. But she is enthusiastic and happy about keeping busy, explaining: “Our country is so rich in culture, it is delightful for me to learn so much — not just about different kinds of foods, but about traditions, music, dances. It is my pleasure to reach out to local people wherever I perform.”

DJ Safir said she is grateful for the freedom that visibly Muslim women in Turkey now have “to do the job they want, to walk where they want, to recreate themselves and have fun wholeheartedly and with ease.” Throughout the interview, she emphasized her open-mindedness and inclusivity and the necessity for solidarity among women regardless of one’s culture or political ideology.

She repeated several times that women come up to her and profess their initial prejudices to the idea of a veiled DJ, and these ideas are wiped away by the end of the night. “Music is really something else. It is universal, it brings people together, makes them whole. I don’t like bigotry and I always try to interact with people while trying to understand them and their background. Only then can we deal with our shortcomings,” she said.

She also underlined that music is not forbidden to women under Islam. “In the time of the Prophet Muhammad, women also had fun among themselves. Then, they used tambourines. This is human natural need. Some people find leisure and release in reading books, some in walking, some in singing, some in dancing to music. Everyone likes different things,” she added.

“We explain as much as we can, but some people’s perceptions cannot be changed no matter what,” said Melikoglu.

The women-only shows are not limited to pious groups and events, as many women who pay to come to the all-female parties claim to feel freer and more comfortable to dance and relax in such environments without men.

DJ Safir said she would love to make her own music in the future, though right now she just does not have the time — her energy is devoted to making sure that people who hire her remember their big days — be it a company event or a bachelorette party. “It needs to be nice, beautiful; people should be left happy at the end of the night.”

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