Saudi women DJs go from hobbyists to headliners

Saudi women DJs go from hobbyists to headliners

After resistance from their families and the general public, the female DJs are turning their pastime into a career.
01 Aug, 2022

Standing behind her control tower with headphones around her neck, Saudi DJ Leen Naif segues smoothly between pop hits and club tracks for a crowd of business school graduates noshing on sushi.

The subdued scene is a far cry from the high-profile stages — a Formula 1 Grand Prix in Jeddah, Expo 2020 in Dubai — that have helped the 26-year-old, known as DJ Leen, make a name for herself on the Saudi music circuit.

Yet it captures an important milestone: Women DJs, an unthinkable phenomenon just a few years ago in the traditionally ultraconservative kingdom, are becoming a relatively common sight in its main cities. These days they turn few heads as, gig after gig, they go about making a living from what once was merely a pastime.

“A lot of female DJs have been coming up,” Naif told AFP, adding that this has, over time, made audiences “more comfortable” seeing them on stage. “It’s easier now than it has been.”

Naif and her peers embody two major reforms championed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler: new opportunities for women and expanding entertainment options — notably music, which was once discouraged under Wahabism, a rigid Sunni version of Islam.

The possibility that DJs would be welcomed at public events, let alone that many would be women, is something “we didn’t expect” until recently, said Mohammed Nassar, a Saudi DJ known as Vinyl Mode. “You are seeing now more female artists coming out,” he said. Before “it was just a hobby to express themselves in their bedrooms”. “Now we have platforms, and you know they could even have careers. So it’s really amazing,” he added.

Winning over sceptics

Naif was first introduced to electronic music as a teenager by one of her uncles, and she almost instantly started wondering whether DJ’ing was a viable job. While her friends dreamed of careers as doctors and teachers, she knew she didn’t have the patience for the schooling those paths required. “I’m a work person, not a studying person,” she said.

Unlike other women DJs, she had the immediate support of her parents and siblings. Other Saudis, however, required some winning over. Several years ago, a man came up to her mid-performance, declaring she was “not allowed” and demanding “Why are you doing this?”

His complaints got Naif’s set shut down, but she doubts the scene would play out the same way today. “Now I bet that same guy, if he sees me, he’s going to stand first in line just to watch.”

Naif has benefited from official attempts to trumpet Saudi Arabia’s new entertainment-friendly image, which is often criticised by human rights groups as a distraction from abuses. Her nomination to play at the Saudi pavilion of Expo Dubai 2020 gave her an international audience for the first time. But it’s the work at home that supports her day-to-day, earning her 1000 Saudi riyals (around $260) per hour.

Here to stay

Other women DJs have encountered more resistance. Lujain Albishi, who performs under the name “Biirdperson”, started experimenting on DJ decks during the pandemic. Her family disapproved when she started talking about DJ’ing professionally, preferring she strive to become a doctor. She stuck with it anyway, developing her skills at private parties.

Her big break came last year when she was invited to perform at MDLBeast Soundstorm, a festival in the Saudi capital Riyadh that drew more than 700,000 revellers for performances including a set by superstar French DJ David Guetta. The experience left her “really proud”. “My family came to Soundstorm, saw me on stage. They were dancing, they were happy,” she said.

Both Naif and Albishi say they believe women DJs will remain fixtures in the kingdom, though their reasoning varies. For Naif, women DJs succeed because they are better than men at “reading people” and playing what they want to hear. Albishi, for her part, thinks there is no difference between men and women once they put their headphones on, and that’s why women DJs belong. “My music is not for females or for males,” she said. “It’s for music-lovers.”


TimeToMovveOn Aug 01, 2022 04:57pm
Some countires are progressing fowards, while others....looking back
John Aug 01, 2022 06:20pm
shame on them
JustSaying Aug 01, 2022 08:25pm
Talented young ladies doing what they love to do, with Passion and Commitment.. ( their talents were Suppressed for too long...)
JustSaying Aug 01, 2022 08:26pm
Breaking the Shackles... Slowly but Surely...
JustSaying Aug 01, 2022 08:27pm
If men can follow their dreams and passions why not the Women... ????
JustSaying Aug 01, 2022 08:30pm
Nice to see a Backward society Progressing... while some Societies are Regressing...
TenJee Aug 01, 2022 08:32pm
No surprise here. The recent concerts in KSA brought toe whole gamut of delicacies to the banquet - drugs, drink, gay scene, harassment of women. All part of the ongoing descent towards the homogenised global 'culture' that promotes stupefied personal 'enjoyment' and decedent delirium, over standing for something of true value. What on earth have these Saudi parents done with all that wealth - turned their children into the same transitory thrill seekers as you get on a council estate in the poorest parts of Europe/US.
Zeeshan Aug 01, 2022 09:04pm
The Gairat brigade will now launch into overdrive telling women what to do and what to wear and how to behave.
Ibrahim S Aug 01, 2022 10:08pm
Pakistan got stuck in reverse gear
Isthisreal Aug 02, 2022 02:56am
Wow. This is progress?
Waheed Rehman, US Patriot Aug 02, 2022 03:40am
That's great. Now the next step is to go into rocket science. More power to women!!
Murli Aug 02, 2022 04:19am
Wow KSA moving ahead, no need of mentioning which country is moving behind, because of leaders like IK.
JustSaying Aug 02, 2022 09:20am
@John " shame on them.. " For what...??? what Wrong are they doing...???
JaaliSher Aug 02, 2022 10:03am
@TimeToMovveOn So this is progression?
Texas Tariq Aug 02, 2022 10:48am
While they send us their terrorists, they party at home. The Western world will still not accept you, the first lawsuit against Saudi Arabia has been filed by 911 families.