Parker Molloy
October 14, 2014 11:46 am

If you don’t know the name Yuna yet, you should. The 27-year-old Malaysian singer-songwriter Yunalis Mat Zara’ai—who, like Madonna, goes simply by one name— is making waves in the music industry and challenging cultural perceptions at the same time.

Since her debut in 2006, Yuna—whose folksy indie-pop sounds channel everyone from Bob Dylan to Feist—has risen the pop ranks. She’s attracted an international audience with her 2012 collaboration with Pharrell Williams, her 2013 album Nocturnal, her up-and-coming clothing business, and her overall image—which was the subject of a New York Times article this week.

In an industry where image is often micro-managed and manipulated, Yuna is a unique musical style icon who stands her ground—both in her own country and abroad. She has been credited with raising awareness about both female empowerment and religious empowerment through her spiritually-infused music and her choice to wear a hijab.

“I wanted to be a better Muslim,” she told the New York Times of her decision to wear the hijab, something that was initially met with dissent in the industry.

“Even in Malaysia [wearing a hijab] was a little bit of a new thing,” she explained, in an interview with Here and Now. “We have Malay Muslim girls who were performers, they were artists. But for me, I was the first one who covered up and, you know, I just wanted to be myself. I didn’t want to change for the industry or anything like that.”

“Seven, eight years ago, I was approached by a recording label,” she added. “But this was in Malaysia, so they were telling me like it would be a little bit difficult for me if I were to be wearing the hijab, so that was kind of why I didn’t go through labels. Instead, I started my own company and I recorded myself, you know, like produced my own albums and stuff like that.”

Recently, Yuna’s look and music have been compared to a sort of “feminist awakening” by Malaysian writer Zaidel Baharuddin.

“There’s a some sort of renaissance these days among young female Muslim girls in Malaysia, a kind of a feminist awakening, seeing that indeed you can cover your ‘aurat’ and at the same time be active and do things to realize your potential,” Baharuddin writes at Free Malaysia Today in an article titled, “How to Spot a Hijabster.” “I credit the explosion of ‘hijabism’ to two very significant events which became the catalyst of this new mass movement — one is when a Kedah-born lass by the name of Yuna Zarai decided to play the guitar in public.”

One important issue for Yuna is promoting positive self-esteem in girls and challenging narrow beauty standards, something she writes about passionately on Twitter. “I feel like beauty has a lot to do with confidence,” she said, in an interview with She Knows. “The reason why I was getting into the topic a lot [on Twitter] was because a lot of girls feel shy talking about their own beauty.”

Yuna’s empowering presence is shifting how the public views Muslim women. From her powerful, self-determined lyrical work on songs like “Rescue” to the independent ownership over her spiritual beliefs, Yuna has become a role model for many women worldwide.

In the Times profile of the singer, one fan spoke out on what Yuna’s music means to her.

“She expresses what we feel,” 21-year-old student Azimah Sharipuddin told the Times, citing lyrics about “girl power.” Yuna is, according to the profile, the “poster girl for young hijabsters.”

For years, people have been asking the question of whether the hijab represents oppression, freedom, both, or neither. Last year, Palestinian-American blogger Sara Yasin criticized those who make the argument that wearing a hijab is inherently liberating or oppressive.

“Wearing a hijab isn’t inherently liberating—but neither is baring one’s breasts,” Yasin writes at The New York Times. “What is liberating is being able to choose either of these things. It’s pretty ludicrous to think that oppression is somehow proportional to how covered or uncovered someone’s body is. Both sides of this argument present a shallow understanding of women’s empowerment, which only drowns out the substantive challenges facing all women—issues that cannot be encapsulated in a debate about a piece of fabric.”

In a time where Muslim women are so frequently singled-out, misrepresented, and discriminated against, Yuna’s growing influence and far-reaching fan base serves as a daily reminder that everyone is entitled to her religious or spiritual beliefs and the freedom to choose how they honor those beliefs. This is something so simple, but so often ignored through our media and our culture. Rather than hide her own cultural upbringing for the sake of assimilating into Western society and the music industry, Yuna has managed to embrace her roots, and what makes her unique, in order to show us how we’re all so very alike.

(Featured image via.)

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