Words by: Nazeeha Saeed
Translations by Hiba Moustafa
Images by: Emma
Make-up by: Omertà
This article is part of the “
Ya Leil Ya Eyein” issue

Five years ago, Rotana, a Saudi artist, told me that she lived in a conservative kingdom. She was working at a high-profile oil company but said she didn’t choose this life, that it didn’t feel like hers. So she left for LA for self-discovery, where she completed her studies and launched a career in singing and music, setting theater and music videos with the fire of her energy, dance, lyrics, and enthusiasm and finding what she truly loved to do in her life. 

She said she always expressed her feelings through writing. “I used to write and sing since I was a child, but didn’t share it with anyone. I’ve always had a desire to express myself and singing was a way to do so. I wish I had chosen to be who I am sooner, but neither society nor the system nor the environment supported this.” 

Regarding the body, Rotana said, “I have a deep connection with my body and the power it holds for my entire life. From an early age, I felt the strength of my sexual energy through movement and sound. I had a feeling that there was a deep well of resources in my body that allowed me to communicate with my intuition, strength, and knowledge, though I was brought up in an environment that told me that my body and sexuality were dirty and dangerous. Such thoughts, and many others, have become a heavy burden as a person who saw herself as a bad person.” 

Today, after a long journey of inner contemplation and self-communication, Rotana has launched the first season of her 14-episode IGTV show, “Fucked & Blessed,” in which she talks about the body, sex, sexuality, and everything in between. She said, “The aim of the IGTV series is to heal myself and to assure myself that my body and sexuality are sacred means of communication created by Allah. When I was growing up, I had no one around to affirm my beliefs. The aim of this IGTV is to affirm this for myself, hoping that I can affirm it for others, as well, those who were rejected, shamed, or punished because of their love for their bodies and sexual lives.” She added that “sexual energy is the strongest in the world because it is an energy of creation. It is the pulse of life, and it is oppressed because of its huge power. When a person is connected to their sexual life, it becomes impossible to rob them of their will or to control them, for they are full of life and connected to their intuition and inner compass.” 

Images by: Emma. Make-up by: Omertà

Speaking back to patriarchy
On her IGTV channel, Rotana talks about many reasons why women don’t know their bodies and sexualities and that the matter is not just related to Arabic and Islamic culture. For her, “Patriarchy is a system based entirely on maintaining authority for cisgender heterosexual men and excluding women. Patriarchy has criminalized our bodies, calling us whores. This system flourishes when we are separated from our bodies and separated from the power of our wombs, mothers’ power of creation. It flourishes when women deny their desires and needs; denying these is part of being a ‘good woman.’” She also implicates capitalism, describing how it “depends entirely on our belief that we are not enough, so we need to buy stuff to be smart, beautiful, whole and developed.”

Rotana believes that Islam supports women’s exploration of their bodies and pleasure, and that it is a very sensual religion in the favor of women. However, she says the inclusion and support that the religion promotes have been obscured by patriarchal and dogmatic interpretations of religion designed by men who seek authority and control. She knows this from experience and contemplation, and shared that, “I was afraid of pleasure and exploring my body and happiness due to an unconscious fear of losing my family and position in my culture and home. I have ignored and punished my body for so long, but I refuse to do that anymore.”

Addressing divergent audiences
Some videos of Rotana’s first 14-episode season received more than +27k views so far, and she has reached a following of +53k followers. She said she is proud of herself, grateful for those who took the time to watch, and hopeful. 

She reflected, “I received mixed reactions, but the most common reply I was, ‘Thank you! I felt lonely and didn’t think anyone would understand what I went through.’ Generally, this millennial generation in the Arabic-speaking world is ready to be more truthful about their experiences as human beings. I received in particular messages from Arabs and Muslims from the LGBTQ community who felt that they largely exist through the program. Of course, there were negative reactions too. Many were resentful and disgusted, feeling that the content was disrespectful and strengthened Satan. I think these replies are important, as well. I don’t interact with them, but it is important that people feel something instead of sleepwalking and following the scenario set for them by religion, politics, and cultural slavery. The scenario is written by cisgender men who express themselves through it and by which they seek to control the masses until they die.”

Though she wants this program to reach the largest number of people, Rotana is most interested in engaging her Arab and Muslim audience. This is why it was so important to translate episodes into Arabic: “though Arabic represents my culture, religion, home country, and belonging, it has always opposed what I believe in about sex, spirituality, and pleasure, denying me my beliefs. Using Arabic was very healing in celebrating sexuality, the power of arousal, love, queerness, and asserting many of my beliefs.” 

Rotana said that responses to the show were full of emotions: support and enthusiasm from friends and her community, affirmation from audiences.  She said, “We are ready for change; we stand with each other and I’m deeply grateful for that. The audience’s response was so beautiful, and a lot of people, especially Arab/Muslim girls and LGBTQ young people, felt seen. They felt less lonely through this program and felt inspired to speak of their own truths. Of course, there were violent reactions and criticism from those who weren’t ready to hear these things or be open to them. A lot of people aren’t ready yet.”

Rotana is working on the second season of the program and told us that “it will include more intimate conversations on the transition from working behind the scenes to being more open and public about who I am as a person and artist. There is a lot to discuss regarding our mothers, shame, family names, cultural slavery, etc.” She said she hadn’t intended for the show to be about sexual education and life, but that she felt obligated to share what she was learning from the awakening of her own body. 

She also aims to reach the LGBTQ community. She admitted, “I feel so embarrassed saying this, but I had no idea that transgender people exist until I moved to the US. All I saw on television were transvestites, which is totally different. In the US, I met wonderful trans men and women and learned how important their leadership to our liberation is. Also, most of the followers received the discussion of LGBTQ topics with lots of love and appreciation.”

Images by: Emma. Make-up by: Omertà

On Pleasure and Feminism
One major topic Rotana confronts is the psychological barriers or “taboo status” of talking about women’s pleasure. She said, “I went through experiences in which I expressed my truth, and this made my worst fears come true. But with loss comes freedom. I was already rejected and expelled, and I was frightened of speaking about these matters. I had panic attacks while recording the episodes that I had to stop. I was afraid, but I recorded them anyway. I think this is the way to overcome many of the changes we face.”

Rotana is a feminist but explained that “feminism” is a complicated concept because of how it’s been corrupted historically. She said, “I don’t think feminism means taking the side of women. I’m a feminist because I’m taking the side of the groups most marginalized by corrupt power systems. Unfortunately, many ‘feminists’ defend the inclusion of women but they will scrutinize or ignore the rights of the LGBTQ community, queers, trans men and women, black people, the poor among others. For me, this isn’t feminism.”

She added, “I think that experiences of feminism in the Arabic-speaking world don’t quite fit with how I see feminism, but I’m very proud of the efforts and work feminists do to establish our participation politically, economically, socially, and spiritually in our communities.”

Dreaming of the future
Rotana dreams of creating a space in which people can disclose their innermost feelings safely, and that “Fucked & Blessed” will expand to host other Muslims and Arabs willing to be open and share about their lives. She is currently in training to work with clients and guide them through their journey of embracing their bodies, skills that will help her with the project, and will continue to make music, perform, and create educational materials to confirm what she believes: “our erotic lives are a prayer, a healing and a call for freedom for our beloveds.”