Sabina England has quickly become a Do-it-Yourself l’enfant terrible of the art world. As a Deaf Muslim punk rocker turned cultural critic and filmmaker, she has created work based on mime comedies, 8-bit experimental video, and Indian wedding night rituals. Her provocative writing has explored sex taboos and the Islamic culture center planned near Ground Zero, while her protest videos have even criticized punk legend Jello Biafra’s (Dead Kennedys) July concert in Israel. Combining the no-holds-barred attitude of writers like Kathy Acker with zealous cultural deconstruction in the digital era, she is fiery and polemical. I wanted to discuss her punk origins and reflect on Deaf culture in relation to her work and life.
You often mention old lady punk singers, but few newer ones, why?
Did not mean to disparage with old lady, just meant older! Well, that’s not entirely true. I like some of the recent ones such as Brody Dalle and Kathleen Hanna, but when I was a kid just getting into punk rock, I read about punk singers like Siouxsie Sioux, Poly Styrene, Becki Bondage, and I guess they just stuck through with me in my mind as I got older. Their defiant attitudes and their struggle in a male-dominated field always inspired me
Did you know that Poly came from a mixed ethnic background, or joined the Krishnas?
Yeah, I knew all that. She was half English, half black. When she claimed she saw something weird outside Johnny Rotten’s flat, that was when she quit her band and became a Hare Krishna. I thought it was very strange but interesting. I’ve known people who met her before she died, and they all said she’s was nice and down to earth
Did that make you aware of the multi-ethnic side of early punk?
At first, when I was a young teenager, I thought it was a very white counter-culture, but as I began meeting punks and reading about punks like Poly Styrene and Andy Blade (half English, half Egyptian who came from a Muslim family), I became aware that it wasn’t just for white kids, and I liked that. I didn’t feel I belonged anywhere and the last thing I wanted was to feel outcasted in a punk scene full of white punks. But in general, although most punks tend to be white, they’re so much friendlier and open-minded than white yuppies are.
I say that because you mentioned that punk is often a white culture made by/for white punks with white trash backgrounds.
It’s true. I don’t mean they’re trashy, but they are seen as “white trash” by yuppies because they all came from broken homes and had family problems.
People may find it ironic that you worked with SOS Records, which many people equate with rather white street punk style.
I never thought it was ironic at all. I’ve always been attracted to white street punks from a very young age.
Did you feel they represent that white trash side—belittled by yuppies?
I thought it was great how there was a scene for underprivileged teenagers who felt ugly and outcasted and spat on by society, who were seen as “white trash”, and I felt more like belonging around them that I did with Muslims or South Asians in my local community when I was growing up. I also liked the political and social aspect of their music, which talked about defying authority, anger, and hatred at the world, beer, friendship, sex, and anything else that seemed “edgy” to me at the time. I also liked the style, but for me, it was more about the social aspect of the punk scene. As I get older, I feel like a lot of punks are racist without even realizing it, and I hate that or maybe I’m just getting older and now I’m becoming more aware of it.
Punk tends to attract people by offering a sense of “difference.” What really matters is that you are different than the cultural norms you were raised with.
Exactly. I was a minority teenager within a minority culture. I was a very angry Deaf tomboyish girl growing up, and I believed in feminism and radical politics. Naturally, that didn’t go over too well with other Muslims or South Asians. Everyone thought I was weird. I don’t care if people accuse punks of being sheep within a counterculture, what matters is that there’s a place for people who don’t feel belonged in mainstream society
What has made you more fully aware of the racism, or as I call it, the ambivalence?
After the September 11 hijackings happened.
Did the scene become more hostile?
The punk scene didn’t become more hostile after 9-11. I became more aware of my Muslim identity. Muslims were now becoming lumped into one large racial group. Arabs, South Asians, Malays, Turks, Arab Christians, etc, it didn’t matter where you were from. If you were from a Muslim country, you were seen as the one and the same. I became very angry and alienated, and I started thinking more about my Indian Muslim background.
Soon, I was starting to exchange ideas with other liberal Muslims about progressive Islam, Islamic feminism, gay rights for Muslims, etc. That stuff doesn’t resonate with punks (who tend to be white and come from WASP backgrounds) and they don’t get it. Some punks have asked me why I’m so “obsessed” with Islam, but I’m not. Being Muslim is part of who I am. Muslims are a minority group, and I feel even more ostracized now because of being Muslim, but then I got into Taqwacores. I felt more comfortable around Taqx punks. In fact, a lot of punk bands in the scene were very anti-Bush and anti-Guantanamo, anti-Patriot Act, so it gave me a sense of comfort in one way knowing that I could speak out against the US government and not get attacked for it
Did the social aspects of punk appeal to you?
I loved dancing and just hanging out with people in the scene, just having a good time and laughing and not giving a shit in the world. I’d meet other feminists and radical riot grrrls and I always gravitated toward them. I also loved how everyone dressed. It’s so beautiful; it makes life so much more interesting. If everyone would relax and stop being so uptight and stop worrying what others think, I guarantee you that many people would love to get tattoos and piercings, dye their hair, and wear far out clothes. It’s fun and there’s no stress in it.
But I feel like that after 30 plus years after punk rock was “born,” it has lost some of its very antisocial, political steam. Mike Virus once said on a Myspace forum (for his band, The Virus) that there’s too many “frat punks” today who are only interested in drinking beer and listening to punk music about sex and girls. They don’t care about politics. Mike Virus said that punk rock was originally a reaction against apathetic, clueless people who didn’t have a damn clue about society and who didn’t care about anything. Punk rock was supposed to push your buttons and tell society to fuck off.
People say that punk bands concerned more with partying than politics always existed.
Yeah, of course, but there were also very political bands, that were hugely popular in the early days. They didn’t lose any fans when they sang about politics. They gained more fans. The spirit of riot grrrls will always live on in punk rock. No matter how many people try to turn punk rock into a corporate machine made over with glittery emo stickers and Hot Topic bimbos, there will always be real punks that will make real punk music and will always reach out to real, angry individuals out there. Punk rock was born. It’s here to stay, and it’s not gonna go away. As long as there’s oppression and injustice in the world, punk rock will always be here, for political and social reasons. Not just for people to sing about politics and bash the government, but also for people to connect and meet each other and not feel alone. I’ve been told there is a hidden punk scene in Iran, although I think it’s more of rock ‘n’ roll.
Do you feel that punk still offers a sense of liberated spaces?
I definitely feel much more liberated and free in the punk scene around punks. If I talk about the idea of how monogamy isn’t realistic for most relationships, people are shocked and give me looks of disgust and call me a “whore”. If I talk about that around punks, they’re more likely to be interested and listen and ask questions. Where I live, most punks either tend to be very radical in their politics and share similar beliefs like me, and we’ve exchanged stories and conversations about our very different backgrounds. And then there are punks who tend to be apathetic, don’t care about politics, and don’t want to listen. So, I’ve had my fair share of both groups. Needless to say, I prefer political punks to the apathetic ones.
At gigs, can you feel the vibrations of the music?
Sometimes, not always. Some places I’ve been to aren’t padded very well, so I couldn’t enjoy the vibrations. I’d just sit down and talk to some of my friends. At other shows, the vibrations were everywhere, and I would be dancing away and slamming with everyone. It’s such a great rush. One of my friends, who wasn’t a punk, always went to punk shows with me just to body slam with everyone because he had a lot of rage, and it was the only time he could physically unleash his aggression. Afterward, he’d be body bruised all over and sweaty. He’d be like, “That was fucking awesome, I feel so much better now. Let’s go home.”
Tell me about your links to Deaf culture.
Deaf culture has become very big now, thanks to the Internet, especially with blogging and sign language videos that reach out to Deaf people all over the world and unite them. When I was a child at various Deaf schools, some of the teachers were horrible, and other teachers were great. I had one teacher in Liverpool who got angry at one Deaf student for bringing Moby Dick to school—and she sneered at him and said that he wasn’t smart enough to read it, so she snatched it from him and told the whole class that we shouldn’t bother trying to read something so complicated
So she equated his reading level with his hearing ability, for the most part?
Yeah, teachers like her made us feel like we weren’t capable of doing something simple like reading a classic book. That fucked up a lot of kids. She said that because we’re Deaf, we couldn’t really grasp a good understanding of books such as Moby Dick. At the same time, at other schools I’ve had teachers who discouraged us from using sign language and always stressed that we should learn to read lips and speak orally. In one way, I am grateful for that, and in another way I feel resentful about that. I had teachers who really cared about us and wanted to see us succeed as normal human beings in society. So, they always stressed the importance of oral education, good writing and reading skills, and grammar skills.
Did they awaken you to the world of ASL composition—sign language poetry?
No, they didn’t. That’s the part I’m angry and resentful about.
Is Deaf Culture Homophobic?
You’ve been distanced from your Deaf peers, on some level?
I’m 28 years old and I’m just starting to meet all these successful, great, intelligent Deaf artists and writers, who are into ASL poetry and sign language theatre. I never learned about that as a teenager and I wish I had. I would love to be part of that. I am planning to take some ASL workshops later, to improve my ASL skills and hopefully I would love to do something with that, maybe incorporate ASL into my future projects one day.
Do you feel more strongly connected to Deaf people, punks, and feminists worldwide, and not exactly tied to local people?
I met so many punks, feminists and Deaf people online. They either found me through interviews and articles, or they’ve stumbled onto me through another friend. I’ve started talking to this blind Anarchist from Australia who speaks about Anarchism and Disabilities. She fiercely speaks out against society institutionalizing blind people and making them feel incapable. I’ve read her essays and felt there was something very similar with Deaf people.
I’ve also met a lot of great feminists online who have opened my mind and taught me even more radical ideas, and then I’ve met many punks online who come from different parts of the world, like Lebanon and Indonesia. I’ve just become a member of Deaf Women in Film, a newly formed group based out of Los Angeles. These Deaf female filmmakers are always encouraging me and I’m so grateful to them for their support
Do you think the ASL Deaf community may have a stronger sense of identity and empowerment than the Deaf community raised on oral education?
Oh yes, yes definitely. ASL is a language of its own. There are ASL theatre companies that cater to Deaf audiences, and then there are Deaf stand up comics who use ASL in their stand up routines, such as C.J Jones, who cater to Deaf people, as well. Deafness gives a sense of identity to these people, because there’s one thing that’s common for all Deaf people no matter what race or ethnicity or religion they are. None of us can ever know what’s going on at a party, play, comedy show, because we don’t know what they’re saying!! We feel lost and alienated.
What do you think propels your outreach and networking more—punk rock or Deaf culture?
In the past, it was more about punk rock, but as of late, it’s been more about Deafness because I’ve ignored the Deaf part of my identity in the past before and I’ve felt alone and unsure of my own abilities. Sometimes I felt like I couldn’t do something because of my Deafness. I was worried how I’d get a job or volunteer due to communication problems. So it became important to me to start seeking out successful Deaf people online. When I met Olin Fortney (Deaf punk and ASL instructor) and people from Deaf Women in Film, I felt so much more reassured and then I became more confident
Has punk rock shaped how you have recasted/realized your Deaf identity?
Yes, it was either punk rock or feminism that turned me to the other. Either way, punk rock and feminism inspired me to look into Riot Grrrls, and then I became interested in women’s rights and women’s issues, and then I discovered there was a disability rights movement within feminism!
Does society favor Deaf men over Deaf women?
Men are seen as the caregivers, the protectors. By society’s standards, men are supposed to take care of women. I’ve known Deaf guys who have felt insecure and angry when they feel like they cannot order food for their hearing girlfriends in a restaurant and I’ve known other Deaf guys who had great difficulty in finding jobs and felt like they couldn’t take care of their girlfriends/wives. Some of them thought they’d never have a chance with a hearing woman.
I once had a punk boyfriend before, who was really into feminism, labor unions, riot grrrls, and progressive politics. When we began dating, he bought a book written by a Deaf woman, about a romance relationship between a Deaf woman and hearing guy. I thought that was a nice gesture because he wanted to understand. But sometimes I became angry when he felt over-protective of me in public. He was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to communicate with people at parties, and I told him to quit treating me like a baby. Sometimes he felt frustrated with me. He said it was like talking to a brick wall, but he didn’t know ASL. He didn’t even realize it, but I’d point that he was being paternal and offensive toward me, and he’d apologize.
Do you examine punk lyrics very closely?
Yes, of course. I never understood what anyone was singing on CDs or vinyl or at punk shows! I’d read the lyrics either in CD booklets or online. If people had a strong response to a song, I’d wonder why and then read the lyrics, and then I’d understand why they were so affected by the song. I always envied hearing punks for being able to sing along and chant and shout with the vocalist at punk shows. Like they’d scream, “FUCK THE STATE! SMASH THE SYSTEM!” I always wanted to chant along with them, but I can’t.
There are two types of punks who go to the shows. Those who go for the social scene, to show off their hair and clothes and get laid for the night, and then the other type of punks, who go for the music, lyrics, and to participate in the unity and soul of punk rock. I’ve known many punks in the latter category who were like that. In fact, they encouraged me to read lyrics and they’d tell me what their favorite songs were because I didn’t always know which songs some bands sang
One of my Deaf students fired her interpreter because the signer was not capturing/relaying my full range of expressions.
I can understand why she fired her interpreter. I’ve been frustrated and angry when I got bland interpreters who didn’t convey emotions in their ASL. Deaf people have the right to know the mood, the tone, and the attitude. Some ASL interpreters have been very paternalistic (or maternalistic) to a point where it was really offensive and demeaning. One ASL interpreter refused to sign cuss words even when other people were cussing, and that’s not fair. I have the right to know what everyone is saying. They act like they know what’s proper—to hell with that—tell me the truth, in full conveyance!
Tell me about the video where you mimic masturbation.
I was making fun of the heterosexual white male fantasy bullshit because people always assume that women don’t fantasize like men do and that we don’t masturbate, but I fantasize about guys all the time. I am a sex radical feminist. I believe in sexual liberty and dignity for all human beings
So, it’s about the taboo of masturbation?
I’m very outspoken on this stuff. I guess I put that masturbation scene into the film without even realizing the meaning it would convey. Some Deaf people can be very judgmental, and I feel like they have been brainwashed with religious garbage, so they’re very uptight about morals and all that. Other Deaf people are very relaxed about it. Deaf teenagers have always been very sexually active and even more curious than hearing kids. That’s what I can tell you because teachers and adults were always so protective and tried to shelter Deaf kids and Deaf teenagers, like we had to be shielded away from sex and drugs and violence. That made Deaf kids and teenagers at my Deaf schools very curious about sex, kissing, getting drunk, and doing drugs. They wouldn’t be open with us about sex, so it was up to us to find out on our own
What about queer culture?
We’re a very heteronormative society that celebrates lesbianism and female bisexuality, but anything to do with gay males is seen as disgusting and offensive. I don’t think people accept Elton John as a gay man. As a celebrity and famous musician, yes, but not as a gay man.
Were the punks you know directly homophobic?
Not at all. It’s more like indirectly homophobic. Just saying random, hurtful things like how gay male sex is disgusting, and gay kissing is gross, and that no gay guys better hit on them.
Is Deaf culture homophobic?
No, I think Deaf people are more open-minded. In fact, there’s a lot of homosexuality in Deaf culture. I don’t know why, but it seems that way. A few Deaf students from my school came out of the closet. I hear more about Deaf gays than I do about gay hearing people. But at the same time, like I said before, there are some judgmental Deaf people who are very religious (and brainwashed) and are very homophobic, but thankfully it doesn’t seem that common. I think it’s just that being Deaf, we are more open.