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Standing behind her control tower with headphones around her neck, Saudi DJ Leen Naif seamlessly spins pop hits and club tunes for a crowd of business school graduates munching on sushi.

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

Yet it captures a milestone: female DJs, a phenomenon unthinkable just a few years ago in the conservative kingdom, are becoming a relatively common sight in its major cities.

These days, they turn few heads because, gig after gig, they continue to live off what was once just a hobby.

“A lot of female DJs came out,” Naif told AFP, adding that it has, over time, made audiences “more comfortable” seeing them on stage.

“It’s easier now than before.”

Naif and her peers embody two major reforms championed by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman: new opportunities for women and expanded entertainment options, including music.

The possibility that DJs will be welcome at public events, let alone that many will be women, is something “we didn’t expect” until recently, said Mohammed Nassar, a Saudi DJ known as the name of Vinyl Mode.

“Now you see more female artists coming out,” Nassar said.

Before “it was just a hobby to express themselves in their room”.

“Now we have platforms, and you know they might even have careers. So that’s really amazing.”

Winning over the skeptics

Naif was introduced to electronic music as a teenager by one of her uncles, and she almost immediately began to wonder if DJing was a viable job.

While her friends dreamed of careers as doctors and teachers, she knew she lacked the patience to follow those paths.

“I’m a working person, not a studying person,” she said.

Unlike other female DJs, she had the immediate support of her parents and siblings.

Other Saudis, however, needed convincing.

Several years ago, a man approached her mid-run, stating she was “not allowed” and asking “Why are you doing this?”

Her complaints shut down Naif’s set, but she doubts the scene will play out the same way today.

“Now I bet that same guy, if he sees me, he’s gonna stand in the front line just to watch.”

Naif has benefited from official attempts to deceive Saudi Arabia’s new entertainment image.

His nomination to play in the Saudi pavilion at Expo Dubai 2020 gave him an international audience for the first time.

But it’s the work at home that sustains her day-to-day, earning her 1,000 Saudi riyals (about $260) an hour.

here to stay

Other female DJs met with more resistance.

Lujain Albishi, who performs under the name “Biirdperson”, has started experimenting on DJ decks during the pandemic.

Her family disapproved when she started talking about DJing professionally, preferring that she strive to become a doctor.

She stuck to it anyway, honing her skills at private parties.

Her big breakthrough came last year when she was invited to perform at MDLBeast Soundstorm, a festival in the Saudi capital Riyadh that has attracted over 700,000 revelers 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.

Naif and Albishi say they believe female DJs will remain staples in the kingdom, although their reasoning varies.

For Naif, female DJs succeed because they are better than men at “reading people” and playing what they want to hear.

Albishi, for her part, thinks there’s no difference between men and women once they put on their headphones, and that’s why female DJs have their place.

“My music is neither for women nor for men,” she said. “It’s for music lovers.”