The weird love-hate relationship of the audience with female singers in Pakistan originates from the social fabric of South Asian culture, where respectability and grace of women are essentially associated with their socially accepted role as a wife within the four walls of her home.
Rejected and accepted at the same time, women singers, thus, belong to the commodified and denigrated compartment of the society mainly as a source of entertainment for the elite but not culturally accepted as a respectable member of the society.
Fawzia Afzal-Khan, in her new book Siren Song: Understanding Pakistan Through its Women Singers, explores these hidden and not-so-hidden absurdities with a scholarly and theoretically sound synthesis within the context of women singers and their social status.
Her analysis emanates from a psychoanalytic feminist model which pays attention “to the core constituents of civilization, to the nuclei of sexual difference, and communal affiliation helps explain the perpetuation of the masculine power and enables feminist theories to articulate possible correctives, challenges, routs of ameliorations, or ethical interpretations that go to the root of political life…”
As the discussion on each singer seems to take a distinctive conceptual approach, the overall theoretical framework of the book also rests on the cultural studies of Stuart Hall and others, augmenting the Marxist worldview to include ethnicity, race, nation, and gender.
Drawing upon these notions, the author situates the book within her own conceptual framework that “sees women singers’ lives as symbolic spaces to understand and analyses confluences between past and present in ways that encourage hope for progressive futures, free of narrowly defined masculinist nationalism.”
Subscribing to Raymond William’s definition of culture as a collective experience of humans under specific temporal and spatial conditions, the author moves on to the Pakistani culture as defined by none other than Faiz Ahmed Fiaz, who spearheaded a team for developing a report on culture commissioned by Prime Minister Z. A. Bhutto in the 1970s.
The report tried to identify the main ingredients of national culture and attempted to resolve the tension between the progressive approach to culture and the religious interpretations that reject fine arts as anti-religious and immoral. To me, its compromised position generated more questions than resolving the burning issues of culture, state, and religion.
In another article, Faiz, recognizing the regional and provincial dimensions, offered a more rational declaration on culture: “All regional cultures are an organic part of the totality of our national culture.” Besides Faiz, the author also discusses several Pakistani feminist theorists such as Samina Choonara, Neelam Hussain, Shemeem Abbas, Sadia Abbas, and Afiya Zia.
The author attempts to examine the status of women singers in the Pakistani society as they gained mass recognition in public performances and media but marginalized socially by the same audience
Postcolonial Pakistan carried over the same cultural baggage that identifies women as respectful members of the society only if they follow the traditional, patriarchal family model, a typical South Asian phenomenon.
The society does not entirely accept women signers because of the ideological underpinning deeply rooted in a decadent Muslim culture in post-Mughal India. Here dancing and singing was relegated to the “morally corrupt” lower strata of the society, often referred to as prostitutes.
On the respectability-disgrace scale, as the author argues, the early lives of singers, Malka Pukhraj, Noor Jahan, and Roshan Ara Begum, share a similar Mirasi or courtesan baggage. While Roshan Ara and Pukhraj struggled throughout their singing career to shed the class and family image and challenged it simultaneously, Noor Jahan appeared to defy all boundaries of patriarchal control and still enjoyed mass popularity. This was possible because she was also a popular film star and playback singer.
These famous singers challenged social norms in their own way. Roshan Ara refused to teach classical music to the new generation as she had to compromise with her husband’s aspirations of not performing publicly.
Malka Pukhraj also refused to shed her image as a court singer employed by Maharaja Hari Singh of Kashmir as she dedicated her memoir to him and her husband. Noor Jahan, on the other hand, openly defied socially approved norms of family loyalties.
As classical music demonstrates an elite orientation, folk music represents ordinary folks and their simple artistic endeavor. Two folk singers, Reshman and Abida Perveen, although enjoyed acceptance among the audience mainly for the simplicity, originality, and spirituality of their content. However, they still faced the class and gender-based biases.
The author focuses on Abida’s masculine appearance and voice as she defies the socially accepted norms with her gender-neutral dress and no makeup. Her artistic marvel of juxtaposing Sindhi folk music with Sufi traditions is simply unmatchable.
As originality became a familiar hallmark of Reshman’s music, she also reinforced her simple lifestyle integrated with the folk traditions in a TV program discussed in the book.
The story, however, becomes uniquely complex when it comes to the female singers who belong to the educated upper or middle class. Runa Laila, Nazia Hasan, and Deeyah were socially acceptable as they represented the urban middle class.
But as soon as they challenged the traditional image of a Muslim woman, they became a threat to the religious orthodoxy. Nazia, who gained immense popularity worldwide as a pop singer, became an open target of the clergy for singing with her brother, wearing an “un-Islamic” and modern dress, and dancing. Incidentally, it happened during the most conservative dictatorship of Gen. Ziaul Haq, who personally asked Nazia and her brother Zuhaib to leave the country.
Deeyah, a Norwegian music star of Pakistani descent, faced a similar fate when she received death threats from the orthodox Muslim diaspora in Norway. She had to move first to England and then to the US. Finally, she had to leave her singing career for becoming an activist for young women with higher aspirations, brought up in a hostile cultural environment.
The last chapter offers a discussion on mingling folk and pop genres under the corporate umbrella of Coke Studio. By pairing Meesha Shafi, a lesser-known pop singer, with the famous folk singer Arif Lohar, the program appears to promote a female singer with an upper-middle-class background. Interestingly, it also seems to be an attempt to get social recognition in a reverse order.
The book also includes invaluable Interviews of women singers as part of the appendices: Tina Sani, Tahira Syed, Surieya Multanikar, Hadiqa Kiani, and Aliya.
The author, to her credit, attempts to examine the status of women singers in the Pakistani society as they gained mass recognition in public performances and media but marginalized socially by the same audience. Apparently, by separating the art from the artist, the audience granted a higher stature to the art, not the artist.
By analyzing the extraordinary talents and lives of female singers, Fawzia has revealed the untapped dimensions of our paradoxical world as it relates to the sacred and secular, patriarchy and gender, family honor and disgrace, and class and equality. This indeed is a monumental task.
The writer is working as an advisor for the Human Rights Program at Southern Methodist University, US. He recently published his co-edited book, From Terrorism to Television: Dynamics of Media, State, and Society in Pakistan, (Routledge, 2020)