The Hari Putar Dialogues - 37
(BBC News ; 22nd December 2009 : Islamabad : "We have been doing music together since we were six years old - as long as I can remember," says Haniya Aslam, as her cousin Zeb (Zebunissa) Bangash sits beside her. "It started out as a fun thing at family functions. Music was very much a part of our family set-up - my father was an aficionado and all my uncles could play an instrument. Our grandmother was also a big influence - she was a poet and was fluent in three languages."
The country's top music acts such as Junoon, the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Adnan Sami and Atif Aslam are South Asian superstars and have a strong international following as well. But, like all other professions in the country, music remains male-dominated. For women it is another matter altogether - raised eyebrows are the least possible obstacles.That may account for all the hype surrounding Zeb and Haniya, Pakistan's first all-female music band.)
Putar: There is a report on the BBC website today about a new all female music band in Pakistan.
Hari: I haven't read that report, Putar. Why should it be a newsworthy item.
Putar: Female singers and musicians have existed in Pakistan, but there have been few female singers of the modern variety. And practically no female singers from the Pashtun areas.
Hari: Wasn't there some girl in the 80's?
Putar: You're talking of the late Nazia Hassan. She wasn't Pashtun. She took the sub-continental music scene by storm with her pop music in the early 80s. As the BBC report points out there have been some others who followed in her footsteps, although none have been able to reach those dizzying heights. That may account for all the hype surrounding Zeb and Haniya, Pakistan's first all-female music band.
Hari: Is their music anything special?
Putar: The music is not typical Pakistani pop, but has a strong Pashtun element to it. The girls say they felt especially pleased when Pushtun boys and girls thanked them for promoting the culture.
Hari: Are the girls Pashtun then?
Putar: Yes. Both Zeb and Haniya are ethnic Pashtuns, and their families hail from the town of Kohat in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province. That region has, of late, become synonymous with the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
Hari: The Taliban had banned music when it was in power.
Putar: But musical performances by women would be yet worse in their eyes.
Hari: Especially romantic music. One of the more popular songs by these two girls is a Pashtun ballad called Paimona, which is about love.
Putar: During the time of the Taliban, if a woman were caught with nail polish on her fingers, her fingers would be chopped off.
Hari: Just as some girls who were studying in school had acid thrown on them by the Taliban barely a month ago in southern Afghanistan.
Putar: Taliban comes from the word Talib, which means student, and yet these persons would not allow women to be students. What kind of students are these?
Hari: If these songs have strong Pashtun elements they could be popular among the youth in Afghanistan as well.
Putar: True. It requires courage to be a female singer in such circumstances. Such music therefore has political significance as well, even though the girls say they are not concerned with politics. At the moment it may seem that it is doing more to dent fundamentalism than actions taken by the Pakistani Government.
Hari: After what happened in Bombay, the Pakistani Government must take very strong action against the terrorists especially those within the Government and the military establishment.
Putar: The BBC report points out that: 'Zeb and Haniya are a living example of how much more there is to the Pashtun sensibility'. Apart from creating good music this band has responsibility of another kind.
Hari: And what is that?
Putar: Their success directly undermines the ultra conservative and Islamic fundamentalist establishment, which includes the terrorists.
Hari: And so?
Putar: And so they have to be careful to create a liberal but not too liberal image.
Hari: Otherwise be a conservative backlash?
Putar: Exactly. A society has to open up by degrees. Also being against fundamentalism does not mean you have to be Western. You need to be true to your culture.
Hari: Such efforts may help create some extra space in Pakistan for women in general, but a single swallow does not a summer make. The Government must take action against fundamentalist intolerant elements. Otherwise it would seem that girls such as Zeb and Haniya are more courageous than the Government.
Putar: It would seem so indeed. Tell me something Papaji?
Hari: Bol, Putar?
Putar: This female bands debut album was recently released to rave reviews in Pakistan's major newspapers. The albums title is Chup (Quiet!).
Hari: Interesting title.
Putar: Do you think it is called Chup because it is telling Islamic fundamentalist elements that these Pashtun girls, women like them, and the more liberal society that they represent will no longer be Chup (quiet)?
Hari: I'm not sure, Putar.
Putar: Or do you think it is called Chup because they (the band) are telling the fundamentalists that they must now shut up and be quiet forever?
Hari: I don't know Putar.