x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Moving targets: the female dancers of the Swat Valley

The female entertainers of Pakistan's Swat Valley are keeping their Pashtun culture alive despite being dismissed by academics and attacked by the Taliban.

Dancing girl Muskaan peforms at her home in the Bunr area of Mingora. M Pasha/The National
Dancing girl Muskaan peforms at her home in the Bunr area of Mingora. M Pasha/The National

Ghazala Javed had the dreams of any young woman her age - lifelong security, happiness and a husband to love.

Sweet-faced and with girlish innocence, she listed all the qualities she was looking for in a husband - he had to be kind and understanding, but most of all he had to let her sing after they wed.

Javed was one of the rare few who had "made it" - one of the infamous community of singers and dancers carrying on a legacy of Pashtun culture in Pakistan's notorious Swat Valley. They have survived despite concerted efforts by religious extremists to drive them out and in the face of opprobrium from academics, who see their art as a "vulgar" reinvention of classical music and dance.

Javed was put to work as a teenage dancer at 14 and married in her 20s to a man twice her age to secure the family's future. He banned her from singing and they divorced two years later when she discovered he already had two other wives.

But it was the discovery of that golden voice in 2008 that catapulted her to fame and promised a different life from the fate which met most of the performing community, forced to dance and sing from necessity rather than desire and living on the fringes of society.

She was a rare breed - she loved singing and earned respectability, status and wealth, becoming as adept at performing old folk tunes as the Pashto pop songs for which she earned worldwide fame, drawing crowds of thousands in Dubai, Malaysia, Qatar and across Europe.

Earlier this year I had the privilege of a private audience with the 26-year-old performer, lounging on cushions in her parents' majlis - one of six homes her fortune had built - as her father poured milky tea and Javed sang.

Seven weeks later she was dead, gunned down with her father in a hail of bullets as she left a beauty salon.

In the immediate aftermath, police said her ex-husband Jahangir Khan was a chief suspect, his motive thought to be the shame heaped on him after she left him and resumed her singing career.

Whatever the truth, she is unquestionably the latest victim in an industry where choosing to perform can literally mean life or death.

A pretty, chubby-faced teenager plumps down on a tattered armchair, full of excited banter about her day at school.

There were the lessons in maths and English, friendships forged in the playground and the journey back to the cramped home she shares with 17 relatives. But Waheeda's education does not end when she gets home from school.

At the urging of the five grown men squeezed into a tiny sitting room-cum-bedroom, the 13-year-old shrugs off her hijab and abaya, slicks on some maroon lipstick, puts a Pashto pop CD on play and begins to shimmy to the music.

The lime green walls of the claustrophobic room, stuffed with worn furniture and vases of artificial flowers, begin to close in. This is a scene of excruciating discomfort.

Waheeda is one of the famed dancing girls of Banr, a neighbourhood in the town of Mingora, in the heart of the Swat Valley.

She comes from a long line of dancers, whose folkloric moves and knowledge of poetry and classical music historically drew rapturous crowds during week-long melas at Eid, weddings and festivals.

Those days, though, are long gone. While the girls are still trained from a young age, they now tend to perform to groups of male customers. And rather than being accompanied by skilled musicians, they are more likely to perform to pop music.

Caught between two diametrically opposed camps, they have been driven behind closed doors to keep a tradition going - albeit in a limp imitation of the art their grandmothers once practised.

On the one hand, religious extremists in this conservative belt near the Afghan border have threatened to drive them out. The most famous of their number, Shabana, was slaughtered in public three years ago after the Taliban swept through the valley, her body left riddled with bullet holes in a public square as a chilling message to other dancers.

On the other hand, despite representing a more secular society, they are shunned by both academics and intellectuals, who yearn for a return to the golden era of the arts in Swat and decry them as vulgar.

"One should always try to draw a line between vulgarity and artistic expression," says Khadim Hussain, a linguistics professor and cultural expert from Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. "What I see is actually vulgarity. It is very fake and not indigenous. The dancing girls used to be educated in literature, they would know fine poetry, have very refined expression and could sing and dance.

"Girls nowadays dance to the tune of Indian or English music. They are not even doing that correctly. It is about making something that is to be sold and caters to the immediate and very superficial desires of people."

It is little wonder they shy away from drawing attention to their trade. Getting an audience with one requires an introduction from a trusted middleman. Cold callers are not welcome.

Our rickshaw has gone as far as it can along uneven streets and we dismount when the muddied roads become too narrow to pass.

Shadowy figures emerge from the dark as we go from one peeling wooden door to another. This gently inclining street is renowned for housing many of Banr's 156 dancing families, but it is 8pm and most are hard at work.

While most of the dancers do not work as prostitutes, there is still a deep-seated disdain for the profession, which is deemed inappropriate for a respectable woman.

Families might hire the dancers for special occasions such as weddings - but they will rarely admit to frequenting their homes. Yet visit them they do. Some dancers earn up to 200,000 rupees (Dh7,840) a month, 20 times the average man's salary.

In the deeply religious valley, where women are rarely seen in public and those that do emerge are usually accompanied by a male relative acting as a chaperone, there is a schizophrenic attitude towards these social anomalies.

They sit openly and uncovered with strange men. They dance for money, earning up to 10,000 rupees (Dh390) a night, as much as some men earn in a month. They represent the feminine charms forbidden in open Muslim society and until the Taliban's murderous crackdown, moved freely in the community.

Yet they privately admit to working from need rather than desire. Muskan, Waheeda's 18-year-old sister, has been dancing for nine years and supports all 18 members of her family.

She was trained by her elder sister Rani, who, like most dancers, gave up the profession when she married.

Muskan, whose grandmother used to dance in the town's melas, is simply dressed in a turquoise shalwar kameez with little in the way of trinkets and baubles. She doesn't need them. For the men who come to see her, it is thrilling enough just to see a woman at close quarters without her head covered.

"They throw money at you but they are not allowed to touch," she says. "It is between 2,000 and 10,000 rupees for a booking but you get showered with notes on top of that.

"We are never alone with the men we dance for, although some bad men offer more money for a private audience.

"The whole family's income is on my shoulders. I dance from necessity, not pleasure.

"I wish I had been born into another life. We have no respect in society. Everyone wants a house, a husband. I would love to have children.

"Even if I marry into a dancing family, I would never want my daughters to dance. I have seen the circumstances we face, so why would I want that for my daughters?"

As she gets up to dance, her 22-year-old brother Ishfaq, who acts as her manager, averts his eyes. He always stays in the room when she performs to keep an eye on Muskan's customers, but he cannot bear to watch.

"Who would want their sister to dance? If you have food and money, there would be no need but this is necessary for our survival," he says.

It was the Yousafzai Pashtuns from Afghanistan, marching in to conquer the Swat Valley in the 16th century, who turned it into a breeding ground for Pashtun culture. Folk songs and traditional dances formed the backbone of cultural life.

Swat, nestled at the foot of the Hindu Kush on the silk road to China, has been inhabited for more than 3,000 years. Shrines and stupas pepper the landscape throughout this corner of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, formerly known as the North-West Frontier Province, signs of the legacy of successive generations of Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs.

The town of Barikot was built on the site of ancient Bazira, sacked by Alexander the Great in 326 BC, while Winston Churchill's former home, an 1896 fort where he once served as a dispatcher for The Daily Telegraph, is still clearly marked on a hillside in giant white letters reading "Churchill's Picket".

Little wonder Queen Elizabeth II, who visited in 1961, called it "the Switzerland of the British empire".

The state of Swat, formed in 1917 and ruled over by a wali, or prince, enjoyed a glorious period in the early 20th century, when arts and culture flourished.

"Between the 1920s and 1971, there was a period of reformation and a lot of development," says Prof Hussain.

"The wali of Swat was educated in Britain, had close contact with many European countries and friends and was very keen to understand the societies of his people. He went from clan to clan and introduced reforms. He built houses, roads, bridges and schools."

The professor says that, just as much as focusing on infrastructure and creating a justice system based on Islamic edicts and Pashtun customs, the wali had a healthy interest in the entertainment industry. "There were large melas every year when daughters and sons of the soil would come and perform."

While there was still a certain amount of condescension towards dancers, the wali, Miangul Abdul Wadud, imposed laws giving them protected status and areas to work in legitimately, ensuring they were paid a minimum fee and offering them security. His son, Miangul Jahan Zeb, married a dancer to prove they were not to be seen as lowly. "It created a bit of a gasp but people accepted it," says Prof Hussain.

Banr district sprung up under the wali's rule on the banks of the river and drew the valley's fair-skinned dancers.

"It was a better time and a richer society," says Usman Ullasyar, the head of Suvastu Arts and Culture Association in Swat. "As long as there have been Pashtuns, culture has been running in our blood. Dancing then was innocent, with the whole family sitting around to watch a performance. It was about aesthetics and improving culture."

In the partition of India, Swat opted to join Pakistan but continued to legislate independently. When the region became absorbed into Pakistan's judicial system in 1969, problems arose.

With the wali deposed, the new administration failed to resolve land disputes among local tribes and chaos prevailed. It created a legal vacuum which fundamentalists quickly tapped into.

Maulana Sufi Muhammad, a cleric from Dir, had a simple call to arms: democracy was not working, he argued in a series of fiery speeches in 1992, and a return to sharia would cure society's woes. He founded the militant group Tehrik-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Muhammadi and rapidly gained support.

Shaheen Buneri, a Khyber Pakhtunkhwa journalist who studied his rise to power for the US-based Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, says: "Villagers saw him as a saviour trying to liberate them from a corrupt government. At the same time, he pledged to raise the status of villagers in a society where local khans, or landlords, still controlled a political system too weak and too far removed from Islamabad to challenge them. It was the first step toward the Talibanisation of the region."

By 1994, Muhammad was threatening full-scale jihad and had laid siege to Swat's police headquarters. The unrest was temporarily quelled but by the time of the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, he had garnered 10,000 supporters, a motley crew of imams, shopkeepers and labourers. They went to Afghanistan to fight but, ill-equipped for battle, most were killed or arrested. Muhammad himself was jailed for seven years.

His son-in-law Maulana Fazlullah took up the battle cry and in 2006 he started a pirate radio station, preaching incendiary messages of hate and earning himself the nickname "the Radio Mullah".

As the head of the Taliban in Swat, he built a seminary in the valley, largely on donations from Swat residents eager for change. He found easy pickings among the valley's disenfranchised youth.

Buneri says: "They wanted to destroy the old exploitative system that had kept them poor and jobless. Once they joined, they were provided with monthly salaries and for the first time in most of their lives, a sense of identity."

One of Fazlullah's key targets was the entertainment industry, including the dancers and the shops selling mass-produced DVDs.

"It was dangerous to be a dancing girl," says Prof Hussain. "The whole state was abruptly closed down. They started living a miserable life. Their financial situation deteriorated."

Some fled to Lahore, Peshawar, Islamabad and Karachi, where they could continue dancing in relative safety. Some even arrived in Dubai to dance in the Bollywood-themed nightclubs proliferating Bur Dubai and Deira.

Others chose not to escape but inevitably, as customers dwindled, turned to prostitution.

As Fazlullah's power grew, women and those involved in the arts became his target. More than 250 girls' schools were destroyed. Beauty salons, barber shops, cosmetics counters and music stores were attacked.

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa's governing party was then the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), a coalition of six far-right Islamist parties, who won a landslide election in 2002. They banned concerts and theatrical performances and turned a blind eye to the extremists' demands and the descent into militancy.

Matters came to a head in December 2008, when the Taliban murdered 27 victims, from police officers and politicians to shopkeepers, and left their beheaded bodies dangling from power cables in Mingora's Green Square - swiftly renamed Khatil Chowk, or Murder Square - with notes pinned to them, warning onlookers not to move them.

Then, in January 2009, came the slaughter of Shabana, a popular dancer who had defiantly continued to take bookings. Her attackers tortured her and dragged her to the square where she was repeatedly shot. In terror, the last of Swat's 1,000 dancing girls fled.

As the Taliban ran amok, an estimated 1,200 people were killed and the majority of Swat's residents were driven to refugee camps. It took three months for the army to regain control and establish a peace which is fragile to this day.

Confusion reigns over Fazlullah's whereabouts. While the Pakistani military claimed to have killed him in May 2010, he appeared in a video released two months later threatening to return with renewed vigour. Some fear he is simply over the border in Afghanistan waiting to launch an even more violent takeover.

Just 10 days before my visit, a retired policeman was shot dead in broad daylight in Mingora town centre in an alleged revenge attack by the Taliban. In March 2010, a young dancer known as Afsana, who had escaped Swat during the troubles, was killed on the outskirts of Peshawar.

And then in June this year came Javed's murder, which followed the murder of fellow singer Ayman Udas in 2009. While Javed's death was not thought to be connected to the Taliban, she was a symbol of those who defied extremists' edicts to portray a different Swat - one which embraced art and culture rather than stifling it.

"Both local customs and militancy are responsible for the destruction of arts in the region," says Buneri.

Banr is the thriving heart of the dancers' trade once again - but the nature of the business has changed. The dancers started creeping back to their homes last year but they came with a degree of trepidation. They are cautious and unwilling to entertain without thoroughly vetting their clients.

And as commercialism has replaced traditional art, many have resorted to recording DVDs of themselves dancing to Pashto pop songs, which are sold in their thousands across Pakistan, India, Afghanistan and the Middle East. While they are rarely paid more than 5,000 rupees (Dh194) per movie and the footage is crudely shot, it is a relatively easy way to continue their trade.

Sana Ullah Khan, who runs a DVD store, closed his shop for two years after extremists destroyed it in 2007. He is back in business but says: "It is not like it was before. I don't enjoy the job anymore. It has all gone to the internet."

And the industry faces another kind of backlash - that of academics and intellectuals who frown on their trade. "It is not possible to return to the old Swat as it once was," says Ullasyar. "I do not see the melas like there were before. Now the dancers are making DVDs and performing while wearing revealing clothes. It is a vulgar business. I do not call it art. They are doing it for survival."

He founded his cultural organisation 20 years ago but says he gets little support from the authorities. Still, he and a collective of musicians and artists hold weekly gatherings where they play the rubab and harmonium and engage in lively debates.

"Whatever we do, we fund from our own pockets," he says. "We do not have institutions to promote culture. Swat University does not have a fine arts department or a Pashto department, nor is there a regional or cultural studies programme or an arts council. Everything we do is in a personal capacity."

But change is afoot. Nishtar Hall in Peshawar, which suspended its plays and concerts under the MMA's cultural ban, has once again begun staging performances.

And Prof Hussain is bent on reviving the culture redolent of the "golden era of my childhood" when both men and women would sing and dance to folk music.

His Bacha Khan Trust Educational Foundation runs 14 schools in Pakistan with a specific aim: that an appreciation of the arts should be as fundamental as the teaching of the core subjects.

Pupils take part in drama and music workshops and stage shows to an invited audience of dignitaries to demonstrate their skills. The professor, who is the managing director of the organisation, says he is slowly persuading the authorities of the importance of his education model.

"Religiosity of society brought about a lot of cultural change," he says. "The tangible heritage of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has been eliminated. Creative expression has been strangulated and our institutions have been broken. What we are trying to do is revive our culture."

He is leading a three-pronged approach: compiling a database of artists, working with the government to strengthen its newly formed cultural department, and encouraging young men and women to practise visual and performing arts and to take up traditional instruments.

He has his work cut out: the past few decades have meant artists have been maligned while today's youth are more inclined to listen to pop and have little awareness of classical music.

"Call it fusion but if we want to connect and integrate, we have to constitute something which is a blend of the two," says the professor. "If that does not happen, the very fabric of our social and cultural environment will be broken."

Tahira Yaqoob is a former senior features writer for The National. She is a regular contributor to The Review.