Sunday, February 16, 2003

Mohammad Shehzad

Ban on music turns singers, dancers to prostitution

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — For many singers and dancers in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province (NWFP), an Islamist-led crackdown on musical performance has meant a humiliating return to prostitution.

"The ban has forced me to become a prostitute again after 12 years," lamented Mahjabeen, 30, an accomplished singer of Pashtu-language 'ghazals' (classical ballads) in the NWFP capital Peshawar, 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the Afghan border.

"It has frightened my audience away. They are too scared to organise musical evenings. My sole source of income was singing, so now I have no option but to revert to prostitution to support my family."

Since the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) alliance of pro-Taliban Islamic parties swept NWFP in October polls and won control of the provincial parliament, police have been waging an anti-obscenity drive in accordance with the recommendations of the MMA's Sharia (Islamic law) Council.

But because no formal bans have been issued by the MMA, police have taken matters into their own hands. Since December they have arrested video store owners, locked up singers caught performing in public, arrested musicians for "loitering" and ordered others to conceal their instruments.

They have torched posters of film stars, torn cassettes out of public buses and forced drivers to halt their vehicles for the five daily prayers.

Hotels are forbidden to hold concerts, soirées and fashion shows.

While some singers have uprooted and headed to more liberal cities like Lahore, 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) from the eastern border with India, the market for Mahjabeen's Pashtu ghazals only exists here.

Her crystal voice gave her a way out of prostitution at the age of 17, the trade her mother had introduced her to four years earlier.

"In a very short time I became a polished vocalist and was able to make a reasonable living through public performances."

Performing ghazals even tided her over after her husband's death. "I did not revert to prostitution and kept on making a simple but honourable living through singing," she said.

"But this ban on music has pushed me into a pit of disgrace and humiliation."

Without the unwritten ban on music Mahjabeen estimates she could support herself for another 30 years by performing at weddings and concerts. But now she faces the grim prospect of whoring her own daughters.

"Once I turn 35 I will have to become a pimp and groom my two daughters to become good whores," she said.

Dancer Palwashay has met a similar fate.

"I was part of a troupe of musicians and dancers who used to perform at weddings, birthday parties and other soirees. But this ban has snatched bread from my band's mouth because now our clients fear a severe backlash from religious bigots if they celebrate anything with music or dance."

Penniless, she and four colleagues from the troupe opened a brothel in a house rented from a fervent supporter of the clerics.

"He prays five times a day and fasts. But he exploits us and benefits from our 'services' by paying very little," Palwashay said.

She accused the clerics of banning music and dance to encourage prostitution in NWFP.

"This way they save themselves the hassle of travelling to cities like Lahore and Karachi, where there are three brothels on every street."

Music and dance are an integral part of Pakistan's rich cultural heritage. These singers and dancers, popular among the masses, lived off the nominal fees they charged for performing at parties, making no more than 200 dollars a month.

Singer Jameela, a 22-year-old widow supporting a son, has had no bookings since November. Her landlord waived her rent on condition she became his mistress.

"Sometimes I have to entertain his friends. I have no choice but to accept this private humiliation."

Jameela is bitter at the ban and accuses the Islamists of fuelling prostitution.

"The clerics are promoting a cottage industry of sex. They think that by imposing this ban they're able to make people better Muslims. They don't realise how they have vulgarised the society."

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Created: April 13, 2003
Last modified: April 13, 2003
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