A cultural feminist lens

Siren Song is a fascinating read not just for those interested in cultural or feminist studies, but for all average readers from South Asia.

Fawzia Afzal’s book Siren Songs: Understanding Pakistan through its Women Singers is a wonderful feminist intervention depicting the Pakistani female music performer’s dilemmas, resistances and identities, intricately connected to the political, social and cultural trajectories in Pakistan’s history. Through a cultural feminist lens, it provides an alternative reading of Pakistan’s cultural history from the perspective of its women singers as she terms it ‘a ‘herstorical account from the below’. The author has interestingly woven an analysis of agential practices of Muslim women singers of Pakistan from a cultural studies and micro historical perspective to understand the interlocked issues of gender, class, religion and postcolonial state history. The book is outstanding as it not only gives us glimpses of impact of state policies (mostly regressive) on women singers but the way women singers have influenced the political behaviours in turn and their active resistances that ultimately altered the gendered realities in Pakistani society.

My interest in the book developed after an email exchange with the author, in which I had sought some suggestion on a proposed project on Kashmiri folklore. She pointed out at her own work in the form of this book-Siren Songs, which has a chapter on famous women folk singers like Reshma, Malka Pukhraj and Roshan Ara Begum. I was keen to know about her analysis of Malka Pukhraj’s performances, who was a classical trainee folk singer in Maharaja Hari Singh’s Court in Kashmir under Dogra Rule. To me Malka, termed as ‘respectable courtesan by Fawzia’, provides an important link not only to the evolution of Pakistan in post-independence period, but she is vital to the political and cultural history of Jammu and Kashmir as well.

Referring to Malka’s memoir ‘Song Sung True, Fawzia traces her journey of music, that began with her being hired, as a singer-dancer at the court of Maharaja Hari Singh. She quickly became his favourite following the great honour bestowed on her at his coronation ceremony in 1925 as she was the only one he chose to sing at his court. As a Kashmiri feminist academician, women’s question in Dogra rule has been an important part of my work since the early days of research; me and many of my contemporaries have written and spoken lot about the atrocities against Muslims in Jammu and Kashmir including the heavy taxation levied under Dogra rule, the Begaari (forced labour) system, taxes on marriages, singing, courtesans and prostitutes. However for Malka, drawing from her ten years work experience in his court, Mahraja Hari Singh represented an ideal ruler, who as per her did not indulge himself or his court in communal politics. Fawzia also brings to us an important revelation from her memoir;

‘she (Malka) condemns Chaudhry Ghulam Abbas, the Muslim political leader from Jammu for spreading what she regards as the rumour that the Maharaja was unwilling to accept the demands of the Muslims, which according to her had hurt and annoyed the Maharaja who in fact ‘greatly displeased many of the Hindus as he had already decided to accept all the demands of the Muslims in his state’.

This was followed by a communal riot, consequent upon which the Hindu courtiers infused in his mind hatred and suspicion against his Muslim subjects and eventually his Muslim courtiers were silenced forever. The hatred of Hindu nationalists under Dogra rule went too far to malign the Muslims and as part of their communal agenda they invented stories about how Malka tried to poison the Maharaja. Malka thus resigned from Maharaja's services in the interest of her own, and her family migrated to Pakistan. It is worth mentioning here that Chaudry Ghulam Abbas was one of the founding members of All Jammu and Kashmir Muslim Conference formed in 1932 led by Sheikh Muhammed Abdullah (later changed to National Conference). This opens up a chance to transform our view of Kashmir’s history by decoding knowledge of women in the past.

While analysing a singer named Roshan Ara Begum who like Malka started her career in un-partitioned India and migrated to Pakistan, Fawzia has enjoined a very critical discourse of gender and nationalism. Most of the discussion in Siren song, revolves around theorizing a feminist thought that will explain the resistance strategies of these Muslim musicians within Muslim idea of respectability-the Ashrafi codes of moral conduct. Rejecting the allegations levelled at Pakistani state for its indifference to Roshan Ara begum and the presumptions that she could have led a far more fulfilling life as a singer in India she weaves her arguments around the discourses of colonial modernity and post-colonial modernity. This reminds me of Deputy Nazir Ahmad’s construction of the idea of respectable Muslim women in India through his novel Miratul Uroos. These shareef Muslim women continue to figure primarily as markers of Muslim communities identities on both sides-India and Pakistan. From her discussions it follows that Pakistan’s attempt to marginalize of music and music performances intertwined with gender class and nation affected Muslim women singers badly and in India marginalisation of Muslim (minorities) intersect with gender class and nationhood in a manner that has led to the fact that Muslim female musicians of India didn’t fare well in post-independence period.

Yet another interesting discourse is developed in the chapter ‘feminist mediation’, in which she discusses another set of Muslim female musicians namely Madame Noor Jahan, Abida Parveen and Deeyah to explain intersectionality of gender with class and religious issues. For example Abida Parveen’s performances, her choice of material, places (such as shrines), and mix gender (fluid) dressing is such that it blurs all forms of identities be at feminine/masculine, secular/sacred, body and soul etc, -a process which Fawzia refers to as queering of Islam. In a thorough discussion on ‘happy objects’ by Sara Ahmad, Fawzia argues that these female performers become ‘affect aliens’ in the idealised discourse of nation–states. She also explains how these women have defied the orthodox religious pressures and created more spiritual sense of music by invoking God and their unique relationship with God in their music.

The other female music performers which Fawzia has discussed in her book include Reshma –a famous folk singer, Tahira Syed, Tina Sani, etc. She also brings into this stream, transnational Pakistani’s like Deeyah and Runa Laila and Nazia Hasan to discuss the politicisation of art. Fawzia has also delineated the connection of the Islamic extremism and rise of Coke Studio (a corporate brand) in Pakistan. Fawzia seems to suggest that coke Studio has rendered more visibility to Muslim female singers more so in case of females from ‘elite Ashrafi’ classes.

Overall the book is a fascinating read not just for those interested in cultural or feminist studies, but for all average readers from South Asia. It is a sincere attempt to develop a feministic perspective that is intersectional, non-missionary, and anti-imperialistic. The book is little more pricy, though I was lucky to receive my copy from the author’s friend, as a gift.

Dr Shazia Malik, Centre for Women's Studies and Research , University of Kashmir

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