Friday, 10 August 2012

Gender and Sexuality Performances in Pashto Music

Last year, I took a course called Gender, Music, and Sexuality. One of my motives for taking the course was so that I can better understand the Pashto music and film industries (and the focus of the class was not just one race or ethnic group: it was an in-depth analysis of the roles that our notions of sexuality and gender play in music/film all across the world, with examples from various countries of all the continents). When the time came for us students to discuss our ideas for potential term papers with our professor, I went to her office and told her that the idea I had in mind was a bit embarrassing and that the examples I will give her and in my paper when writing about are going to be utterly mortifying. I told her how tired and sick I was of the way women (and, sometimes, men) perform in Pashto musics, often to beautiful and meaningful lyrics, and that I want to understand exactly what is going on in the minds of the performers, the directors, and everyone else involved in the production of our (Pashtuns’) music.

My professor was (is) a prominent scholar in her field (Ethnomusicology) as well as in some others (Gender Studies, Middle Eastern Studies) and a beautiful human who taught me to think positively, to never assume the worst or negative of anyone or anything until I have fully understood them, to always try to look at things from multiple perspectives no matter how offending they might be, to never come to a conclusion until I had considered various possibilities. And so I knew that she wouldn’t let me down in instilling in me a different, new, another understanding of the one thing that bothered me most about Pashtuns. And she did—and I’m so grateful to her.

The paper is over 15 pages long so cannot be shared here in its completion, but here’s a link to the outline of the paper, and below, I will share some excerpts from it. My purpose is not so that we will laud the performers of our music; such thinking is beyond my interest. But I want us to at least acknowledge that there’s something deeper, more complex going on here than most of us imagine. I also hope that it will encourage others, particularly those with Music and/or Gender Studies interests, to contribute to studies on Pashto music, the tension between practice and ideals in the Pashtun society, and the roles of the performers. It is precisely because of the extreme lack of studies on this issue that I opted to write on our music videos rather than on music in general, for Pashto music, its performances, and its lyrics are another excellent research opportunity for those interested.


Two years ago in an online Pashtun discussion forum, some members suggested that we have a Pashtun version of American Idol, only that we would be reciting the Qur’an, not signing. I liked the idea and expressed a desire to participate in it. The male member who had initiated the request said that, no, that would be unacceptable because I am a woman and Islam forbids women from allowing their voice to be heard by non-related men, and the forum is public, which meant that everyone would be able to hear my voice; hence, the competition was open only to males. Virtually all of the other participants in the discussion agreed with the male member because he used Islamic sources to support his argument, which was that the woman’s voice is considered aurah, or something private that has the power to attract a man’s attention and therefore lead to fitna, or social chaos. After weeks of debate, the competition did not take place because I insisted on participating, and the male member along with others did not wish to be associated with an un-Islamic event on a community that claims to be Pashtun and hence Muslim.
I narrate this anecdote here for two important reasons. The first is that it shows the importance of religion in the Pashtun society, particularly when it comes to women’s conduct and gender relations, and the second is that it explicitly sexualizes the woman’s voice, presenting it—and indeed the woman’s quintessence—as something private that must not be made available to the public. Yet, men’s voice is not sexualized because it is not considered an object of attraction. It is therefore fascinating that Pashto music videos, the subject of this study, do not seem to perceive gender and sexuality the same way. 

The Roles of Music

Music has been used throughout history for various purposes, among which are for the music producers and musicians and others involved to express political, religious, social views; to assert a people’s identity; to depict certain situations of a people or culture, such as national tragedies; and to raise awareness of a certain cultural quality. Hence, music has no one role or objective but a variety of them. Particularly in Pashto music, the social and political predicament of the Pashtuns are strongly depicted in songs like “Zamung pa kale ke shar ma jorawai” (Don’t bring violence to this global village of ours), sung by Irfan Khan, or “Nan Pekhawar Jareegi” (Peshawar is in tears today); powerful calls for unity are often made through music in songs that endeavor to eliminate tribal affiliations by gathering all Pashtuns under the flag of ethnicity, such as a popular song by Musharraf Bangash in which he names all of the different Pashtun tribes and makes a claim to fame of the Pashtuns as one nation, rather than as individual tribes; the role and position of women in the Pashtun society is well portrayed in many songs, among the most popular being “Bibi Sheriney” (Sweet Lady), sung by Gulzar Alam; a feeling of patriotism and an appreciation for identity is instilled in the minds and hearts of Pashtun audiences through music, as in the song “Ey Zama Watana” (O’ my beloved land!); ideas of gender roles as perceived by the society are expressed in other songs, such as in “Peghley hayadaare har zalmay ye dak da nang” (The female youth of our nation is full of modesty, the male youth full of honor), although the main theme of this song is not of gender/sexuality but instead on Pashtuns’ pride for their nation. It is this last group of Pashto music, particularly that of gender appropriation through music, in addition to the performers’ expression of sexuality, that I aim to discuss here.
As the title of the last mentioned song suggests, the two sexes are identified as females and males, and a certain sense of recognition is attached to them: the Pashtun women are expected to be modest, while the Pashtun men are expected to be honorable. Women are thus associated with modesty, which mainly points to clothing as well as public and private behavior, and the men with nang, or honor, and they work together such that the women maintain their haya, or modesty, so as not to offend the men’s nang.  Arguably, this places all the responsibility of honor on the hayadaara, or modest, female, which is true for the understanding of gender roles in the Pashtun society. [...]

Gender Construction through Music 

Popular Pashto music videos do not support this idea of the hayadaara Pashtun woman and the honorable Pashtun man, although the latter cannot be as easily discerned as the former because it is not the man’s decorum that is scrutinized, and the man is not identified by his behavior—the woman is. [Below, it by performer and dancer, I am often referring to the dancers to Pashto music, not the singers.] Yet, the women in Pashto music videos actively contest these gender norms and expectations in the society. They defy normative moral standards by flaunting their feminine sexuality and appearing to be sexually loose, unlike the ordinary Pashtun woman, who is to suppress her sexuality in public and express it only in front of her husband. Yet, like performers of many other regions, including early Western Europe, these women resist culturally established norms to create space for themselves in music and dance; they are fully aware of the consequences of their performances, but they continue to assert themselves as performers in musical spaces. Because the space belongs to them and is created by them, they also have the opportunity and the freedom to express their sexuality in a way that they are not permitted to do so outside of this space. The female entertainer in these videos is called dama (plural, damaaney), the male dam (plural, damaan). However, because this term is derogatory and reduces these performers, especially the women, to merely sex objects used for pleasure alone, I will avoid referring to them as such throughout this study because I propose that there performance, no matter how sexual, be interpreted in multiple ways, not just in terms of pleasure.

 The Pashtun women in Pashto music videos are socially referred to as damaaney, as mentioned above, and may be compared to the Indian nachni (discussed by Carol Babiracki
in “What’s the difference?” In Shadows in the field: New Perspectives for Fieldwork in Ethnomusicology, 1997); the Indonesian ronggeng (Henry Speller, “Negotiating masculinity in an Indonesian pop song: Doel Sumbeng’s ‘Ronggeng.’” In Oh boy! Masculinities and Pop Music, 2007); and the dancing girls of Hira Mandi (Louise Brown, The Dancing Girls of Lahore: Selling Love and Hoarding Dreams in Pakistan's Ancient Pleasure District, 2005). For example, like the nachni, the female Pashtun performer is an important part of Pashtun weddings: she is invited to entertain men in their hujra, which is a traditional male-only space, even though she is degraded and looked down upon for her act by both these men as well as everyone else in the society. The Indonesian ronggeng is not just a performer of music and dance, but she also engages in sexual acts with her male clients/audiences; the Pashtun performer, too, often extends her services to sexual acts with her male hosts, including when she is invited to their homes to dance at weddings (Charles Lindholm, Generosity and Jealousy: The Swat Pukhtuns of Northern Pakistan, 1982). And, like the dancing girl of a Lahore brothel who manages what she calls her shame very carefully, shame being associated with sexual activities, contacts with men, and failure to control and discipline the body, the Pashtun performer dresses inappropriately according to the social expectations (usually, this means skin-tight clothing, and rarely do her clothes expose her skin), she is too friendly with men, and she moves her body in a very lax manner; she therefore brings shame to her family and society, reducing her chances of marriage with a “decent, respectable” man.

Identity Formation through Music: Understanding the Performers’ Role

The public behavior and the performance of these Pashtun women performers play a pivotal role in identity formation among Pashtun women in the society. The identities of these two groups of women—one being the entertainers and the other being the ordinary women—are contrasted against each other such that Pashtun men who enjoy the performers warn their own female family members against becoming like them: these performers are not to be seen as role models for the female youth, and the young daughters will not grow up to be like the women on TV. Hence, the ideal Pashtun woman is virtually everything that the performer is not.

But perhaps the most likely way to understand the performer’s role is to see it as a response to the suppression of sexuality in their society, which also points to the responses of their male audiences. [...]

While the women’s performance may be understood as providing a window into Pashtun notions of gender, this is not entirely so, as it assumes that the role of music should be or is limited to portraying certain cultural behaviors and norms. However, as previously noted, music can be interpreted in various possible ways, which
include shaping people’s identities and transcending the society’s limitations. The former reading of music, that of shaping people’s identities, can be viewed in the context of this study’s performers as: they reassert traditional notions of Pashtunness, of what it means to be Pashtun, by reminding their viewers that what is being shown is un-Pashtun, thereby defining what it means to be Pashtun and how to avoid being un-Pashtun. The latter reading of the role of music also offers a different viewpoint: these women are in fact empowering themselves by transcending the limitations that the society has established for each gender. They willingly cross the boundaries that the society has set for them because, perhaps, they realize that women's bodies, and hence their sexualities, have been under social control for a long time. They are aware of the consequences of a woman’s choice to enter the public music world where her body is viewed as the embodiment of seductive power and the entertainment field as "extremely sensitive" for women to work in due to religious ideas about female sexuality, and, yet these women offer their bodies for pleasure to the public anyway. [...]

The Audience

As pointed out earlier, the female performer who acts in these music videos also serves as an entertainer in Pashto weddings, tending only to men’s desires while the women, who are outside of the hujra in the larger home space, tend to have “ordinary” girls and women dancing to them. As this suggests, their audience is primarily men, which can be seen in almost all Pashto music videos, particularly live performances. In fact, it is not just the audience of the dancers who is almost all male but so is the audience of the singers. A few examples of both are presented below.

Che masti wey ao zwani” (If only youth and enjoyment were eternal), where the performer dances to a group of four men, one of whom is sitting in the  center and is depicted as her main audience—and there are no women.
Marhaba, Marhaba” (Welcome, welcome), an example of a music video that not only illustrates the point of the dancer’s audience but also of her sexual, seductive role contrasted against that of her male partner’s.
Maa la chal na razi” (I don’t know how)—few women, the rest all men.
 Zama charsi janana” (O’ my addicted beloved), perhaps the best example of an almost entirely male audience; the audience can be seen from 01:59-02:10 as all men.

The issue of audience raises important questions of class: for live performances, including those in weddings, the audience must be able to afford to attend or host the performance. The women who do attend these performances tend to be upper-class, as can be told from the way they wear their dupattas, or veils around their shoulders or necks. Few have their faces covered, and most have their hair showing. Generally, the showing of the hair is associated with liberalness and face-covering with conservatism or traditionalness. In many cases also, the audience includes a large number of other singer and performers. Hence, it seems that particularly lower-class women are excluded from the audience. [...]

Displayed Gender Differences in Musical Performances 

Gender differences are created when different qualities and roles are attributed to individuals based on their sex. For instance, in terms of looks, the male performer in most musics, including  Pashto music, does not bear the pressure of being aesthetically appealing to his audience, but the woman does. In fact, because the society prefers light-skinned women to dark-skinned ones, she must look white in order to appeal to her audience. Moreover, the woman tends to have a more sexual role, such as that of a seductress, and does most of the dancing and performing, whereas the man does not; he merely seems to be watching the woman perform and every once in a while, dance with her. Additionally, the only role assigned to the woman is singing or dancing (she seldom does both): she does not tend to play any instrument [this does not take into consideration folk musicians, who are an important and separate category of their own], while there are many male Pashtun musicians who both sing and play an instrument, among them Sardar Ali Takkar and Gulzar Alam. […]

There appears to be tension between reality and the ideals of the Pashtun society. Somehow, it seems to be an accepted idea that performers are “expected” to transgress, as though it is their job to transcend social boundaries; they do it, and their audiences enjoy it. The stage is their space and opportunity to do something they are not socially permitted to do otherwise. Since they are the instigators of what is deemed inappropriate behavior, they do not represent the ordinary Pashtun girl; they instead represent the girls who do not “exist” in the society, the girl who must not be. The challenge to the assumption that Pashto music videos must represent authentic Pashtun culture remains: if that must be so, then what and who encourages the produces to continue making the sort of music videos that they do? Why are these very popular among Pashtuns if they are not an accurate portrayal of the society? On the contrary, the facts that they are popular and continue being produced suggests that there is an eager audience waiting to rely on them for entertainment. 

Qrratugai is an Islamic Studies student with emphasis on gender relations in Islamic law. She tweets at and blogs at