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Interview: Sheema Kermani

TARSHI: You have chosen a very unconventional and powerful mode of protest in the feminist movement. What made you want to dance your way against intolerance?

Sheema Kermani: I believe that dance is a beautiful art form and it has an immense inherent power – the power to bring about a change both at a personal as well as at a collective level. Dance as an Art is about harmony, about love, about beauty. It is about trying to create a better world. And that’s what all of us are in search of.  I think that one of the reasons for so much violence in Pakistan is that young people have no platform, no means, no medium to express their feelings; if only they could sing, if they could dance, if they can dream and create their dreams on stage they will feel differently – they will find more harmony and more joy in their lives. It is an art that helps create a better society as well as better individuals. Dance is certainly very powerful. Its power lies in the fact that it is the Truth! Perhaps I can say that it challenges the status quo. When a woman stands on stage with confidence and dignity, she is saying, ‘here I am – I am proud of my body and I do not fear you’. This is the power that makes the establishment fear Dance – and this is what makes me chose to dance.

As a young girl I was really plump and not at all interested in sports. My mother felt that maybe dance classes would make me lose weight and give me some grace. This is how it started and as I continued classes I got more and more interested. However, my studies took me abroad, I went to art college, gave up dance for many years and it was much later in life that I came back seriously to dancing and went to India to study it further. This was in 1983, at the time of General Zia-ul-Haq who had actually banned classical dancing by women on stage and also introduced Islamic anti-women laws. At this point I decided to take up dance as a career. Perhaps it was the rebel in me that made me desire to do that which others do not do, or perhaps it was the fact that I felt this beautiful art form will die out completely in Pakistan and I must keep it surviving, or perhaps it was something that I simply loved to do – to dance, and so I did.

T: How do you engage with theatre, dance and performance art to help raise important questions around gender, choice, sexuality and preoccupations with control?

SK: The arts and the women of Pakistan have been the two major victims of military dictatorships, especially General Zia-ul-Haq’s policies. Women in Pakistan have been victims at the state level too, especially when General Zia-ul-Haq introduced anti-women Islamic Laws in 1977. The state introduced legal and social forms of control over women as part of its campaign of suppression and made women’s sexuality and morality the business of the state. State forces were preoccupied with women’s dress, their movements, their sexuality and their very presence in public spaces. In the name of religion, laws like the ‘Hudood Ordinances’, ‘Qisas’, ‘Diyat’ and ‘Blasphemy Laws’ were introduced and are prime examples of laws that devalue women and humanity. The most crucial aspect in these laws is that a woman’s testimony is unacceptable. The Law of Evidence declares that the testimony of two women is equal to that of one man.

I believe that Feminism is the recognition of the existence of this kind of sexism, male domination and patriarchy and the desire to change this situation. I consider myself a Feminist and I strongly feel that I must do whatever I can to change this discrimination against women in our society so that she can find her place of dignity and respect. It is the values that have to change and the attitudes towards women both of society and state. And I believe this can only be done through cultural work. Traditionally in the sub-continent, dance, music and drama cannot be separated and together constitute the theatrical arts. They are elements of a unified reality, they are deeply intertwined and their goal is to lead the spectators towards wisdom, knowledge and liberation: ‘To uplift the soul to realms above’. In Pakistan artists are looked down upon, but female artists are simply considered of no value. In the performing arts women are presented as two kinds; one is the ‘family woman’ who is considered pure, chaste, loyal and obedient, the other is the ‘professional artist’ who is considered almost a prostitute.

T: Our understanding is that Tehrik-e-Niswan was in response to a specific ban. Can you tell us more about the sequence of events leading up to this and the impact that Tehrik-e-Niswan has had since? Do you believe art as a form has the power to shake the very foundation of something as draconian as bans? We would love to hear living, breathing stories of your experiences of this.

SK: Tehrik is a cultural action group and uses the medium of the performing arts to put forth the message of Human Rights, especially Women’s Rights.  No it is not correct to say that Tehrik came about in response to any ban – Tehrik was formed after a group of women had been working politically since the early 1970’s to bring about a change in the position of women in Pakistan. Tehrik-e-Niswan realises that the women’s movement can only be carried forward and succeed if it is seen as part of the overall fight against religious narrow mindedness and bigotry. Since women are the worst hit by these rising trends they should be in the forefront of this fight. This is a cultural fight and it needs to be fought through cultural means.

The objective of Tehrik-e-Niswan is to change the existing values and relationships between men and women. We believe these values are not conducive to women’s rights and are very discriminatory. To change values you have to touch people’s hearts – we feel that the Performing Arts are a means of touching people’s hearts. We use art and poetry to send the message of equal rights, the message of justice and equality.

So my love for dance and drama becomes part of the movement and part of the struggle. My politics is integrated with my art and I believe there is no Politics without Art.

T: How has Tehrik-e-Niswan navigated the delicate terrain of blasphemy laws and the ban on dance (performing act ordinance)?

SK: Well actually there is no text in the Koran which explicitly condemns or endorses dancing, but Islamic religious authorities have always frowned upon dance. There are some sects and also the Sufis who believe that dance brings the worshipper into communion with God. Then there is the concept of ‘Fitna’, and consequently ‘purdah’, or segregation. Energy, power and female sexuality are seen as sinfully related through dance. Besides this, dance in Pakistan is seen not only as un-Islamic but categorically as Hindu. However I have never understood how dance and music can be defined through religious categorisations – what is Hindu dance and what is Islamic dance? It is the same as saying that there is a Hindu bomb and an Islamic bomb!

T:You are quoted as having said ‘…use the female body to fight a patriarchal order which wants to keep women in subordination by controlling their mobility and sexuality…’ Could you shed some light on the context within which it was made? Also, how do you see ‘body’ in relation to a larger collective or ‘nation’ if you will?

SK: I have often wondered what is it that makes the Muslim male so anti-dance. I feel that the Muslim male is actually threatened by the power that a woman gains through dance; for them the inherent message when a woman goes on stage is her self assertion. This assertion of identity which is strong, complete and whole, acknowledges, in its own way, the power of the female body and the need of the patriarchal order to keep women’s bodies and sexuality firmly under control. (I do not remember the quotation in context but I think it is in relation to this whole issue of feminism and patriarchy)

T: Could you share your thoughts on the trajectory the feminist movement in Pakistan has taken between 1977 and 2014? Your insights on the socio-political factors that influenced the movement would be especially welcome.

SK: The establishment in Pakistan while being anti-culture in general, has a special mistrust of the Performing Arts, which they consider a highly subversive activity as it forces one to look at one’s own life from a distance and question anything and everything around you. In fact in this sense all art is subversive, but the Performing Arts are more so than others, as they bring the performers and the audiences in direct contact with each other. In a successful performance a fusion takes place between the audience and the performers. This potent relationship between the performer and the audience generates energy that can transform the passive spectator into active collaborators and exciting unpredictable things can happen. I think that it is this transforming experience and its power, of which the authorities (both religious and political) are scared and therefore ban and discourage dance.

I place the problems facing dance and theatre in Pakistan in two broad categories. The first is the active hostility of the state, which is translated into government policies aimed at making life extremely difficult for people who wish to engage in dance and theatre at any level, other than an extremely crass one. I say this because the theatre of vulgar jokes and loud humour and ‘Filmi’ dance in the ‘Mujra’ style, is thriving and encouraged even at an official level. In the old days the performing arts were patronised by the rajahs and nawabs and feudal aristocracy of all shades. Later on, this role of patronage in most societies was taken over by the government and private industrialists. In Pakistan, however, the state not only did not fulfil this role, but also went on to formulate a series of policies whose purpose was to thwart cultural expression. So in Pakistan, we not only witness the absence of state patronage but an active animosity towards cultural activities.

The other problem arises from the nature of the society itself, which is culturally conservative, with no tradition of free expression and deep-rooted prejudices towards the performing arts. The ruling elite or the moneyed class is not really interested in culture or its importance.  Following the government and wanting to be on its right side for obvious reasons, private industrialists, and business houses, too shied away from supporting serious cultural activities. Unlike other countries of the world, there are no trusts for culture set up by philanthropists. Karachi must be the only metropolis of its size in the world, which does not have a single proper auditorium. Culture is not on the list of worthy causes to be supported. Its civilising influence is totally ignored.

The poor on the other hand are tied to their everyday problems of survival. For them cultural activities are luxuries beyond their means. Like any other class society, the onus of cultural expression falls on the middle class. The Pakistani middle class, predominantly Muslim, is small, conservative, underdeveloped, and extremely anti-culture and regards the performing arts with disdain and contempt. This attitude is reflected in the derogatory terms that are prevalent amongst them for various practitioners of the performing arts; A singer or musician is a ‘Meerasi’ [refers to those who traditionally inherited, preserved and nurtured the cultural heritage of society for example, dance and music; but over time began to be used in a derogatory way or to insult/demean artists], an actor a ‘Bhand’ [traditionally, they were jesters or clowns who had pride of place in royal courts but over time it has also become a demeaning word used to describe low-brow actors], and a dancer, of course is unspeakably low, if not a ‘Prostitute’.

T: Could you shed some light on the different legislations around gender issues that have been introduced under military rule and has there been much political debate around these legislations, if any? Could you cite instances of ways in which activists have expressed their dissent to state oppression?

SK: Perhaps it would be best to give you my own story here. When General Zia-ul-Haq banned dance in Pakistan, I took up the challenge to continue teaching and performing – this was my political defiance against the dictatorial repression. And it was also a way to keep my mind and body together and to maintain my sanity.

Gen Zia then banned dance and introduced the NOC – No Objection Certificate, an official document that had to be obtained before any public performance of any kind. This document required police clearances of performers, censorship of scripts etc plus it stated the ‘dancing, obscenity and nudity not allowed’. So it became almost impossible to hold a dance performance. However I continued in spite of all this. By the way the NOC is still a prerequisite for any public performance in Pakistan.

Yes, it was very difficult; always a challenge and an act of subversion. My dance performances became a political activity – for me personally, it was an act of defiance against the Martial Law regime, and for the audiences it was a show of solidarity for this defiance.

My first solo performance in 1983 was at a friend’s house where I invited about 50-60 people but more than 200 turned up.  The English Press covered this performance. On this occasion we asked people to write down their contact addresses if they were interested in receiving information about further performances. Over a period of time I had built up a long list of contact addresses and names of people who were interested. So before a performance I would post out circulars to these people giving information about the place, time, date etc of the performance and we also started putting an entrance ticket. So this is how I continued performing and of course this was underground activity. During this period I managed to form a small nucleus or core group of like-minded people who became part of the Tehrik-e-Niswan Cultural Action Group that continues even today to be actively involved in the Performing Arts.

Dance performances could not be advertised as they were actually banned. For any kind of performance and to be able to rent a venue, one had to get a NOC from the local administrative authorities including the Police Station of the area. The NOC states that dancing is not allowed, but I agreed to sign on it at my own risk. Every time I performed it was at the risk of my life and imprisonment.

T: As far as censorship and controlling sexuality are concerned; law has often been used as a tool to influence public opinion. What are your thoughts on this and what is your experience of people responding to the call of art amidst it all?

SK: This is a very complex society and a very complex situation. On the one hand we have had a female Prime Minister, and on the other females are buried alive, flogged, and killed on mere suspicion. So it is not a society easy to understand – there are many layers and many different dynamics operating at the same time. I have had strange experiences – many times I have had women/girls students who have to hide from their fathers that they learn dance – often those who learn are not allowed to perform. Many such stories …..I think dance and theatre is not only a good means of communication – often it is a therapy, often it is catharsis, and almost always it is empowering!

T: Having lectured and written extensively on the history, significance, beauty and importance of the fine arts, have you any specific observations on art as a medium in terms of activism?

SK: When a theatre or dance performance succeeds, it transforms passive spectators into active collaborators who may actually feel their bodies moving in sympathy with the dancers onstage; at such moments, energy flows back and forth between performers and audience. The work of bringing about a change in people’s thinking and behaviour through cultural interventions is very different from all other material development work. It is a process of changing minds and values, which works in imperceptible ways and is very difficult to say actually at what point and in which manner cultural experiences affect people. The  proof of its effectiveness lies in the undeniable fact that our mental attitudes are formed by the songs that we have heard, the plays or films we have seen, the poems or stories that we have read or been told.

 T: What have your experiences been of introducing your art and its many forms on both sides of the border? What are some of the responses you have had that strengthen your resolve? 

SK: I believe that perhaps culture is the only medium that can help India and Pakistan to come together. Culture overcomes barriers of language and geography; we share the same history, we have common languages and since centuries we shared the same culture. A Muslim and a Hindu from Sindh have more in common with each other than two Muslims coming from Baluchistan and Punjab. I have been an active founder member of ‘Pakistan India Peoples Forum for Peace and Development’ and ‘The Pakistan Peace Coalition’. I would like to see an end to confrontation between the two countries, which to me also means that the Pakistani military and all the expenditure on it will have to be cut down. This is what ultimately we hope for. The only excuse Pakistan has for spending enormous amounts of the budget on arms and military is Kashmir and the border with India. If these issues are resolved and Pakistan has a good and constant cultural exchange with India I feel it would allow Pakistani society to develop in a meaningful way. I see my work as political activism. I am a political person and I believe there is no politics without art.

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