Friday, April 08, 2011

Zeb & Haniya and artistic freedom in Pakistan

by Salman Hameed

Just this past week, I was at a conference in London where there was much discussion on the definition and varieties of secularisms around the world. Of course, the uprisings in North-Africa were on everyone's mind and the governments that these may spawn in the coming years and decades. The key thing is that there is no single form of secularism: The French secularism is very different from the American kind, which is very different from the British, not to mention with other European countries and Turkey. We will all have to wait and see what shape do governments take in Egypt, Tunisia and other places currently in turmoil.

Now, Pakistan, from its very beginning has struggled to define itself. There are strong currents of both secularism and religion in the society and in the government. This is not surprising as much of the structure of government is secular, but the identity of the society is Muslim (since religion was the key demarcation in the formation of Pakistan).

This discussion is for some other time. But I was listening to an NPR interview with Zeb and Haniya - a really interesting women's band in Pakistan. It is (currently) a rarity to see a band composed of women, where Zeb is the singer and her cousin Haniya is the guitarist. As it turns out, there is a local 5-college connection as well: Zeb went to Mount Holyoke and Haniya to Smith College.

But the issue of secularism came up in the interview - and Haniya expressed a break from clear-cut boundaries:
"I don't see myself as religious or secular," she says. "I think we all inhabit a space which really straddles both of them. I don't think anyone here is entirely this or that or the other."
...
There is alarm from Islamabad to Washington that tolerance for secular life in Pakistan is fast retreating as evidenced by the shocking murders of the governor of the Punjab and the Minority Affairs Minister.
The space for artistic expression is narrowing. Zeb says the obligation for artists like her is to keep "reclaiming" the space. Haniya says their work reflects the growing instability around them, but in an unexpected way.

"The more violence that starts taking place outside, the more sort of serene and calm our music begins to get. I think because it's a way of creating an alternate universe, right? You create work that would reflect the world that you want to be in rather than the one you are in," she says.
Great! Here are two samples from Zeb & Haniya. I really like the first one, Aitebar, where Haniya's guitar flows perfectly with Zeb's hauntingly melodic voice:



And here is another fantastic song, Bibi Sanam (sorry I don't understand most of the lyrics here either):



Listen to the NPR interview here.

2 comments:

emre said...

I think it would help to keep "secularism" as a political term, and use something else for their religious beliefs (cultural Muslim, irreligious, deist/theist/atheist/agnostic etc.), otherwise they may be forced to choose between religion and secularism.

Dr. M. Akbar Hussain said...

Emre:
No one is forcing anyone to adopt a particular lifestyle in Pakistan. Pakistan has always been multicultural and multilinguistic with a marked variations in religious and cultural affiliations and definitions. It is not a problem as long as balance of power is maintained. Unfortunately it is in jeopardy over last a decade or so.