Glass ceiling: In Chitral, women cannot be singers

Social taboo, culture forbid them from pursuing music careers

Abdur Razzaq July 02, 2016
Male musicians at Shandur Polo festival in Chitral. PHOTO: EXPRESS

PESHAWAR: Chitral is home to 14 languages, but no professional female singer. The valley, which shares much of its history with Gilgit-Baltistan and is sometimes referred to as “Pari-istan” because of a common belief in ‘paris’ (fairies) inhabiting the mountains, has given only its male singers the right to make their voices heard in public.

In Chitral, social taboos and local culture forbid women from pursuing a career in singing.

While talking to The Express Tribune, Dr Inayatullah Faizi, a historian and senior columnist from Chitral, explains before Partition there were female singers and dancers in the valley.

Women would organise concerts during cultural festivals and sing in front of an all-female audience at weddings. However, all that changed when Chitral, once a self-autonomous princely state, was made an administrative district in 1969. Soon after this, religious leaders began exercising state power and changed the structure of society in the valley, reveals Dr Faizi.

Pakistan Broadcast Corporation (PBC) Chitral, established in 1993, was even threatened once by certain religious leaders for allowing a woman to make on-air announcements, Dr Faizi says.

“Women therefore have no contribution in radio dramas and other programmes aired by PBC in Chitral,” he adds. It shows how rigid the culture of Chitral is towards female participation in public places,” the historian says.

But this was not always the case. Previously, each village appointed a “charvelue”, an area incharge. But once clerics became powerful entities who imposed a ban on female singers, they disappeared, Faizi says.

“Ghizer was once controlled by the state of Chitral and has women singing in Khowar during festivals,” he says. Among these popular festivals are Phindik, observed in June, and Geeve, observed in December and January, he adds.

Girls in Ghizer learn singing from older women. In Chitral, poetry and songs in Gawarbati and Domeli languages have always played a significant role in culture and even religious scholars and community elders attend musical programmes where songs are sung in these two languages, Faizi says.

Unfortunately, only anthropological studies have been carried out on the absence of female singers in Chitral by locals and British researchers,  Faizi states.

Shagufta Saleem, a 22-year-old resident of Chitral who studies at  University of Peshawar, is among the many women in the valley whose singing talent might forever remain under wraps.

While talking to The Express Tribune, Saleem reveals she loves nature and wants to express the beauty of nature through songs. She has been singing since childhood in front of females in her family and classmates, but has never been able to take up singing professionally.

“In our community it is forbidden for women to sing in front of men,” she reveals. “If women took part in concerts, we could produce more female musicians and keep Chitrali culture and poetry alive,” she says.

Saleem also hopes to be able to provide a platform for all women in the valley to showcase and polish their musical abilities.

Saleem prefers classical melodies and always wanted to become a classical singer, but her future plans were always met with strong disapproval from her parents.

While she continues to write poems and sings her own lyrics during family functions, that burning desire to perform on a bigger stage is still strong she says. “Writing poetry is my hobby which is acceptable in my community, but [if I were to become a musician] that would be met with strong criticism,” she says. Even today Saleem cannot take up the topic of singing with her parents. “Though I love music, but for my parents I will sacrifice my desire,” she says.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 3rd, 2016.


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