Bridging Cultures Through Film: From the Melody Queen to the Muslim Madonna

Bridging Cultures Through Film: From the Melody Queen to the Muslim Madonna: A History of Pakistan Through its Female Singers 1947-Present



This is a project about mediation in the sense of bringing cultures together; in this case by creating better understanding for western audiences about Pakistan and its women singers, through a documentary film. In 2012, I received funding from the National Endowment of the Humanities, a federal grants agency in the USA, to begin work on a preview of what such a film would look like and am in the process of editing this “teaser” with documentary filmmaker Kathleen Foster, a British-born American citizen. I hope to submit another proposal and win funding to complete the full film next year.

In the process of collecting data for this film, involving interviews with Pakistani female singers and industry executives as well as music critics and scholars and average listeners, “affect” became a bridge between reason and emotion, past and present , art and activism for me, by which I mean that the personal and political came together for me in ways that the visceral impingement, or affect, of this project and it signification became, at times, almost impossible to bear.

“What does the body remember?” has become a central question for me through the unfolding of this project.

And so reading about martyred Chilean singer Victor Jara and the Nueva Canciones movement in Chile and other countries Of Latin America put me in mind and memory of the musical past of my country of birth and it’s different yet revolutionary potential yesterday and today.

When I read about Victor Jara’s songs and struggle and his torture and killing during the coup against Salvador Allende when he was barely 35 years old- the image of the hands that wielded his guitar as a weapon of protest against injustice and cruelty  being cut off, brought involuntary tears to my eyes.

That gruesome image put me in mind / constellated as Walter Benjamin would have put it–of the spate of brutal assassinations of several female singers of Pakistan in NWFP region who have become victims of violence against performing women being perpetrated in the name of tribal patriarchal “honor” (sic)revivified under a talibanized version of Islam that has been sweeping Pakistani society since the 1980s.

This desecration of Islam put me in mind of the brilliant way in which women singers of Pakistan past and present, have through their work, borne witness to the “other” history of Islam , the Islam that has always grown “sideways” and to which history the notable historian Ayesha Jalal calls attention in her book The Partisans of Allah. In bearing witness through songs both secular and sacred, bridging mind/ body, earthly and divine desire, the sensual and the spiritual, the immanent and the transcendent, self/ other, the personal and the politico- historical, singers like Madame Noor Jehan, Abida Parveen and Deeyah inhabit/ instantiate the ethical imperative that Patricia Clough ( reading Spinoza) underscores as a crucial component of the “affective” realm.

Such an affective reading of the singers mediated my own desire and memory of  a Pakistan left behind and a singing self that I also abandoned,  with a present self fashioned out of a feminist yearning to pursue a life of the mind and a certain freedom I naively associated at 20 with the Western academy and living in the US. That rupture is now healing—or at least the split is being repaired through this project linking my own past and present selves and her-stories.

Yet, I do wonder to what degree the affective is also the realm of nostalgic national, racial, ethnic, religious affiliations?

Can affect be regressive in the sense of narrowing our mediated realities? How do we keep affective borders open, progressive and affiliative rather than narrowly identitarian?

I come back again to the Chilean history of music and poetry reading a little of which made me immediately aware of the connections with the Pakistani music and poetry scene. Thus for eg, the song “We will Win” ( Venceremos) put me in mind of “Hum Dekhein Gay”, a ghazal by revolutionary poet Faiz penned in the 1980s against  military dictatorship and feudal power and corruption of  ruling elites and against dogmatic uses/abuses of religion. This poem- We Will See (Hum Dekehin Hay)-  was originally sung by the inimitable female singer Iqbal Bano and when she performed it in 1987 at Alhambra everyone in the audience came to their feet and shook their fists against the military dictatorship of Zia. During a recent trip to Pakistan I recorded a contemporary version of this ghazal with the only openly Marxist band of Pakistan , Laal (Red) which has been working with the trade unionist and peasant landless laborers movements for the past decade.

Faiz ofcourse also knew Pablo Neruda well, and got to know him in Russia when they were both there in the 1950s when Faiz was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize.

It seems to me that a transnational “We of Me” connective tissue is or should  be a most obvious outcome of the recent Affective turn in feminist theory. In bearing witness through songs both secular and sacred, bridging mind/ body, earthly and divine desire, the sensual and the spiritual, the immanent and the transcendent, self/ other, the personal and the politico- historical, singers like Madame Noor Jehan, Abida Parveen and Deeyah inhabit/ instantiate the ethical imperative that Patricia Clough ( reading Spinoza) underscores as a crucial component of the “affective” realm—a “valence of affect, ”  as Ali Mian calls it, currently popular in critical thought.  According to noted theorist Michael Hardt, “The turn to human affects,  indicates a shift in the way we think about the human condition.” Such a shift requires a synthesis in our thinking about the world, and about our own critical languages of analysis, which has been lacking up to the recent present. Thus,

affects refer equally to the body and the mind …they involve both reason and the passions. Affects require us, as the term suggests, to enter the realm of causality, but they offer a complex view of causality because the affects belong simultaneously to both sides of the causal relationship. They illuminate, in other words, both our power to affect the world around us and our power to be affected by it, along with the relationship between these two powers’ (Michael Hardt, ‘ Foreword: What Affects Are Good For’, The Affective Turn ,ed. Patricia Ticineto Clough (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), ix).

Indeed, the desire to connect the dualistic binaries of body and mind, self and other, male/female, black/white, hetero/homo is precisely what Frankie, the young female protagonist of Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers, yearns for when she imagines a life for herself beyond the narrow confines that she, as a poor white teenage girl, has to look forward to in the Hicksville heterosexual US Southern “nation” of the 1940s. The complex “We of Me” outcome Frankie articulates as her desire in the course of the novel both to herself and her readers, is predicated on the kind of queering of “happy objects” as the endpoint of (heteronormative) desire that the critic Sara Ahmed encourages in her work. The “happy objects” landscape modern nation-states hold out as utopian promise for their citizenry, is based on the disavowal of rights of citizenship to “minorities,” and “others” marked as “different” from the normative, loyal citizen. In the example of the three female singer/performers of the North Western Frontier Province of Pakistan described below, neither state nor federal protection was offered to them in the face of threats of  murder nor retributive justice after their killings. The three women were killed as a result of the unhappy confluence of patriarchal traditions of “honor” (which forbid women, seen as possessions of their menfolk, from performing in public lest they bring shame to the households; such “traditions” are particularly entrenched in these tribal regions of the country)—coupled with increasingly extremist interpretations of Islam popularised by the ascent to power of the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) in northern areas of the country.

1)   According to the Express Tribune Pakistan, Ghazala Javed, 24, in June 2012, was visiting a beauty parlour for pre-show preparations. When she left the saloon with her father, two unknown armed men riding a motorbike fired on her. Ghazala received six bullet wounds and her father four. The singer was pronounced dead at arrival at the Lady Reading Hospital (LRH). Ghazala Javed was a Pakhtun singer belonging to the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province. She was considered to be a leader in reviving and promoting female singing within the KPK province following the Taliban insurgency. She was nominated for a Filmfare Award in 2010 and received a Khyber Award in 2011.


2)   A singer-dancer named Shabana was killed in brutal fashion and her body left out to rot in the Market Square known as “Khooni Chowk” (Bloody Square) by the Taliban in the city of Mingora in Swat in April of 2009.[1]

3)   Aiman Udas was a singer and songwriter in Peshawar, Pakistan. Udas had frequently performed on PTV television and AVT Khyber a private Pashto channel in Pakistan. In 2009 she was shot dead in her apartment in Peshawar, allegedly by her brothers. Her final song was titled, “I died but still live among the living, because I live on in the dreams of my lover[2]

These women mediated between the world of beauty, of song, and “happiness” on the one hand–  and of suffering, alienation and  death on the other, or to borrow from Sara Ahmed, they might even be thought of as “affect aliens.”[3] Aliens, that is to the promise of happiness for all citizens embedded in the discourse of nation-states, because of the failure, in the case of the Pakistani Islamic state, to extend justice to its female citizenry.

Yet, writes Ahmed, “If injustice does have unhappy effects, then the story does not end there.. unhappiness is not our endpoint. If anything, the experience of being alienated from the affective promise of happy objects gets us somewhere”(Sara Ahmed,”Happy Objects”) .

Where such an experience of alienation gets us—and this is my main contention, is that it gets us to the Queering of Islam in the musical oeuvre of the women singers of Pakistan whom I discuss in this paper–by helping us as readers to experience in both our bodily responses and our rational minds (this synthesis is the realm of Affect)– a queer understanding of our responses to the questions raised by encountering the bodies of the female singing “others” in our midst.

Of course, Ahmed is focused on the situation/figure of the migrant postcolonial in the metropolis, whereas my own paper brings up the stories of three women singers, two  who live(d) and work(ed) squarely within the patriarchal national imaginary of postpartition Pakistan (Noor Jehan  and Abida Parveen), the third, Deeyah, being the diasporic figure of the killjoy feminist most akin to Ahmed’s eg of the football-loving heroine of Bend it Like Beckham, whose musical interventions in Norwegian space open up uncomfortable questions for both the Muslim community’s “happy objects” landscape, as well as that of the western racist and neoimperialist discourse of   “happy multiculturalism” embraced uncritically by white western neoliberal citizens in Norway and elsewhere.

For my own project, the female singers I describe herein are effecting a parallel “queering” of Islam, which is surely the transnational need of the day and has roots in a non- normative and heterodox history of Islam which these women have been helping to mediate in the context of the Pakistani nation-state, from 1947 to the present day.

Ali Altaf Mian, in an essay about the Muslim philosopher Farabi, underscores a similar need to reconceptualize politics and the two equally problematic dominant ideological structures on which modern nation states, Western and Muslim, rest: the liberal, rational, contractual nationalist state (Western Secular) and the feudal, spiritualistic, identitarian state (Islamist, though Israel too falls into this category.) The problem with both these conceptualizations of nation states is that they leave out the realm of the affective,  or “the realm of our psychic and and social contingencies” (Mian   ),  that impinge on the establishment of nation-states. Farabi, Aristotle, Freud and Kristeva, are but some of the thinkers whose work in political theory and psychoanalysis, according to Mian’s provocative reading, actually encourage us to move politically “in ways that rationally and affectively disallow both identitarian affective politics and national rationalist politics.” And into the realm of transnational affiliations and politics which I believe is the need of our times, a realm we enter when we recognize, with Kristeva (reading Freud), that “difference” or the “Uncanny, foreignness is within us: we are our own foreigners, we are divided.” (89) As Mian argues,

What such a Freudian reading does to the nation-state is to offer a politics of our psychic and social contingencies for the establishment of the nation-state, in which reason/cognition travels alongside affect/emotion to address the different needs of the human in his or her political structures.

Such a journey, according to Kristeva, allows us to enter into “into the strangeness of the other and of oneself, toward an ethics of respect for the irreconcilable” (Kristeva 90 qtd in Mian    )

While cognizant of the limitations of assuming a Freudian universality to understand and challenge particular political problems and contradictions, Mian rightly, in my opinion, underscores the need to find critiques of contemporary forms of nation-states which European imperial and colonial encounters bequeathed to the Third World at the time of post-colonial independences, out of which contemporary Muslim theology has also emerged. As Mian goes on to explain

Recent Muslim political theologians have reified models of the state that lack the sort of unison of reason/cognition and affect/emotion that Kristeva hints toward in her third model.

In Farabi, Mian finds an example of a Muslim theologian and philosopher whose work encourages a cultivation of a politics grounded in a simultaneous emphasis on reason and affect.  Such a politics, expounded also in the political philosophy of Aristotle, is grounded in the fullness of human existence-that is,  “cognition, affectivity, and all that has todo with human bodies” (Mian)

Such a comprehensive model for doing politics justly, is encapsulated by Aristotle in his concept and practice of friendship. Here is Mian citing Aristotle’s, Niomachean Ethics:

‘Friendship would seem to hold cities together, and legislators seem to be more concerned about it than about justice  (91)

If, from such a statement one can conclude that friendship, in Aristotelian political philosophy, is as powerful a political asset as justice, we need to acknowledge that justice can flow only from a friendship between equals. Nevertheless, as Mian argues,

What Aristotle says about friendship… presents one way to think and act politics in the terrain of affect. Friendship should be brought into our thinking about governance in Muslim states. With renewed commitment to friendship, we can look for care and cognition, love and logic, compassion and contemplation, and so on, in the context of local and global politics.  (Mian    )

The polemical gauntlet thrown down by Mian is one I wish to pick up and argue as being instantiated through the lives and musical contributions of Pakistani Female singers in the cultural imaginary of  the Pakistan nation-state. If we can enter the realm of friendship these singers invite us to experience through their music and their life stories,we, as both individual and state actors,  can indeed  “look for care and cognition, love and logic, compassion and contemplation, and so on, in the context of local and global politics.”   By doing so, I argue, we can help re-envision a better, more just and peaceful future for our shared world.

This heterodox history (herstory?)—is what I would like to illustrate in the documentary film I am working on.

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[1] See Fawzia Afzal-Khan, “The Long Dark Night in Pakistan,” Counterpunch (2009).

[2] For example, a singer-dancer named Shabana was killed in brutal fashion and her body left out to rot in the Market Square known as “Khooni Chowk” (Bloody Square) by the Taliban in the city of Mingora in Swat in April of 2009. See Fawzia Afzal-Khan, “The Long Dark Night in Pakistan,” Counterpunch (2009). (

[3] Sara Ahmed. The Promise of Happiness (Duke University, 2010).

  2 comments for “Bridging Cultures Through Film: From the Melody Queen to the Muslim Madonna

  1. Masood Raja
    March 24, 2013 at 5:49 pm

    This seems like a really important and much needed project. I hope more and more people, Pakistanis and others, get involved in this kind of hsitoriography.

    March 26, 2013 at 4:13 pm

    Nice concept… wish you good luck in making of this masterpiece…

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