Patrick Cockburn and Issam Ahmed in Lahore
Friday, 12 December 2008
The dancing girls of Lahore, the cultural capital of Pakistan, are on strike in protest against the tide of Talibanisation that is threatening to destroy an art form that has flourished since the Mughal empire.
The strike, which is supported by the theatres where they perform, was sparked by the decision of Lahore High Court last month to ban the Mujra, the graceful and elaborate dance first developed in the Mughal courts 400 years ago, on the grounds that it is too sexually explicit.
“The Mujra by its very nature is supposed to be a seductive dance,” says Badar Alam, a cultural expert. He recalls that attempts were made to ban it during the 1980s. “Gradually, it returned to commercial theatre, mostly by paying off officials. The question remains: does the government have the right to engage in moral policing?”
The government and High Court in particular have no doubt about their right to do just that. They have tried to encourage “family friendly” dances, but once-packed theatres are now near empty, despite dropping their prices from 300 rupees to 25 rupees a seat.
In the face of the strike and the lack of enthusiasm for alternative entertainment, the court has suspended its ban. It has, however, ordered dancers to cover their necks with shawls and wear shoes (they used to dance barefoot but the court deemed that too erotic). “Do they expect girls to dance in a burkha?” asks stage manager Jalal Mehmoud. “Mujra has been going on for so many years it is part of our culture.”
The dancers are also distressed by the situation. “Theatre needs dance like food needs water,” says Rabia, a dancer and actress. “Some girls were making up to 15,000 rupees in one night. Hundreds of these girls from poorer backgrounds will be out of the work if the crowds do not come back.”
The ban on dancing is a symptom of a more dangerous trend in Pakistani society. “If the government engages in moral policing,” says Badar Alam, “it gives vigilantes licence to do the same. It fuels intolerance and de-secularisation by violence and intimidation and opens the door to extreme Jihadi Islamic movements.”
Over the past few months, there has been a crescendo of violence in support of fundamentalist morality in Lahore. In the middle-class Garhi Shahu neighbourhood, young men and women used to meet in fruit-juice bars. There was nothing particularly salacious going on but, two months ago, three bombs exploded among them, killing one man and wounding others.
One bomb went off in a juice bar called Disco, where Mohammed Zubair Khan said he doubted if his customers would ever come back. “Everybody’s frightened,” said Saeed Ahmed Afiz, the owner of a another bar. Asked what he thought of those who had ruined his business, he declared surprisingly: “They were not terrorists because they did not kill anybody. They did the right thing.” Asked about the man who died, Mr Afiz added unfeelingly: “Maybe he was just here to see the show.”
A striking feature of those suffering persecution from fundamentalists is not their fear but their acceptance that, if they had encouraged immorality, they deserved punishment. The main centre for selling CDs and DVDs in Lahore is Hall Road. But when one of the tough-looking shopkeepers received a threatening letter accusing him and others of selling risqué films, the mood was not one of defiance, but of submission. The traders heaped up the forbidden DVDs and CDs in the middle of Hall Road and made a giant bonfire. “I swear we sell no pornography,” said one nervously.
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