Dancing girls of Lahore call time

Musical anklets traditionally worn by dancing girls in the Shahi Mohallah area

Performances by the famous dancing girls of the Pakistani city of Lahore have come to an end because of deteriorating security. Many now face an uncertain future, with some turning to prostitution, reports the BBC’s Haroon Rashid.

The colourful musical anklets of the dancing girls in Lahore’s ancient Shahi Mohallah area are now silent and up for sale.

This old neighbourhood of crumbling buildings is no more a place for men to stray from their arranged marriages and spend time with beautiful women trained in the arts of song, dance and seduction.

Just a few days ago, the women of this area, popularly known as Heera Mandi, used to attract men by wearing these anklets.

The vast majority of dancers did exactly as their name suggest – dance for a male clientele. Only a handful worked in the sex trade.

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Dr Mubarak AliLahore historian

In the 1950s, dancing girls were even legitimised as “artists” by a High Court order which permitted them to perform for three hours in the evening.

‘Centuries-old culture’

Over the years, men from different social, economic and cultural backgrounds used to walk up and down this small street in search of dance, beauty, music and, in some cases, sexual favours.

The small, narrow street slumbered during daytime but awoke at night.

In the darkness, music used to ooze out of more than 300 small houses. But the bomb blasts near the bazaar have forced the women to close their businesses and move out for good.

Lahore police spokesman Shahzad Asif Khan says that officers were unable to provide the women with adequate security.

“This was a centuries-old culture,” he said.

Shahi Mohallah areaMany of the buildings in the Shahi Mohallah area are falling into disrepair

“But unfortunately, over a period of time – and especially in the last seven or eight years – extremism has grown.

“In the last 10 months alone, there have been cracker blasts forcing the few remaining women to leave. The dancing girls’ culture is almost non-existent now.”

‘Very disturbing’

ActionAid researcher Daud Saqlain fears the future will not bode well for former dancing girls, some of whom have been forced into prostitution because hardliners objected to them performing relatively innocuous dances in public.

“Over the last decade we have seen the unfortunate growth of home-based sex work.

“Because of poverty and limited opportunities, some women have had no choice but to switch from dancing to sex work.

“This is very disturbing, and dangerous overall for our society.”

While some women have moved to other areas of the city, others have headed to far-off places such as Britain and the United Arab Emirates.

Dr Saqlain says that he is concerned about their predicament in such unfamiliar places.

“If they indulge in sex work illegally there, they have absolutely no rights.”

Sanaa, 21, is a former dancer and, like many of her contemporaries, is reluctant to talk in detail about her existence.

Musician in the Shahi Mohallah areaMusicians from the Shahi Mohallah area are now finding it difficult to make ends meet

She told the BBC she had been to the UK three times and had made many visits to Dubai.

“For us, it does not matter where we perform just as long as we get the work,” she said.

The departure of the dancing girls has meant that the dilapidated buildings in the Shahi Mohallah area are now full of music shops, advertising the skills of musicians who used to perform for the dancing girls but now are offering their services at weddings and parties.

“By playing music at weddings and parties, we can hardly make ends meet. Earlier, the work associated with dancing girls meant a lot of money,” one performer told the BBC.

‘Buzz has gone’

Many former dancers have not turned to prostitution but have adjusted to the security threat by setting up their own websites to attract affluent customers to privately owned houses in middle-class areas.

Aid workers say this, too, presents dangers, because the women were much easier to protect when they were located in one specific area.

Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah Khan told the BBC that one reason performances by dancing girls came to an end was because “the security agencies have their apprehensions about late-night activities”.

“But if a mutual convenient timing can be achieved, we can think of allowing it again.”

Closed doors in the Shahi Mohallah area of LahoreThe Shahi Mohallah area of Lahore is a lot quieter than it used to be

In the meantime, business has suffered at nearby restaurants in the Shahi Mohallah area.

“Yes, the closure has hit us hard. Our customer levels are now half of what they used to be. All the buzz around here has sadly gone,” says Shahzada Pervaiz, owner of a well-known 60-year-old restaurant called Phajja.

Members of the public on the streets of the area seem to be in two minds over the demise of the dancing girls.

While some said they were “morally corrupt”, others said it was sad that a tradition that had lasted for centuries should disappear in the wink of an eye.

Historian Dr Mubarak Ali told the BBC that the end of the dancing girls tradition was another nail in the coffin of Lahore’s artistic and cultural heritage, which had been “whittled away by radicalisation” since the 1970s.

“Lahore before partition was a very cosmopolitan city,” he said.

“Women rode bikes and no-one objected to it. But the winds of change started blowing because of the support given by former dictator Gen Zia ul-Haq to religious groups.

“All Pakistani music festivals, theatre performances and other events have stopped being hosted here because of the fear of terrorism.”

 

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4 responses to “Dancing girls of Lahore call time

  1. Culture evolves over time so it is natural. Dance is the softer side of any culture. So i hope it will evolve in Lahore in some other format.

  2. I think it’s shameful that such “centuries old” exploitation of women should be continued in the name of “cultural heritage.” Our government and indeed the citizens should make an effort to provide these women with decent livelihoods instead of subjecting them to the ogling of lecherous men who are “unhappily married.” And while we’re at it, we should also reform the institution of marriage in our country which makes women more wretched than men ever can be. Shame on the so-called historian and the government official for defending this outrage!

  3. Looks like a blessing in disguise.

  4. Naveed move to Saudi Arabia, and let Pakistanis keep their culture. This is not a question of whether it is exploitation or not. It is a question of whether a human being is allowed to do what they feel like doing, or does a another human being have the right to force his views onto other human beings. Listen look at countries where religious law dictates what people cant and can do, and you will see misery and poverty. Look at progressive countries that let people do what they want to do as long as they dont harm others and you will find happy people, spiritually rich, innovation, progressive minds that are inventing the things that is making this world a better place, soooo much entertainment and leisure, and genuinely happy people that are contributing to mankind. They are moving at the speed of light in to the future of humanity. Even India has a Space Program. But people like you that believe you have the right to force others to live by the limiting and stagnate rules that you have for yourself, are stripping Pakistan of its color. If it was up to you Pakistan would look like a black and white film with not a single women outside, much like the Taliban Afghanistan. I have grown to have a deep hate for people like you and your evil religious rules that you impose on others. God damn you and i hope you burn slow in hell or just kindly move to Saudi Arabia please.

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