Ms. Sheema Kermani is Pakistan’s celebrated artist who has used the graceful art of classical dance to fight for the cause she believes in – the cause of the woman.
On the event of General Zia’s death anniversary, we decided to interview her and find out what it was like to have lived in what was probably the most oppressive era in Pakistan’s history. Not only did she live and see those times, this revolutionary defied him, and opposes those like him, to this day. A woman who is all about dance and activism, she has a lot to say:
About her family background and her passion for classical dance:
“My mother is from Hyderabad Deccan and my father is from Lucknow. They got married in 1948 and came to Pakistan. I have an older brother and a younger sister. So the family was very liberal, open and cultured. Arts, music, dance or theatre and all was a part of our growing up and part of our education. So one was exposed to all of that from a very young age and it was considered nice to be able to sing, dance and to play music and things like that. So that was the family background I come from.”
You were encouraged…
“Very much so! Very encouraged to delve into oneself, to bring out creativity, to paint, to draw, to be able to do all these things at home was part of the whole environment. Our gifts for birthdays would be making your own cards. That was one wonderful aspect of delving into a child’s creativity.
Exposure to dance and what it means…
My first exposure to classical dance was on summer holidays when my mother used to go back home to Hyderabad Deccan. Her ustaad would come to teach her and so they would all learn dance and music. We would tag along with her. And then when my father shifted to Karachi, this was 1963, my mother searched for a dance school and found Mr and Mrs Ghunshyam who used to run a dance school in Karachi. So after school hours we all used to go there and learn dance. That was the early exposure and part of one’s activity and studies.
It was slowly over time that dance started becoming important to me. I don’t think initially I felt any great urge to dance.
It happened in the early 80s when dance actually got banned in Pakistan. Because I was always very rebellious, very revolutionary and I just felt that I want to do something that nobody else does.
When I had my first small recital for friends, I must have invited about 15-20 people, 30 people maximum and about 200 300 people turned up. I think they all turned up because they felt that this is one way to defy the dictatorship. And then from that point onwards it became like a political statement. My dance became political. I myself was always a politically conscious person I then took it up in that way that through dance I can say the type of things that I as a free thinking woman living in this society want to say about women’s body and women’s sexuality.
For me dance is like the most important aspect of life, it is life, it is living. And I feel for women, the importance of dance, the world hasn’t understood. Specially in our society where girls are told to hide their chests and cover themselves up. You know, when you straighten your spine, put your head up and throw your shoulders back, you get an inner confidence. You learn to have dignity in your body and that is what they want to take away from you .To find that that power within yourself is basically through dance. That is how I have found my strength, my power, my energy and overcome any fear in this society. This is what has given me courage, given me strength to be able to do anything I want.
About Tehrik-i-Niswan, her cultural organisation for women, its beginning and evolution:
I had actually started working before Zia’s time among the working class women in Karachi in the early 70s. During Bhutto’s time, I had started doing my political work. Then, the working class scene for women was different from what it is now. At that time they were employed in factories so that is where I started working, infiltrating those factories. Trying to get these women organized in their trade unions, because men would have trade unions but the women didn’t. There would be 300 female workers and no unions representing them.
That’s when I realized that women need a separate platform and that is how Tehrik-e-Niswan came into being. We organized ourselves into an informal group of women going to working class areas, set up vocational training centres there to teach them skills like using knitting machines so that they could learn and make an income. We started adult literacy centres for them and educational centres for their children because none of them were sending their children to schools, they couldn’t afford it.
So by the time we reached 1978-79, we had established ourselves, we would hold seminars and conferences.
The first cultural activity that we held was an All Women’s Mushairah. There were so many girls who wrote beautiful poetry but did not have any platform to express it. The Mushairah was very successful. Then we had a small play at this place in Federal B Area called Women’s Meena Bazaar and we found such an amazing response from the people there. That’s how we realized how effective and impactful the performing arts are to get your messages across; to convey your ideas.
So slowly Tehrik-e-Niswan, by the late 70s transformed into a cultural organization.
Now it’s come to a point where we feel it is through the performing arts we can raise awareness for women and about women, about their lack of education, health facilities their rights issues.
Tehrik-e-Niswan and performing arts with Zia in power:
With Zia in power, it was extremely difficult. Even at a personal level there was some fear. Anyone could go to the authorities and report anything against you. There were a lot of cases like that. Just walking on the street had become difficult.
You could feel the difference. If earlier, there would be some eve-teasing, you’d make a hoo-haa and everyone would come to help you. After Zia came, things changed. He used his media to give different ideas. If something like that would happen in his time, people would turn around and say, “Ok so why is this woman out alone, she’s asking for trouble. Shes wrong. Not the man who’s teasing her.”
That is how things started changing. So it was a very difficult time, tough time for all of us to live through. As far as performing arts was concerned, all dance was banned. As you said the biggest victims were women, and the arts. And the women who were in the arts bore the harshest brunt of it all. They were the most targeted.
So when all this started happening, everyone began leaving the country. There was a mass exodus of talent from here. And I just felt that if I also leave then dance will die. And I took it on myself to continue it and not let it die. However it may be considered subversive, I was determined to continue doing it.
But I got a great support from the people. Everyone would support it. Because actually the people never became fundamentalists. It was him, and his state and his establishment.
So for any performance, I had to get an NOC – a No Objection Certificate and this was actually at the risk of one’s life.
The rationale behind such draconian laws and bans:
I think it’s the mindset, and the way it works is that they feel that they must control women. They feel that any woman who can stand up on stage with her spine straight, with her shoulders back, dressed up, with confidence is saying that “Here I am. And I am a confident person. And I’m beautiful. And what I’m showing you is beautiful.” That threatens them. Because they themselves are so insecure. I think it’s a weak male who feels like that. These men had no morals. I used to constantly comment on this, there would be mujras going on in their homes, in their official parties but they would ban this kind of work. They would ban classical dancing. Our scripts had to be censored. You couldn’t use the word uterus, or pregnancy! The natural terminology of human life! Any reference to a woman’s biology was banned. Plays got banned because you could not show a good non-Muslim person.
Opinion about present times:
I feel that the times today are the worst. Worse than then. At that point you knew who the enemy was. It was the state and the government, not the people. Now, it has infiltrated in such an insidious way, into people’s minds and hearts that you don’t know anyone sitting in the audience could be somebody thinking, “oh, what this woman is doing is un-Islamic, lets kill her and win some Jannat.” So I feel today it has got worse. It IS a trickle down from then, they ARE the ones who started it. Bhutto made it very big when he banned alcohol, when he changed the weekly holiday to Friday, when he closed down public bars. All these things, he did and we forget. We only blame General Zia but Bhutto started it. And then the General took it up to a very vicious level. And it has continued since then. I mean, if you look at it, even Musharraf, who everyone takes to be liberal, did it with his Mukhtar Mai stance.
At the same time, I think the Pakistani society has moved forward as well. There are a large number of women working now. A large number of women today will not accept quietly an arranged marriage. They will question, they will demand to know. They’ll want to make their own decisions. So things have changed.
So yes on one hand they are facing a lot of violence and oppression but on the other they are fighting back as well.