Sheema Kermani, a classical dancer, teacher, drama artist and women’s rights activist, heads Tehrik-e-Niswan, [“The Women’s Movement”], an organization dedicated to improving women’s rights in Pakistan by raising awareness through the use of dance and the performing arts. According to the group’s official website, Tehrik feels “that the fight for women’s rights has to be conducted not only at the legal and political level, which other organizations are already doing, but also at the level of moral attitudes, emotional responses and values. No change can be meaningful and lasting unless it takes place at the emotional level as well. And this can best be carried out through artistic means.” Below, Sheema Kermani tells CHUP about their work and how these messages can be relayed through the performing arts:
Q: You are a renowned classical dancer in Pakistan. How did your love for dance and art feed into your organization, Tehrik-e-Niswan?
Tehrik is a cultural action group and uses the medium of the performing arts to put forth the message of human rights, especially women’s Rights. Tehrik-e-Niswan realizes that the women’s movement can only be carried forward and succeed if it is seen as part of the overall fight against religious narrow mindedness and bigotry. Since women are the worst hit by these rising trends, they should be in the forefront of this fight. This is a cultural fight and it needs to be fought through cultural means.
The objective of Tehrik-e-Niswan is to change the existing values and relationships between men and women. We believe these values are not conducive to women’s rights and are very discriminatory. To change values you have to touch people’s hearts – we feel that the Performing Arts are a means of touching people’s hearts. We use art and poetry to send the message of equal rights, the message of justice and equality. So my love for dance and drama becomes part of the movement and part of the struggle. My politics is integrated with my art and I believe there is no politics without art.
Q: How has art and music traditionally been viewed in Pakistan and how has that been obscured throughout the country’s history?
The establishment in Pakistan, while being anti-culture in general, has a special mistrust of the Performing Arts, which they consider a highly subversive activity as it forces one to look at one’s own life from a distance and question anything and everything around you. In fact, in this sense, all art is subversive, but the Performing Arts are more so than others, as they bring the performers and the audience in direct contact with each other. In a successful performance, a fusion takes place between the audience and the performers. I think that it is this transforming experience and its power, of which the authorities (both religious and political) are scared and therefore ban and discourage dance.
I place the problems facing dance and theater in Pakistan in two broad categories. The first is the active hostility of the state, which is translated into government policies aimed at making life extremely difficult for people who wish to indulge in dance and theater at any other except an extremely crass level. I say this because the theater of vulgar jokes and loud humor and “Filmi” dance in the “Mujra” style, is thriving and encouraged even at an official level. In the old days ,the performing arts were patronized by the rajahs and nawabs and feudal aristocracy of all shades. Later on, this role of patronage in most societies was taken over by the government and private industrialists. In Pakistan, however, the state not only did not fulfill this role, but also went on to formulate a series of policies whose purpose was to thwart cultural expression. The other problem arises from the nature of the society itself, which is culturally conservative, with no tradition of free expression and deep-rooted prejudices towards the performing arts. Unlike other countries of the world, there are no trusts for culture set up by philanthropists. Karachi must be the only metropolis of its size in the world, which does not have a single proper auditorium. Culture is not on the list of worthy causes to be supported.
The poor, on the other hand, are tied to their everyday problems of survival. For them, cultural activities are luxuries beyond their means. Like any other class society, the onus of cultural expression falls on the middle class. The Pakistani middle class, predominantly Muslim, is small, conservative, underdeveloped, and extremely anti-culture and regards the performing arts with disdain and contempt. This attitude is reflected in the derogatory terms that are prevalent amongst them for various practitioners of the performing arts; A singer or musician is a ‘Meerasi‘, an actor a ‘Bhand‘, and a dancer, of course is unspeakably low, if not a ‘Prostitute’.
Q: You are a big proponent of women’s rights. What are the biggest obstacles women face in Pakistan? How can culture and art be used to help realize and attain women’s rights in the country?
The arts and the women of Pakistan have been the two major victims of military dictatorships. Women in Pakistan have been victims at the state level too, especially when anti-women Islamic Laws were introduced in 1977. The state introduced legal and social forms of control over women as part of its campaign of suppression and made women’s sexuality and morality the business of the state. In the name of religion, laws like the “Hudood Ordinances“, “Qisas“, “Diyat” and “Blasphemy Laws” were introduced and are prime examples of laws that devalue women and humanity. The most crucial aspect in these laws is that a woman’s testimony is unacceptable. The Law of Evidence declares that the testimony of two women is equal to that of one man. I believe that Feminism is recognition of both the existence of this kind of sexism, male domination and patriarchy and the desire to change this situation. I consider myself a feminist and strongly feel that I must do whatever I can to change this discrimination against women in our society so that she can find her place of dignity and respect. It is the values that have to change and the attitudes towards women both of society and state. And I believe this can only by done through cultural work.
Dance helps one to cope with the stresses of life. It renews and regenerates one. It brings one in touch with one’s body at the level of generating energy as against expending energy. This is so important for us women to understand. When women energize themselves, they create power within themselves. Our physical strength increases as soon as we begin to believe we are strong and have confidence in our muscles; our emotional and intellectual strength increases when we allow this power/passion to reside in our mind and find a form in ‘Thought.’ Thought can alter reality; thought can create reality. Thought is empowered by intensity. Passion is power, and the necessary active ingredient. And we women have it.
Q: Since 1981, Tehrik-e-Niswan has been presenting plays under its Mobile Theater Program in middle class and low -income areas of Karachi. What has been the reactions to your socially relevant plays? What is your target audience and what do these plays aim to achieve? What medium has the bigger impact – television or theater?
Actually, Tehrik has been presenting its Mobile Theater program since 1979. 2009 will be mark 30 years of our existence in this very difficult environment. The mobile program is carried out in low income areas like Orangi, Korangi, New Karachi and also the rural areas of Sindh and lower Punjab. The target audience are the people, men and women living in these “katchi abadis.” Often our audiences have been young people, because we frequently perform in schools or on school compounds. The purpose of this activity is to provide entertainment to these people and also create an environment of dialogue and acceptance of theatre and theatre arts so that these communities understand the importance of this art form. The young people are encouraged to form their own theatre groups and perform on their own issues. We provide training and conduct workshops for communities as well.
The reaction is usually of much excitement – they dress up and it becomes a major event for them and of course it becomes something for them to look forward to. There have been times when we have had some adverse reactions but that is seldom. My belief that the masses of Pakistan are basically liberal and open to these art forms is always reinforced through our mobile theatre activity.
Q: How can other Pakistanis help contribute to your cause in their own areas?
Tehrik-e-Niswan wishes to set up a permanent cultural center which will house a training academy for dance, drama and music, and will include a performing space. It will also include a bookshop which will specialize in books on women and a coffee shop. The idea is to create a venue where women can come and spend time, meet friends and exchange ideas and experiences freely. Pakistanis any where in the world can contribute towards this through donations by checks made out to Tehrik-e-Niswan, or by arranging performances with the Tehrik group, with the funds going towards the setting up of this center.
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