After receiving a beating from her husband, Neelum Gul, a popular stage actress and performer from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s (KP’s) Mardan district, was forced to leave her home. “Even after driving me out, my husband continues to threaten me with murder and acid attacks,” she told me when I contacted her over the phone. In a video posted on social media, she wept with bloodied scars on her cheeks. Following her divorce, she has been devoting all her time to song and dance.
Gul is among the recent female victims of threats and violence in the province. Several other singers, dancers and stage actresses have faced similar treatment in the last few years. Over a dozen have been killed, while others have left their profession. Incidents of torture, harassment and threats continue unabated.
Risham Khan, a famous Pashto singer, was reportedly murdered by her husband over a domestic issue in August 2018, in the Kalan area of Nowshera district, a day before Neelum Gul’s video clip went viral on social media. In February 2018, Sumbul Khan, a theatre performer and Pashto singer, was reportedly killed in Sheikh Maltoon Town of Mardan district by three armed men, after she declined to accompany them to perform at a private function.
The most recent victim of violence was Sonia, a stage dancer who was killed by her boyfriend, Mussadaq, on the evening of November 16, in Peshawar. According to police officials, Sonia was shot and critically wounded at her house in Chowk Shadi Peer after she turned down his marriage proposal. She was rushed to Lady Reading Hospital (LRH), where she succumbed to her wounds. The alleged killer fled from the scene after carrying out the murder and an FIR has been lodged against him.
“I have faced challenges similar to those encountered by other female singers and received threatening phone calls and letters as well,” says 30-year-old Pashto and Urdu singer, Saeeda Khan of Nizampur. After identifying the person behind the letters and phone calls, she lodged a first information report (FIR) against him that led to his arrest and subsequent release by a lower court.
But this has only strengthened Khan’s resolve. She has vowed not to let the threats or murders that have been taking place, drive her into ending her career as a singer. She is prepared to face the challenges, come what may.
Despite the restoration of peace and stability in the area, conditions are not favourable for female singers and stage artists to demonstrate their skills and talents in public places, according to Khan. “I established a Women Artists Association (WAA), to raise awareness of the illnesses and monetary problems faced by women in this profession,” she says.
Uzma Fayaz, aged 16 and a rising star of Mingora, says she has been singing songs at public events without any fear in her heart. Hailing from the militancy-stricken district of Swat, the cousin of deceased singer Ghazala Javed says she has demonstrated her skills and talent at the Kalam and Malam Jabba Festivals, organised by KP’s Culture Department.
Having been in the profession for two years, Uzma is of the view that peace has, once again, returned to the region and that most of the singers who had left the profession have now taken it up again. “Gone are the days when free movement and singing [by women] was considered to be a crime in the area,” she says.
In 2012, the Pashto music industry lost its renowned vocalist and stage actress, Ghazala Javed, who was killed by her husband in Peshawar. Ayman Udas, a rising female vocalist of Peshawar, too was killed by her brothers on April 19, 2009, for ‘dishonouring’ her family.
“A lack of professionalism and mistakes made by singers and stage actresses in KP is what led to the loss of their lives,” says a senior Pashto singer, Mahjabeen Qazalbash. She is of the view that they must, prior to marriage, take a careful look at the character of the person they are settling down with. Also, Qazalbash believes that female entertainers must behave more professionally and not perform at any and every private function.
Mahjabeen expresses her approval for the role played by the KP government, which has provided a handsome package of Rs 30,000 per month to singers and artists who were facing financial problems. Additionally, the artists’ community has been issued Sehat Insaf Cards (SICs), through which they could receive free medical treatment in the province’s topmost hospitals.
An official of KP’s Culture Department, who wishes not to be named, says the responsibility of the department is to provide monetary assistance to artistes’ families in the event of their death. He cites the children of deceased singer Rabia Tabasum as an example of family members being provided with financial assistance by the department. On the other hand, “Criminal cases including murder, injury, harassment and threats are tackled by the police and not the KP Culture Department,” he says.
Incidentally, the two main academies for musical training – Banr in Swat and Dabgari in Peshawar – have been targeted in the past and traditional Pashto music has suffered immensly due to it.
Taimur Kamal, a human rights defender in Peshawar, while commenting on the murders, threats and other problems faced by the singers and performers, says that it was the responsibility of the KP Commission on the Status of Women (KPCSW) to tackle the issue.
The KPCSW was established in 2009, by the then Awami National Party (ANP)-led coalition government in KP. It was mandated to examine policies, programmes, projects and other measures taken by the government for women’s development or gender equality.
Its role, as stated on its website, involves reviewing “all provincial laws, rules and regulations aﬀecting the status and rights of women and suggesting repeals, amendments, or new legislations essential to eliminate discrimination, and safeguard and promote the interests of women.”
He maintains that the commission has failed to take steps, including amending or introducing laws to protect female artistes and other women, adding that it did not even have an emergency helpline or complaints cell where such issues could be reported.
According to Shaheen Quresh, Chairperson of the District Peshawar Commission on the Status of Women, the commission has not been functional because the KPCSW has yet to issue an official notification confirming the selection of 10 committee members. Without the notification, the members cannot carry out their duties.