The Passion To Sing, The Wings To Fly

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Female Kashmiri Performers Battle Patriarchy To Carve Their Own Space, Seek Fame  

Pragaash, a three-member all-girl Kashmiri rock band received accolades both nationally and internationally in 2013. Sadly, it suffered hatred and venom on social media in 2013. Pragaash got caught in the darkness of bigotry. But the human spirit constantly yearns to achieve and accomplish. Sakeena Reshi, Nargis Majid and other female singers and dancers of Kashmir are making themselves seen and heard. They are competing and creating a niche for themselves in the male-dominated entertainment industry of Kashmir. Bigots on the social media label women entertainers as shameless and un-Islamic. The patriarchal moral high ground is always there. If music is haraam in Islam, why haven’t the male entertainers faced the wrath of fundamentalists, one might ask. It is because the patriarchs don’t want to give space to women. One, they want to restrict women’s choices. Second, they want to determine what choice a woman can make.

RICH TRADITION OF FEMALE ACHIEVERS

Kashmir has a rich history of female artists and achievers. It is dismaying to see that there is little tolerance for women who push beyond traditional gender roles. All women achievers who want to explore a career beyond the strict boundaries grapple with a complex social structure. They yearn for personal fulfillment in the field of their choice, but are also threatened by criticism or worse from aggressive elements within the community. In Kashmiri society, religion and gender politics has been prominently intertwined. Women have been doubly disadvantaged – both on the outside and within – when art is restricted or allowed in terms of gender. The religious undertone in the Valley has been adverse to women’s freedom of choice. Despite these challenges, women artistes and entertainers continue to make space for themselves. Kashmir continues to serve as a source of inspiration for these women who are pursuing their dreams. Various elements of music have flourished in Kashmir over time. In the Valley, music has always been present. The 14th-century mystic poetess Lal Ded and the 16th-century mystic poetess Habba Khatoon – also known as the “nightingale of Kashmir” – had a deep influence on our cultural consciousness. Sadly, the Valley’s cultural heritage of poetesses and women singers has also been subjected to religious censorship in the recent decades.

Music is a beautiful and treasured part of our Kashmiri heritage. Kashmir boasts of a private radio station that primarily broadcasts music. Given our strong connectedness to music, the online attack on women entertainers on the social media platforms is highly unfortunate. A casual observer can assume that this online attack on women entertainers is religiously motivated. This is not the case. The opposition to women entertainers has its roots in the misogynistic approach of Kashmiri men and women who willfully ignore the early Islamic musical traditions.

This is an odd dissonance that must be combated from within. Women in Kashmir must regain the lost musical space. They must rediscover our forgotten lyrical sounds and instruments. They must explore and strengthen the Muslim and Kashmiri musical traditions of the Valley. These women have faced adversity for pursuing their choice of career. They have faced abuse in the male-dominated society of Kashmir. But they did not let the criticism stop them. They are an inspiration for other women who want to follow their dreams. Even when some of these women felt forced to leave Kashmir, they dealt with the challenge with grace.

Yemberzal, the all-woman Sufi band of Kashmir faced a daunting challenge in the form of online hate and abuse. The abuse began in 2020, when they started to get media attention. Online abusers threatened them for playing music in public and appearing in videos. Eventually, the women stopped appearing in video interviews, but they have continued to perform at various programs and concerts all over the valley, and have received many awards.

Uzma and Bushra Ishtiyaq, twin sisters and a singing pair, gained news in Indian-administered Kashmir in 2016 after their performance on India’s popular music competition, Sa Re Ga Ma Pa. The duo advanced to the competition’s third round. Then came the death threats. The sisters state they received more gender-related slurs on social media and in emails that year than they can count. To flee the dangers, they traveled to India’s capital New Delhi, where the competition was to be held. Many female singers state that the only way to stay safe and successful is to leave their home region.

Mehak Ashraf’s name may be unfamiliar to most Indians, but she has steadily built a name for herself on the musical scene of Kashmir. The 21-year-old, who studies at a college in Srinagar, is Kashmir’s lone female rapper. Mehak’s choice to be a rapper is surprising, given the fairly conservative atmosphere of the city. But now Mehak is devoted to her chosen field. Mehak has spent the last nine years honing her craft as a rapper. She has broken the invisible glass ceiling. Mehak uses her vocal delivery of “rhyme, rhythmic speech and street lingo” to expose or red-flag urgent societal issues and challenges. Her music has a large following on different platforms including YouTube, Instagram and Facebook. Most of them are youngsters. In an interview, Mehak stated that her family was hesitant regarding her choice of being a rapper on account of the comments she might receive.

Mehmeet Sayeed, an eminent artist and singer of Kashmir has performed in noted global musical concerts on Kashmiri music and has delivered enthralling performances. Her career also put her in the limelight and also invited hefty online abuse of bigots. Undaunted by these challenges, Mehmeet encourages women to follow their dreams and not to be dampened by abuse and criticism.

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