Review, Siren Song: Understanding Pakistan through Its Women Singers

Author Fawzia Afzal-Khan, 2020, 252 pages, Karachi, Pakistan: Oxford UP

Reviewer Dr. Shazia Malik

Siren Song: Understanding Pakistan Through Its Women Singers by Fawzia Afzal -Khan

Dr. Fawzia Afzal-Khan’s book Siren Songs: Understanding Pakistan through its Women Singers is a wonderful feminist intervention into a conventionally masculinist discourse, depicting Pakistani women music performers’ dilemmas, resistances, and identities intricately connected to the political, social, and cultural trajectories of Pakistan’s history.  Through a cultural feminist lens, it provides an alternative reading of Pakistan’s cultural history from the perspective of its women singers as she terms it ‘a ‘herstorical account from the below’. The author has woven an analysis of agential practices of Muslim women singers of Pakistan from cultural studies and micro-historical perspective to understand the interlocking issues of gender, class, religion, and postcolonial state history. The book is outstanding as it not only gives us glimpses of the impact of state policies (mostly regressive) on women singers but the way women singers have influenced political behaviors in turn through their active resistances that ultimately have altered the gendered realities in Pakistani society.

My interest in the book developed after an email exchange with the author, in which I had sought some suggestions on a proposed project on Kashmiri folklore. She pointed to her own work in the form of this book—Siren Songs, which has a chapter on famous women folk singers including Reshma, Malka Pukhraj, and Roshan Ara Begum. I was keen to know about her analysis of Malka Pukhraj’s performances in particular since she was a classical trainee folk singer in Maharaja Hari Singh’s Court in Kashmir ruled by the Dogras. To me, Malka, termed as a ‘respectable courtesan’ by Afzal-Khan provides an important link not only to the evolution of Pakistan in the post-independence period but as vital to the political and cultural history of Jammu and Kashmir. Revisiting Malka’s memoir Song Sung True, Afzal-Khan traces her journey of music that began when she was hired as a singer-dancer at the court of Maharaja Hari Singh. She quickly became his favorite following the great honor bestowed on her at his coronation ceremony in 1925 when she was the only one that he chose to sing at his court. As a Kashmiri feminist academician, women’s issues during Dogra rule have been an important part of my work since the early days of my research; many of my contemporaries have written and spoken about the atrocities against Muslims in Jammu and Kashmir including the heavy taxation levied under Dogra rule, the Begaari system, taxes on marriages, singing, courtesans and prostitutes. However, for Malka, drawing from her ten years of work experience in his court, Maharaja Hari Singh represented an ideal ruler, who as a result of her presence, did not indulge himself or his court in communal politics.  Afzal-Khan also brings to us an important revelation from her memoir:

‘she (Malka) condemns Chaudhry Ghulam Abbas, the Muslim political leader from Jammu for spreading what she regards as the rumor that the maharaja was unwilling to accept the demands of the Muslims, which according to her had hurt and annoyed the Maharaja who in fact ‘greatly displeased many of the Hindus as he had already decided to accept all the demands of the Muslims in his state’.

The communal riot which followed led his Hindu courtiers to poison his mind with hatred and suspicion against his Muslim subjects, and eventually, his Muslim courtiers were silenced forever. The hatred by Hindu nationalists under the Dogra rule went too far maligning Muslims, and as part of their communal agenda, they invented stories about how Malka tried to poison the Maharaja. Malka thus resigned from Maharaja’s services in her own self-interest and she and her family migrated to Pakistan. It is worth mentioning here that Chaudry Ghulam Abbas was one of the founding members of the All Jammu and Kashmir Muslim Conference formed in 1932 led by Sheikh Muhammed Abdullah (later changed to the National Conference). This “herstorical” recounting offers us an opportunity to transform our views of Kashmir’s history by decoding knowledge of women in the past. 

In her analysis of the singer Roshan Ara Begum, who like Malka, started her carrier in un-partitioned India and later migrated to Pakistan, Afzal-Khan has enjoined the discourses of gender and nationalism. Most of the discussion in Siren Song revolves around theorizing a feminist optic that will explain the resistance strategies of these Muslim musicians within the Muslim idea of respectability, the Ashrafi codes of moral conduct. Rejecting the allegations leveled at the Pakistani state for its indifference to Roshan Ara Begum and the presumptions that she could have led a far more fulfilling life as a singer in India, Afzal-Khan weaves her arguments around the discourses of colonial modernity and post-colonial modernity. This reminds me of Deputy Nazir Ahmad’s construction of the idea of respectable Muslim women in India through his novel Miratul Uroos. These shareef Muslim women continue to figure primarily as markers of Muslim communities’ identities on both sides, India and Pakistan. From her discussions, it follows that Pakistan’s attempt to marginalize music and music performances intertwined with gender, class, and nation, affected Muslim women singers badly. In India, the marginalization of Muslim (minorities) intersects with gender, class, and nationhood in a manner that has negatively impacted Muslim musicians in the post-independence period.

Afzal-Khan develops yet another interesting thread in the chapter Feminist Mediation, in which she discusses an additional set of Muslim female musicians: Madame Noor Jahan, Abida Parveen, and Deeyah to explain the intersectionality of gender with class and religious issues. For example, Afzal-Khan describes Abida Parveen’s performances which reflect her choice of materials, places (such as shrines), and mixed-gender (fluid) dress, such that the performance blurs all forms of identities be they feminine/masculine, secular/sacred, body/soul, etc. in a process which Afzal-Khan refers to as the ‘queering of Islam’.  In a thorough discussion on ‘happy objects’ by Sara Ahmad, she argues that these female performers become ‘affect aliens’ in the idealized discourse of nation-states. She also explains how these women have defied the orthodox religious pressures, creating a more spiritual sense of music by invoking God and their unique relationship with God through their music.

The other female music performers discussed in the book include the famous folk singer Reshma, Tahira Syed, Tina Sani, and others. She also brings into this stream, transnational Pakistanis such as Deeyah, Runa Laila, and Nazia Hasan to discuss the politicization of art. The book also delineates the connection between Islamic extremism and the rise of Coke Studio (a corporate brand) in Pakistan. Afzal-Khan seems to suggest that Coke Studio has rendered more visibility to Muslim women singers, more so in the case of women from ‘elite Ashrafi’ classes.

Overall Siren Song is an enlightening read not just for those interested in cultural or feminist studies, but for everyday readers from South Asia and beyond. There are some moments when readers may feel that she is less sympathetic to Islam than they may like—whether or not because she is a diasporic Pakistani living in the West. The book is a little pricy for many, though I was fortunate to receive my copy from the author’s friend Diana J. Fox as a gift.

Dr. Shazia Malik is an Assistant Professor in the Women’s Studies department, University of Kashmir. She is the author of Women’s Development Amid Conflicts in Kashmir;  A Socio-cultural Study, Partridge Publishing, 2014.

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