Religious extremism and the war on culture

Deeyah Khan, February 2015

As a girl, I studied and sang the Khyal music form which is a strand of traditional north Indian and Pakistani classical music, using techniques learned under the tutelage of Ustad Bade Fateh Ali Khan. I was harassed and physically attacked by fundamentalist Muslims, to whom a woman singing, no matter how modest, was an offence to their regressive ideas. While I felt myself to be actively preserving the traditions of my parents’ South Asian culture, they felt me to be defying their restrictions on what was culturally acceptable for a woman to do in the pubic space. I was harassed to the extent that I finally quit singing.

These experiences have left me with the greatest respect for those people who work to keep our traditions alive, such as Sheema Kermani, the traditional Pakistani dancer who performed and spoke at the World Woman festival in Oslo. Sheema has preserved classical Pakistani dance throughout the rule of General Zia al-Haq’s brutal Islamisation during a period when all expressions of art were condemned. This was a period when one of our greatest poets, Fahmida Riaz, who I also brought to World Woman, was forced into exile for her writing.

The diverse beauty of South Asian art is being suppressed under a joyless, puritan reading of Islam which owes more to petrodollar-funded propaganda from the Gulf States than our own native ancestral history of poetry and song. The repression of art as ‘blasphemy’, of women artists as ‘immodesty’ is limiting the potential of young artists to create and build upon our musical, theatrical and poetic traditions, to explore and express visions of our past, and potential futures.

It infuriates me that these attacks upon our culture are so often legitimised under the rubric of cultural sensitivity. When I produced a mixtape project of young Muslim female vocal artists, one Muslim organisation announced that music was an ‘unsuitable pastime’ for women. Other organisations have categorised dance as unIslamic, ignoring the varied traditions of dance across the so-called Muslim world. As ever, those with the greatest power within their communities represent themselves as ‘leaders’ able to describe ‘authentic’ culture of the group – and by so doing silencing the diversity within each community, erasing cultural history, and discouraging the creativity of younger generations.

From Monica Ali to Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, those silenced and harassed for their art are rarely powerful members of the dominant classes, but dissident and feminist voices speaking from within their own communities. At World Woman I was proud to be able to gather a number of artists who confront religious fundamentalism, patriarchy and violence using forms from graffiti art to theatre: to show women reclaiming their culture and to honour their creativity and their courage.

But it should not require courage to be a painter or poet: it should take skill, vision, passion and dedication, not the ability to deal with threats, harassment and violence. Until we can establish freedom of expression as a universal right, and art as an important aspect of democracy, our traditional artforms will be imperilled and the creativity of younger generations will remain unfulfilled.

This is not our culture. This is a war against our culture.

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