Every weekend, Afreen Khan dances for a crowd of howling men in a theatre in Lahore. She materialises the fantasies of the male audience, and does everything their wives would not: standing on stage shouting back at hecklers, hurling dirty jokes at unsuspecting audience members, and dancing with traditional machismo to songs laden with sexual innuendos. The chance cleavage, ending performances with thumping of the chest and growling like a lioness make her command the stage. Masculine behavior is not only allowed but also encouraged by the audience.
The CD, stage and film star is a new entrant in Pakistan’s lowbrow Punjabi theatre industry. The business is unsurprisingly patriarchal – producers, writers, directors, audience, almost everyone is male. Afreen’s dances are part of comedy theatre plays. The slapstick comedy plays have charged song and dance performances smashed in quarter intervals. The star power of dancers such as Afreen alone can sell these shows. “Humain allah ne khoobsurat banaya hae, baal lagaye hain magar hain hum andar se mard hi, is mardon ki dunya mei,” she said. “We navigate a man’s world in female bodies, this requires masculine behavior for survival.” Afreen was backstage – drinking a glass of water – as her personal make-up artist tied a bejewelled corset around her waist for her next performance. Now a 22-year-old, Afreen encapsulates every single thing a woman in Pakistan is expected not to be: confident, brash, forthcoming and financially independent. She has supported her family since she was 13-year-old by performing mujra.
Mujra emerged as a dance form to entertain the Mughal royalty in pre-colonial India. Mujra girls (courtesans or nach-girls) held wealth, power and epitomised Farsi and Urdu literature, poetry and social code of conduct. Their cultural function made them an important asset of the Mughal ruling elite whom the British were trying to overthrow and displace. Starting from early 1800s the British colonial power started attempts to set forth their century long oppressive, exploitative and racist empire in the subcontinent.
From the mid to the late 19th century, the British waged campaigns to reduce mujra girls’ influence in ruling power. Dispossessing them of land, property and wealth, discrediting their patrons (the ruling elite) as immoral and using many of these women as prostitutes for British soldiers were some of the old-fashioned colonial tropes that stripped mujra girls of heir cultural function and exposed them to sexually transmitted diseases.
A social purity movement targeting non-cis, non-heterosexual, queer and religious identities in the sub-continent followed. Anti-courtesan laws in the guise of controlling sexually transmitted diseases, the anti-homosexuality law – Section 377 – and infamous blasphemy laws were a part of the same wave of systematic social conservatism brought by the British colonial power to the sub-continent. These laws in various forms are still embedded in constitutions of ex-colonies, Pakistan and India included.
After Independence, the dispossessed and displaced mujra girls continued their establishments under various levels of state policing. As explained in Gayatri Gopinath’s Queer Diasporas and South Asian Public Cultures, Hindi/Urdu language cinema became fascinated with the image of a classic mujra girl, romanticising her victimhood, while earlier Western representations of the subject showed the post-partition mujra girl as a sex worker to be saved, by internalising and depicting colonial critiques of the institution.
The rise of modern mujra in Pakistan
Over the last two decades, a new form of mujra has come out of the shadows and taken centre stage in Punjab, Pakistan. It has evolved into a hyper-sexualised form of dance to suit the demands of its new clientele – working class males. Mujras are now performed in commercial theatres and halls. Seating prices range from approximately Rs 50 to 1,900 – depending on how close you can get to the mujra dancers.
This modern form of mujra is deemed too vulgar, sexualised and lowbrow according to standards of middle class morality and for the elite. As upstanding members of society, men from these social classes watch the mujras in theatres or on specially dedicated cable TV channels, yet are quick to brand the performers as prostitutes – an act that reeks of male privilege and self-righteousness while echoing colonial social purification measures of the British Raj.
Ironically, the 1980’s Sharia-centric era under army dictator Zia-ul-Haq started the age of commercial mujras in Pakistan. His dictatorial policies pushed many dancing women outside their establishments, from the red-light districts of Lahore, Faisalabad and Multan to the outskirts of these cities, eventually onto the commercial stage. The arrival of VHS and then VCD/DVD technology helped bring a star culture in the Mujra business. By late 1990s, mujra dancers Nargis, Megha, Reema Jaan, and Deedar had become powerhouse brands of the modern sexual form of mujra.
Class Politics and State Censorship playing on Bodies of the Modern Mujra Girl:
Politics of class and language dictate Pakistan’s arbitrary policy on the arts. In the urban centres of Pakistan, Broadway-style English language musicals with female performers in Western clothing geared towards the elite are deemed fit for public. But Punjabi mujra – where performers are restricted to a dress code – is deemed too crude, lowbrow and thus requires the bodies of dancers to be tamed and policed by the state’s censoring authorities.
The censor board demands mujra dancers to be in full, often bedazzling body suits with full sleeves and no cleavage. A week before Afreen’s performance, she has to pass an arbitrary modesty test mandated by the government. Male representatives of a censoring body known as the Arts Council screen performances before labelling them “fit for public” or “too lewd”. Afreen tends to fall in the former category for the test but dials up the antics for the actual show. In 2015, she was banned for the third time, “On the same stage, another girl performed in a way more sexual manner than I did, but she wasn’t banned and I was.” Afreen blames not providing the police and the council representatives with any auxiliary favours for her ban.
On performance day, an employee of the Arts Council stitches a black cloth over the dancer’s cleavage or arms if she is showing any skin. Live performances are monitored and recorded; mobile phone footage is used to summon any girl who steps out of line. Interaction with the audience, performing provocative moves or gestures are just some of the actions that can get the dancer banned. The girls are given two warnings, followed by a short-term ban. On the contrary, the Broadway-styled English language plays geared towards the bourgeois are trusted with a mild form of self-censorship.
Private shows in seedy theaters of small towns and villages of Punjab represent another side of the mujra business where the state mandated modesty test is absent and the dancers are free to flash and dance freely to the crowd’s desire. Video recordings of these performances are sold in film/video markets in urban centers of Pakistan, much of the content ends up on YouTube. My upcoming documentary Showgirls of Pakistan, featuring Afreen deals with the regulated and deregulated side of the Punjabi mujra business.
Mujra and modern technology
The digital dissemination of mujra has been made possible with the advent of live streaming apps in Pakistan. Mujra dancers have found a direct way to interact with their patrons, away from the scrutiny of the government (as of now). Live streaming of mujras on a popular Singaporean app has extended their reach to a sub-group of their clientele in a different geographical location: working class Pakistanis in the Middle East. These fans are here not only to see the dances but also to hear what the mujra dancers have to say. In recent live streams, Afreen is seen driving a car telling her fans about the problems working class women face in the entertainment industry. Sitara Baig lashes out at male control over the entertainment business, Laiba Bangash mourns the lives lost in a deadly bomb blast in Lahore.
The real lives of working class women in this business are rarely seen without the gaze of colonialism and respectability. For Afreen, commercial mujra has financially empowered her and helped her climb the socio-economic ladder, otherwise impossible to achieve by a woman from a lower economic class. Mujra dancers are not favoured by advocacy groups and continue to function in the peripheries of society. This disenfranchisement and flawed representation makes abuse and crimes against them go unnoticed. Furthermore, if reported, their abuse is created as a spectacle by the media for the imperial gaze of middle and the upper classes.
Once the dancing stops, and the dancers step outside the theatre and into the real world, the judgment, toting guns and violence take over. In 2013, armed men stormed Afreen’s performance in the small town of Okara. They made the audience leave and harassed her on stage. “That was the moment I decided to leave my town and move to a bigger city, Lahore for work.” Afreen said.
Such incidents are not rare. There is a history of violence against working class women in Pakistan’s entertainment industries. For Afreen, the violence and state control over the bodies of women in the business stems from toxic masculinity and male fragility which makes working class women – those who do not have the privilege of their class protection – pay a heavier price.
In the early 2000s, local goons in Lahore beat and shaved the head of mujra dancer, Nargis. In 2007, Saima Khan, the very first woman to take her top off on-stage under Pervez Musharraf’s reign, was shot in the legs by local gangsters for declining their invitation to dance at their farmhouse. In 2014, Sangam Rana was found dead in her bedroom in Lahore in what was apparently a case of suicide. In 2015, mujra dancer Honey Shahzadi lost her sister-in-law and bodyguard when her ex-boyfriend attacked her house. In December 2016 Kismet Baig was pulled over outside her house and shot in her palms and legs by an ex-boyfriend. Kismet’s sister, Sitara Baig was live streaming on Facebook when she heard the news of her sister’s death. In 2016, working class singer, video blogger and actor Qandeel Baloch was murdered by her brother after a high profile row with a (male) religious cleric, which lead to a media onslaught exposing her personal details and class background.
Mujra as a form of Resistance
Mujra girls have constantly negotiated their space in institutionalised patriarchies – be it the Mughals, the British, the state, middle and upper classes – which control yet create economies of consumption out of the dancers bodies, livelihoods and art. In these situations, the dangerous and queer-ing act of mujra becomes an act of resistance.
Modern mujra dancers such as Afreen have learned to navigate, negotiate and more often rebel against these dangerous patriarchies, often at the cost of their lives and the safety of their loved ones. Financial independence, taking care of their families and fighting male control in the industry is a common streak which unites the dancers as strong women and when any dancer is attacked, the mujra girls are first ones to reach out, console and help.
“The truth is even If we wear a burqa, men will never cease to harass,” Afreen said. “If I was president of Pakistan, I would castrate all the men, that’s the only thing that can ensure our safety.” Her car pulled up at 3 am next to her house in a gated community, outside of Lahore.
A version of this article first appeared on Saad Khan’s Medium blog.