"The work I started doing, like Scheherzade Goes West, could be considered avant-garde in a certain way as it did not conform to representational theatre, even though I gave it a very self-ironizing subtitle—"Speaking Out as a Pakistani/American/Wo/Man"—because I wanted the title itself to question certain ideas of self-representation. Many of us with a foot here, and a foot there, we fall into a trap where we serve up the culture that we're from and its complicated history, as a kind of alibi of "belonging to the West," or saying "Okay, yes, there's terrible oppression against Muslim women there, and I will now show you how that is"—no, no; that was not a role I wanted to play. My politics was very clear. When I embarked on my own first solo piece, it came right after 9/11. There was this pressure on a lot of us, especially as "Muslim women" to inform the American public about who we were, what to think about us, and how to easily help them digest "authentic culture" from Pakistan. I wasn't interested in doing any of that. I wanted to interrogate the very categories of "Muslim women" and "Pakistani American"—what do these labels really mean?"
Fawzia Afzal-Khan, in conversation with SAAG's Neilesh Bose, about her experience as a playwright and performer, and the socio-political views that have informed her practice.
SAAG is a radical literary anthology that explores the substantial, yet underacknowledged tradition of the avant-garde in South Asian creative history.
Jihad Against Violence
A One-Act Play
"Class issues, instead of being instantiated through the different situational realities of the two female actors, became centralized through the class structure of US society itself; women’s oppression as manifested differently through the characters became a mirror for the oppressiveness of human life itself, as lived in a world of ever-increasing inequality. The jihad—the struggle— against this inequality is a struggle against the violence that inequality breeds, but given the powerful structures that surround us—past, present, and future—this is easier said than done."
Click here to view performance
Scherehzade Goes West
"So, to re-site my questions/concerns: Who am I? Where am I? What could constitute an effective interruptive feminist performance to halt, reverse, and challenge the imperialist/patriarchal performances of globalized power and dominance in their postmodern capitalist permutations masquerading as a New World Order? In my performative identity as Muslim/South Asian/ Other/Woman, how far can I really go (am permitted to go?) to jam the machinery, to interrupt business-as-usual?"
Click here to view a screening of this performance at Princeton University, followed by a talk between Fawzia Afzal-Khan and Jill Dolan
Sext of Saudade
"The process proved difficult due to conflicting personalities, creative styles, class and gender identifications, and various sexual tensions between and amongst us and others in our lives. And then, the uneasy yet exhilarating triangulation that night of our performance, the air pregnant with intimations of violence birthed by too tight an embrace in a suffocating space. Still, both the process and the product proved to be stimulating and challenging in productive ways, for us as well as our full-house audience of the one-night show performed on 27 September 2008, comprising mostly friends and acquaintances from our different and overlapping circles, as well as a few of my students and colleagues."
Singing Past Silence
A Personal Coda
Whilst I was unable to pursue a career as a woman singer in the country of my birth, I nonetheless found a way back to my first (and forever) love in a number of ways. One of these was to enlist my professional skills as a scholar of postcolonial feminist studies in the service of creating music videos with the technical and creative help of a gifted friend and a music producer in Lahore over a period of several years. In these music videos, I could sing and at the same time, offer critical commentary on the postcolonial nation state of Pakistan, mindful of maintaining that delicate balance between an insider/outsider positionality.
Sacrifice | The first of these music videos, Sacrifice, mixing elements of Shi’ite martyrdom with the ritual sacrifice on Eid ul Azha, both serving as the backdrop of a hypnotic masculinist ethos that has brought the world to the edge of destruction. Anger at the ritual of (self) sacrifice that passes as passion, is offset by the female voice of suffering but also of love, and the need for love, and maybe a different kind of passion, to be found amongst the ruins of war and tragedy. This female/feminist language takes the form of Sufi poetry and music in my video—and is rooted in a more compassionate vision of the world than the reigning class-patriarchal-religious-Islamist ethos in Pakistan (as elsewhere in the Judeo-Christian-Muslim world), allows. The poem ‘Sacrifice’ is thus an ode to seeing differently, an Ode I See. This Odyssey takes the woman speaker/poet through an exploration of the idea of a ritual sacrifice—one that is rooted in the idea of a monotheistic Male God—as she is seen speaking and moving, a visible and articulate presence, between figures of four other women who, in contrast, are silent and covered-up—hence invisible, like sacrificial lambs waiting for Abraham’s knife. The video was completed just as news broke of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination.
Watch and listen to Sacrifice here
Smokescreen | The second video, Smokescreen, follows the same ‘visible’ woman—who thus becomes a figure of transgression in a society careening ever more dangerously toward an extremism that tries to silence and ‘cover up’ the figure of woman—around town in Lahore as she tries to dodge the male gaze seeking to entrap her, even as she courts/craves its erotic excitement. The video can be seen as a metaphor for the nation-state at the mercy of a dictator (it was filmed as the era of Gen. President Pervez Musharraf drew to a close)—trying desperately to exercise control over the nation and silence any form of protest. The woman stands in for a country under the grip of martial law—but is also Woman embedded in the codes of a patriarchally-defined desire.
Watch and listen to Smokescreen here
Payal | The third music video, Payal, filmed in the famed marketplace of the Empress Victoria in Karachi (dismantled, sadly, under directives by Imran Khan’s government)—juxtaposes the postcolonial within the same time-space as the colonial and precolonial. The woman’s body—walking through the male-dominated bazaar with its lurid flashes of Pakistani film posters adorned by buxom actresses meant to be consumed just like the meat being cleaved by the butchers—can be seen only as the fetished ankle, wearing the ghungroos (ankle bells), that are the courtesan’s mark of the actress/dancer/singing girl, forcing viewers to ask, who/what is being consumed, by whom in this marketplace of ideas, of the flesh made song? The thumri is sung as an invocation to the (male) beloved for whom the eastern woman waits endlessly...but she is also singing to the spiritual cadences of her own desire—gesturing to the Sufi aspects of love and of Islam which cannot, finally, be consumed.
Watch and listen to Payal here
Lahore | In the fourth video, Lahore, the female figure of the singing siren comes into her own as she moves past Kipling’s Gun on the Mall road, shaking the gates of the colonial-era Government College as she attempts to climb over them, all the while reciting verses that expose her own imbrication in a world of neocolonial madness. We then see her as she moves into the Sufi shrine of Shah Kamal where she sings wordlessly to the beat of Kala Saeen’s drumbeats as the camera focuses its gaze outwards from her body to focus instead on the male dancers, then on to the predominantly male audience, finally settling on a lone white girl dancing naively to the esoteric rhythms and sounds she cannot comprehend but is enthralled by: the lure of the colonial ‘exotic’ continues.
Watch and listen to Lahore here
Faqeera | I made the final video in this series in 2018, called Faqeera, continuing to mine the ever-increasing fetishization of the exotic ‘Sufi’ music vogue that now consumes both East and West, and in which I too participate, albeit with a sense of ironic seriousness that weaves into the music video once again, the political ‘hot button’ topics occupying center-stage in Pakistan. In this particular video I wanted to focus on the one hand, on the disturbing rape and murder of little Zainab in Kasur (the birthplace of Sufi poet Bulleh Shah) and what it reveals about toxic masculinity and the failures of the patriarchal state in reigning it in; on the other hand, I wanted to weave in the hope-inducing awareness of third-gender rights occurring in the country, which can lead to more self-reflexivity around gender and sexual identity and acceptance of non-normative behavior and thought in a nation-space where any such deviations from masculinist patriarchal codes have historically been criminalized and punished.
Watch and listen to Faqeera here
"Join me in my journey back to Pakistan to pay tribute to some of these inspiring women singers who carried on their careers despite societal disapproval and state strictures. This is their story."
Women Singers of Pakistan
"This film tells the history of Pakistan through the lives and music of its women singers 1947-present. We see how these women have been shaped by the cultural taboos against music and especially against women who perform publicly, and how they have found the courage to resist such taboos, in the process exposing the hypocrisy of a society that simultaneously devalues and adores music and women who sing and dance. These bold women become symbols of resistance against societal oppression and state repression, illuminating the progressive side of Pakistani society. They are the best hope for its future built on values of peace and co existence both within and beyond its borders."
Fawzia Afzal-Khan, Producer and Concept Director
Siren Song: Women Singers of Pakistan, has been accepted to 12 film festivals in 2016 and 2017, and won 5 awards of merit and excellence.
Melody Queen to Muslim Madonna: Pakistan's Female Singers
"For Dr. Afzal-Khan’s documentary From The Melody Queen to the Muslim Madonna, she interviewed several Pakistani women, including vocalists, professors, and relatives of famous historic Pakistani singers."
– Review by William Uhl, for Urban Agenda Magazine