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Story Publication logo September 13, 2011

Dancing Girls of the Swat Valley



The Taliban has fallen in northwestern Pakistans Swat Valley, but for the three million displaced...


Along a dimly lit alley, the wooden doors of small brick houses are barred shut. The silent passage lies just off the Banr, a street once known for Swat Valley's famous dancing girls. This area in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province still houses many of the most respected musicians, singers, and dancers of the Yousafzai Pashtun tribe, the region's dominant ethnic group. But today, the Banr is like any other street in the city—dark and lifeless. In the past, music and dancing continued through the night, but now the party ends at 9 p.m.

We knock on a door and enter a modest home where the walls are lined with images of Pashto film stars and Swati handicrafts. Nagina, a popular, 20-year-old dancer and singer, steps into the room, which serves both as her bedroom and living room. Wearing traditional dress—her shalwar qameez and a dopatta (a long scarf) hanging from her shoulders—she sits on a tattered sofa. Feigning shyness, she seldom speaks but constantly smiles.

Nagina, a pseudonym, returned home this summer after fighting between Pakistani forces and Taliban militants in the valley killed 700 people and displaced another 2.5 million. While the Taliban patrolled the city, her life was in danger as they went from house to house searching for women like Nagina to attack and, in many cases, to murder. Now, she can begin anew her career as a dancer and has even started singing as well.

"There are new TV and FM radio channels that organize musical concerts," she smiles. "The market is huge as now music CDs are exported to Afghanistan and the Middle East," she explains, twisting the golden bracelets on her left wrist. She sings with her sister in music videos, which are in demand as the music market recovers from the Taliban assaults. Still, she says, her future is bleak.

Both the Taliban and radicalized Pakistani society consider performers to be sinners. In Pashtun areas, a singer or dancer is known as damor beghairat (a person without a sense of honor). "We don't have any respect in this society. People come to us just for enjoyment," Nagina says. "Generally we are not considered morally good people." Several of her neighbors, all very talented, were popular when they were young, she says, but everyone deserted them, and now they live a hard, lonely life.

This rejection by villagers coupled with an aggressive Taliban campaign against everything beautiful has made it difficult for artists to live decently. Compared to the conservative societies of the Pashtun tribes that live across the 800-mile border in Afghanistan, society in the Swat Valley has traditionally been more accommodating. This picturesque valley was once the home of the Hinayana sect of Buddhism and a regional center of Himalayan civilization that extended from Tibet to Kashmir.

When the Yousafzai Pashtuns from Afghanistan conquered the valley in the 16th century, they turned it into a center of Pashtun culture. Previously, the Yousafzais never practiced their religion in the current extremist form, so Buddhist, Hindu, and Sikh archeological sites were never damaged or destroyed, as happened when the Taliban rampaged across neighboring Afghanistan. The Yousafzai Pashtuns were open-minded, their own dances and folk songs influenced by the region's Buddhist past.

Indeed, Swat was the only place in the Pashtun belt where girls from the families of professional singers and musicians could choose singing and dancing as a career. Today, the Swat Valley can still feel justly proud of the remarkable contributions of a host of Pashto folk singers, who perfected their craft, then harmonized it with modern musical trends.

Rahim Shah, the 35-year-old Pakistani pop star and heartthrob, popularized tappa—a genre of Pashtun folk music—by singing it with pop music. Another, Nazia Iqbal, born in Swat, boasts a fan base stretching from Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province across Pakistan, Baluchistan and southern Afghanistan to a broad swath of the Pashtun diaspora around the world. But at home four years ago, society took a turn for the worse.


The changes began in July 2007 when Maulana Fazlullah, a 32-year-old lift operator turned Taliban commander, launched a pirate FM radio station to preach religious bigotry across the Swat Valley. Day after day, his inflammatory broadcasts discouraged girls' education, called the use of polio immunization un-Islamic, and equated musical expression with obscenities. Fazlullah exploited the presence of U.S.-led NATO forces in Afghanistan and prevailing injustices in Pakistani society to urge people to wage jihad against the "infidels." He also demanded the promulgation of Islamic Shariah law throughout the Malakand region where Swat is located.

Nagina recalls an all but immediate reaction when the broadcasts began. "Bomb attacks were started on music shops. Singing and dancing was banned, and we stopped attending parties due to fear of retaliation from Fazlullah's supporters," she says. Musicians and singers from the street published ads in the local newspapers stating they were no longer affiliated with the music business, pledging to live pious lives. But Taliban demands only escalated.

In his evening broadcasts, Fazlullah would announce the names of female school teachers and health workers who quit their jobs on his advice. The provincial government, controlled by an alliance of six religious parties known as the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal [MMA] all but ignored Swat's slide into religious militancy. Some party members even supported Taliban demands for Shariah law and provided them with logistical and financial support. Ziauddin Yousafzai, spokesman of Swat's Qaumi Jirga, or regional council, says the Taliban's growing influence "was not possible without the tacit support of the MMA government and Pakistan's intelligence agencies. Both view militant organizations as strategic assets."

The roots of the Taliban in Swat are deep. A study conducted by the Regional Institute of Policy Research and Training, a Peshawar-based think tank, suggests that poverty moved public opinion to support the terrorists. In 2008, in response to landlords who had forced landless farmers to work for little or no pay, Taliban militants stormed the estate of Jamal Nasir Khan, a prominent landlord in Swat. Taliban commandos not only destroyed his home but burned his furniture and all his family's clothing.

I asked one commander why they did not even spare the clothes, and he replied with a cruel smile, "I, along with dozens of others, worked for weeks to level the ground and then construct those buildings [owned by the landlord]. I know the pain when you work and you receive nothing in return but abuses. Today, we destroy the buildings to avenge how the landlord treated us."

Fazlullah's militants were comprised largely of youth from the most marginalized communities. Poverty and unemployment served as catalysts in popularizing the Taliban's messages. As Fazlullah solidified power, his Shariah courts began distributing land to the landless.

With the arrival of Fazlullah's followers, a new regime took shape. Beauty parlors, barber shops, and offices of western relief organizations came under pressure from militants who sought to impose their world view on the entire population. Shopkeepers at Cheena Bazaar, a leading women's shopping center in Mingora, found themselves the targets of threatening letters for selling cosmetics, perfumes, and women's under-garments.

Beyond such routine harassment, bomb attacks on security forces, police stations, and funeral processions intensified, videos of each blast released to spread fear through local communities. In December 2008, Taliban terrorists killed 27 people, including police officers, politicians, and security personnel, and dumped their bodies in Mingora's central Green Square, earning it the moniker "Bloody Square."

In April 2009, the Taliban captured Buner district, a neighboring valley just across a series of hills from Swat. Barely 65 miles from Pakistan's capital, the Taliban's success in the Buner Valley spread fear through the diplomatic community of Islamabad, which pressured the central government to drive them out. A month after the Taliban arrival in Buner, Pakistani military forces launched a major offensive to reclaim the valley, using helicopter gunships and fighter jets, forcing thousands to flee their homes and pushing the Taliban back into their strongholds, at least for the moment.


Much of the unrest boiling in the Swat Valley can be traced to its incomplete integration into Pakistan when the nation was formed more than a half century ago. After Swat was brought into Pakistan as part of the North-West Frontier Province, the new government in Islamabad sought to administer the remote territories under a series of regulations first imposed by the British rulers of the Indian sub-continent. The laws differed substantially from the system used by the valley's ancestral rulers, the Walis of Swat, leading to confusion and endless delays. Fazlullah and his followers were quick to seize on this opportunity.

The princely state of Swat came into existence in 1917 when the advance of British Imperial power motivated the tribes to unite. A Jirga, or council, of tribal chieftains appointed Miangul Abdul Wadud its first ruler. He strengthened the administrative system, raised a local army, protected Swat from attacks from other princely states, established courts, and opened educational institutions. Abdul Wadud and his successor continued to rule until 1969 when the valley was integrated into the state of Pakistan.

The local judicial system had been a complex but understandable synthesis of traditional and Islamic codes, overlaid by the commands of a ruler who had the final, unchallenged authority. The merger with Pakistan created a legal vacuum as Islamabad sought to displace this traditional, Swat-based system with a confusing and poorly understood British system that had little grounding in local custom. Under the Provincially Administered Tribal Areas regulations, the provincial legislature had no jurisdiction over Swat, leaving all authority to the president of Pakistan. The deputy commissioner of the district became the embodiment of administrative, judicial, and executive power at the district level. With the Walis deposed, disputes developed among local tribes over land rights, which the new administration failed to resolve. Not surprisingly, chaos ensued, leaving villagers nostalgic for Wali rule when decisions were implemented promptly.

The first to exploit these mounting frustrations was Maulana Sufi Muhammad, a cleric from the neighboring Dir district. In 1992, he launched the Movement for the Enforcement of Shariah. In his speeches, Sufi Muhammad blasted modern democracy, blaming it for all society's injustices. "Shariat ya Shahadat" (Shariah or Martyrdom) was the slogan of his movement, and its appeal resonated. Villagers saw him as a savior, trying to liberate them from a corrupt government. At the same time, he pledged to raise the status of villagers in a society where local Khans, or landlords, still controlled a political system too weak and too far removed from Islamabad to challenge them.

Sufi Muhammad's rise represented the first step towards the Talibanization of the region. In 1994, his supporters threatened the government with a full-scale jihad. They stormed Kanju Airport, blocked highways, and occupied the offices of the regional chief of police in Saidu Sharif, the capital of Swat. Later that year, the government crushed the movement when paramilitary forces opened fire on its supporters after Sufi Muhammad refused to end the blockade without the promulgation of Shariah law in the region.

But in 2001, when American and allied forces toppled the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, Sufi Muhammad was still a powerful force and again called for jihad against the U.S. and its allies—holding demonstrations against the American presence in Afghanistan while praising the Taliban for defending Islam. Some 10,000 supporters followed him to Afghanistan to pursue this jihad against "the infidels." Most were farmers, shopkeepers, mosque imams, and day laborers with no experience in any aspect of modern warfare. Many were either killed or arrested by the forces of the Northern Alliance.

Recognizing the gravity of situation, Sufi Muhammad fled the battlefield and crossed into Pakistan, where authorities promptly arrested him. His son-in-law, Fazlullah, was with him at the time of his arrest. Sufi Muhammad was quickly released by Pakistani officials, who feared alienating the Taliban. Tutored by his father-in-law, and with the active support of other militant organizations along the frontier, Fazlullah began his radio-based propaganda campaign and quickly took over the leadership of the Swat chapter of the Pakistani Taliban. As he urged followers to destroy their televisions, CD players, and VCRs—primarily because television and video were largely inaccessible to him—radio continued to be his medium of choice.

Fazlullah, a short man with a flowing beard and black turban, constructed a religious complex in Mamdheri, a village along the River Swat. Comprised of a religious seminary, hostel, and meeting halls, it quickly turned into a center of religious extremism. As his radio audience grew, throngs of villagers converged on his compound to listen to his speeches. Journalists arrived for updates on Fazlullah's movement and his decrees, which were often accompanied by floggings of drug addicts, thieves, and other sinners in the courtyard. I once asked him, privately, where he had received his religious education. "Maulana Sufi Muhammad is my mentor and teacher. He taught me Shariah books while we were in the prison," he replied.


In July 2007, Pakistan's military launched an operation against the Lal Mosque and the Hafsa seminary in Islamabad alleging that both had become hotbeds of Islamic militants. In response, Fazlullah told his followers to prepare for battle against the pro-American government of General Pervez Musharraf. His first step was to establish contacts with Maulana Abdul Aziz, the imam of Lal Mosque and invite him to address his supporters by telephone from Islamabad. Aziz, who desperately needed support from local commanders, seized the occasion, delivering a series of fiery speeches calling for jihad and supporting Fazlullah's demand for the establishment of Shariah law in Swat.

Meanwhile, fighters of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan [TTP] under the leadership of Baitullah Mehsud stepped up their terror campaign—killing tribal elders, bombing public places, and targeting convoys of security forces across Pakistan's tribal areas and the province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. Fazlullah, designated the TTP's amir for Swat, replicated these actions in his region.

Facing little opposition from state authorities, Fazlullah stepped up his campaign against the traditional forms of recreation and entertainment in Swat. At the same time, his own production facility, known as "Al-Fateh Studio," now with a virtual monopoly on production, began turning out jihadist CDs that contained gory images of beheaded bodies of Taliban opponents and police officers. These CDs flooded the markets, and youths uploaded the videos to their cell phones and computers.

Having all but destroyed the local market for traditional music, there were few other options for entertainment. State authority had been either obliterated or restricted to a small area in Saidu Sharif. As the police were widely seen as corrupt and violent themselves, the images of decapitated cops had the intended effect of raising the emotional temperature. Youths were especially attracted to the Taliban, as they wanted to destroy the old exploitative system that had kept them poor and jobless. The promise was a new system that would ensure justice and a full stomach for all.

I once met a group of young militants in the courtyard of the massive seminary Fazlullah was building. While we were taping the interview, a member of my crew informed us that a suicide bomber had just killed four soldiers in Waziristan near the Afghan border that morning. One of the Taliban militants expressed his frustration sneering, "It's nothing, he [the suicide bomber] killed only four soldiers?" Fazulullah's young followers were being quickly radicalized. It was an easy process. Once they joined, they were provided with monthly salaries, vehicles, bodyguards, and, for the first time in most of their lives, a sense of identity.


Between 2007 and 2009, the violent campaign of cultural and ideological cleansing accelerated. Fazlullah militants destroyed more than 250 girls' schools, including an elementary school in Mingora where Nagina was a student before she'd dropped out to learn music and dance at home. When the once vibrant hotel industry collapsed in the face of the spreading violence, some 40,000 people lost their jobs. Suicide bombers hit targets ranging from schools to security forces, occupied government buildings, and even blew up a rare Buddhist carving. The Taliban insurgency completely changed the cultural narrative of the Yousafzai Pashtuns of Swat where artistic pursuits had been an integral part of society for hundreds of years.

"The Taliban insurgency has not only destroyed basic infrastructure in the valley, it also obliterated an old socio-cultural order based on mutual co-existence. Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims lived together in the valley without any clashes." says Shaukat Sharar, a Mingora-based social scientist. "TTP is not the manifestation of the Pashtun culture or society. It is a byproduct of the Afghan jihad, and Pakistan's ill-planned and self-destructive jihadist policies."

When the Taliban arrived, driven across the border from Afghanistan after the American-led military operation against them and their al-Qaida allies, they first targeted women and villagers affiliated with the arts. There was also an accompanying rise in attacks on Sufi shrines—the Sufi branch of Islam being anathema to the Taliban's leadership.

For the musicians and dancers of Swat, it was an anxious time. In their radio broadcasts, Fazlullah and his second-in-command, Maulana Shah Dauran, described musicians, singers, and dancers as friends of Satan, responsible for the moral degradation of society. On December 15 2008, militants attacked a car carrying popular Pashtun singer Sardar Yousafzai and his musicians in Malakand. Yousafzai survived the attempt on his life, but his harmonium player, Anwar Gul, died of his wounds in a Peshawar hospital.

The terror campaign came to a particularly horrifying climax one night in January 2009. Taliban militants stormed the home of Shabana, a popular dancer, to punish her for performing in a wedding ceremony in nearby Mardan. In the middle of the night, the cries of two women awakened the neighborhood. The militants, having somehow gained entry to the home, set about beating Shabana—pulling her hair, battering her hips with their guns, and screaming that it was time for her to die. Shabana's mother begged the leader of the group to spare her daughter's life and swore she would never dance again. Refusing to listen, the men dragged the young woman by her hair through the town to Green Square, her wailing mother running after them. Shabana was executed at point-blank range, her bullet-riddled body left in the square—a warning to others that dancing was in defiance of the Taliban's will.

Three months later, Shabana's mother herself died in a local hospital. "When she ran to free her daughter from the clutches of Taliban, a sharp piece of glass pierced her foot," explains Shano, an elderly woman who witnessed the incident. Reeling in horror and sadness over her daughter's death, Shabana's mother sought no care. Within a few days, her wounds had become infected. "She was beyond treatment and she breathed her last breath," recalls Shano (a pseudonym to prevent reprisals as she was an admired dancer in her youth).


Shabana's death sealed the fate of the dancing girls of Swat. In March 2009, the government and militants agreed to remove dancing girls from Mingora. Instead of providing protection to the most vulnerable, the authorities yielded to Taliban demands. The decision sent shock waves throughout the valley's artistic community.

By this time, the Taliban had effectively taken over Swat, Buner, Shangla, and Malakand districts of the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province. They issued edicts to the police to leave their jobs and fight alongside them. They began intimidating people into donating weapons and money to the jihad fund. For its part, the government faded into the background—lacking the political will to jump into the fray. Indeed, many senior civilian and military officials had pro-Taliban sympathies, especially the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate [ISI], who hoped to make use of the Taliban's influence in the region for its own strategic interests. Many performers fled.

"We left the area on the spur of the moment," says Nagina, a neighbor of Shabana. "We did not know where to go. One of my relatives rented a small house in Peshawar where two of our families started living. Customers there were more interested in my body rather than in my art." She admits she had to meet their sexual demands since it was the family's only available source of income. A number of other girls who had earlier performed as dancers or singers also turned to prostitution. "You can say we are the by-product of this war," Nagina says.

No one came forward when her family was on the verge of starvation. Deeply conscious of the pain she brought her family, she has moved back with her ailing father, mother, one sister, and two unemployed brothers into a house in Banr in the heart of Mingora. Nagina says she has two sets of customers now—those who come to listen to her sing and those who pay her for sex. She admits, reluctantly, that she earns more money selling her body, making around $50 an hour. The average monthly wage in Swat is $50 to $80.

Her customers include expatriate relief workers and Pakistani government officials. Nagina is also retained by so-called "art promoters," who invite girls to perform in musicals abroad but also offer their sex services. This has now become a principal source of income for these girls—especially in the United Arab Emirates and Malaysia.

Artists and critics believe religious fundamentalism has badly damaged the fabric of the society and brought a sharp decay in popular tastes—all restricting the appetite for and resources that could be devoted to artistic enterprises in the region. The attacks by Fazlullah and the Taliban—especially their suppression of legitimate art, music, and dance—have led to broad instability and social decay that has spelled an end to art in Swat.

"In the context of the emerging realities, money is more important than art," says Usman Ulasyar, president of Suvastu Arts and Culture Association, a group working for cultural revival in the Swat region. "Now people don't seek spiritual delight, they want physical pleasure." This is happening on Banr Street, which still accommodates about 150 families of musicians, singers, and dancers. Even after Pakistani military and police actions have, at least for the moment, driven out the Taliban, the neighborhood has failed to regain its former glory.

"Dancing girls were the antithesis of the conservative nature of the society," Sharar, the sociologist, says. "When a Pashtun felt suffocated in the restrictions of his family and wanted change, he turned to the dancing girls for fun and merry-making." Rarely were they viewed with respect, but the rulers of Swat provided them a space to demonstrate their skills and assured their security.

Dauran Shah, 66, a senior musician in Swat, says giant music festivals were celebrated until 1969, when Swat was merged into Pakistan. "The girls danced within a circle in front of thousands of people. No one was allowed to touch or throw money on a girl. It was against the self-respect of the community, and everyone cared about that," he recalls.

Compared to the women of the traditional Pashtun families, who lived and died within the four walls of their homes, the dancing girls historically were more exposed to the outside world, and often considered smarter and more fashionable than traditional women. Occasionally, a dancer would capture the attention of a youth from the landed gentry. Many landlords paid their expenses, while others fell in love and married these girls—which became more socially acceptable when the Wali himself married a dancing girl. "The Wali of Swat considered the Swatis as members of the family," says Mussarat Ahmad Zeb, daughter-in-law of the last Wali of Swat. Women, she says, had more rights too. "You may think it unimaginable, but during the time of Swat State, girls even enjoyed swimming in a tributary of River Swat."


On March 14, 2010, Afsana, a young female dancer from Swat, was killed by armed men in the Damaan Hindko area on the outskirts of Peshawar, the capital of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province, 100 miles from Mingora. Afsana and her entire family had already fled the Taliban to the city. She, along with her sister Sana, had begun performing at weddings to earn a living for their displaced family. They were en route home from a party when they were attacked.

With financial support from such international donors, the Awami National Party, which dominates the regional government of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, is struggling towards a cultural revival of the region as a central element in its war against religious militancy. Nishtar Hall, the only theater in Peshawar, has now been reopened for concerts and cultural gatherings. The provincial government has also launched "Pakhtunkhwa FM Radio," to win back listeners lost to the jihadist radio stations.

But the extremists are by no means gone. While the Pakistani military suspects Fazlullah has been driven across the border to Afghanistan with a 50 million rupee ($580,000) on his head, his aides are still attempting attacks on Pakistani soil. Faqir Muhammad, a militant commander in Bajaur tribal region near the border with Afghanistan, has also relaunched an extremist FM radio station, raising serious concerns among local artists and singers. If history is any guide, it is a harbinger of future trouble. And there remains considerable question about the willingness of the government in Islamabad to take the repeated military and police actions needed to keep the Taliban and their supporters in check.

"I fear a Taliban return if the state does not address the genuine concerns of the war-ravaged communities, does not stop supporting militant organizations as strategic assets, and fails to take concrete steps for the cultural revival of the region," says Ulasyar of the Suvastu Arts and Culture Association.

"This time," he adds, "it will be more devastating."


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