Women who Named the Unnamed
Honor/Cherish the Continuity
Of Dance and Dissent
By Mahnoor Kazmi
Her limbs move with ease and grace, in perfect harmony with the melody and rhythm. She takes another step forward. With each delicate movement, the sound from the paayel anklet on her feet echoes on the stage, creating music of its own. There is a tender and loving quality to her dance; it is, at the same time, fierce and bold. It is enticing. Challenging. It is, in these ways, a perfect reflection of her own self.
Sheema Kermani was born in Pakistan in 1951 in the city of Rawalpindi. Her family migrated from India following the partition in 1947, and her childhood was spent travelling to and from India on a regular basis. She comes from a middle-class and educated upbringing, and takes pride in the fact that her parents always laid emphasis on the role of performing arts in their children’s lives. She became acquainted with classical music and dance in her early years, and consequently developed a deep and lasting bond with art in its many forms.
Her decision to pursue the medium of dance was influenced by her politics. During the 1970s, in the Bhutto era, Kermani worked with women who were factory workers, helping them to form trade unions and increase awareness about their own rights. She founded the Tehrik-e-Niswan as an organization that aimed to provide women with basic skills which would allow them to enter the work force. The organization also developed adult literacy programs, as well as educational programs for children whose mothers could not afford to send them to school.
The 1980s in Pakistan, under General Zia Ul Haq, saw a surge of Islamization, of the infiltration of right-wing, and Islamic fundamentalist mindsets in all strata of society. The state became increasingly draconian in its laws, and the performing arts began to be seen as inextricably tied to moral degeneration and anti-religious beliefs. Dance, in particular, was detested by this new moral order and was banned by the state. It was in this social and political climate that Sheema made the decision to take up dancing as a form of resistance. Her dance symbolized her defiance and her rejection of the establishment. It laid claim to her ownership of her own body, and became her way of exploring and sparking dialogue about women, their agency and their sexuality.
Sheema continued to dance in the Zia era, and for each public performance she had to obtain a No Objection Certificate. This was a time when fundamentalism and religious extremism was quickly becoming ingrained into the very fabric of Pakistani society, and as a result anything considered ‘un-Islamic’ was a direct threat, one that needed to be eliminated at all costs. Sheema chose to dance, even when death was a likely consequence. She risked her life to defy and question established notions of public and private space. She claimed public space for women, in a time when it was only acceptable for men to inhabit it, and through her dance attempted to engage with and change people’s relationship with the space itself. Through her dance, she became the voice of the voiceless and the unheard.
Her dance is intricately tied to her feminist and socialist politics: Sheema focuses on the significance of the spine, more specifically the straightening of the spine, in her teaching. She sees dance as acceptance and as an embrace; it is to feel confidence in your body, it is an assertion that no oppressive structure can make women cower and become weak. To stand straight is to stand against those modes of oppression and subjugation that attempt to silence women, and to make them invisible. Sheema sees dance as a way to subvert the ways in which women interact with and view their own bodies, and their own selves.
In 2015, Sheema co-edited a book titled ‘Gender, Politics, and Performance Art’. She has worked extensively for women’s rights, and has made major contributions towards the feminist movement in Pakistan by raising awareness about multiple issues faced by women across different socio-economic classes. She has performed at hospitals and for women training to become midwives. Through these performances, Kermani highlights the specific health issues that arise from child marriages, forced sexual intercourse and the violence – physical, sexual, psychological – that women face in the domestic and public spheres. Her work has inspired many women to take up dance and to make it their mode of resistance: resistance against the patriarchy and against the State that has continually existed as an oppressive structure, causing and reinforcing this violence against women.
Asked, in an interview, about how circumstances have changed since she first started performing, Sheema stated that today it is even more difficult to reach people through the medium of dance. Religious fundamentalism has seeped into people’s way of life in subtle but more concrete ways than ever before. She says the ‘enemy’ is now obscured; where as it was the State in previous times, it is now more abstract and latent, and so more difficult to address. This difficulty has not hindered Sheema’s efforts; she continues to boldly and bravely perform her subversive art in public spaces.
In 2017, the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar (a Sufi saint) became the target of a terrorist attack, which killed 88 people and left several hundreds injured. Darbaar shrine/court culture forms an integral part of sub continental heritage: it has historically transcended barriers of class and religion and existed as a unifying force in this part of the world. The attack left the entire country heartbroken, stunned and scared. Following the attack, Sheema visited the shrine and in her characteristically fearless manner, performed the tradition dhamaal, a dance form linked to Sufism and shrine culture. Through this simple yet deeply courageous act, Sheema once again demonstrated her passion and vigour towards the cause of social justice, towards her struggle for peace, for harmony and for love.
Her art is how she chooses to converse with the world: through it, she talks of pain, and of loss, and of hope. Sheema Kermani continues to be an inspiring force of resistance and opposition. She embodies, in her art and in her being, the message of hope.
Mahnoor Kazmi is pursuing a B.A. (Hons) in History at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, with a special focus on South Asian History, post-colonial studies and feminist politics. She has a keen interest in the performing arts, particularly music and dance.
Women Who Named the Unnamed
Pakistan’s & Local Women Heroes
Saturday, September 28, 2019
6 – 9 PM
Surrey City Hall
13450 – 104 Avenue
Surrey, BC, Canada V3T 1V8
Buy your ticket online at this link:
Box Office : 604-501-5566
We gratefully acknowledge
that we are on the unceded Coast Salish territories of
the Semiahmoo, Katzie, Kwikwetlem, Kwantlen,
Qayqayt, Tsawwassen, Musqueam,
Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations.