Highlights

  • In conversation with Pasoori dancer Sheema Kermani
  • How the saree became a symbol of resistance in Pakistan
  • Kermani: for me, politics and art can't be separated

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How 'Pasoori' dancer Sheema Kermani used the Sari as a symbol of resistance | The Footnote

In this episode of The Footnote, we speak to Sheema Kermani, a dancer and activist who challenged military dictator Zia ul Haq through the use of her sari. 

For months now, the world has been grooving to the Ali Sethi and Shae Gill smash hit Pasoori, the lyrics of which speak of breaking barriers that divide the world. The opening shot of Pasoori is that of a woman clad in a saree dancing to lilting music, drawing the audience in. But the story of that woman and her fight for her right to wear a saree is a story for history books. In this episode of The Footnote, we speak to Sheema Kermani, a dancer, activist and storyteller, who through her art resisted the military dictatorship of General Zia ul Haq in Pakistan. Exerpts:-


Nishtha Shanti: Would you tell us a little bit about the history of your association with the saree?

Sheema Kermani: One point when I was moving on for further studies, and I was still studying, but I had started teaching also. So, when I would go to teach in this college and everyone would say, "Well, we can't make you out from one of the students. So, from that time I started wearing a saree, I thought it'll make me look older. Since the age of almost 18, I have been only wearing sarees, all my aunts, my khalaas, my mother's sisters, they always only wore sarees. My mother has only wore a saree all her life, until the time she passed away. She never wore anything else.

NS: Not many are aware that you took military dictator Zia Ul Haq head on after he banned saree in Pakistan.

SM: It was later, I would say that in the late 1970s, but actually when General Zia Ul Haq came into power, then things changed. Before that if you see photographs or films or the heroines of Pakistani cinema were wearing saris. In advertisements, you know, everywhere women were wearing saris. It was like part of the whole social, cultural set up. Zia Ul Haq, when he wanted to Islamize us and Arabise us, came out with these statements that Sari is not a Muslim dress and Muslim women must not wear it. So, he started this differentiation between what is a Muslim women's dress and what is not. But Zia Ul Haq decided to move away and move Pakistan away from what he considered Hindu culture, which was like the pluralistic culture of the subcontinent. And he wanted to just introduce the so so-called Islamic dress.

So actually the military, he said to his generals and his officers that I don't want to see your wives saris and of course, sleeveless blouses, no one should wear sleeveless blouses that there was such a resistance against that that I mean, a lot of my family members were in the Army and their wives like my aunts they told their husbands that, you know, we're not going to go to your official functions if we have to dress in another way. And they just refused to change.

NS: How did the mass media react to Zia's ban?

SM: Of course, change did take place like the government controlled media, the television, Sari went out, the Bindiya went out and in fact, the head started being covered because Zia Ul Haq wanted to impose a Chadar on to us. And of course, even there, there was resistance. There were anchors who said we will not cover our heads and they left their jobs because of because of that. So, the Sari has become actually a symbol of resistance due to the imposition of Islamist ideas or Islamist values or Islamist culture in Pakistan. And I as far as I'm concerned, I feel that this is the dress and that which belongs to me. This is a dress which I feel I look best in. I find it one of the most beautiful forms of dress for women. And I see no reason why I would stop wearing it or give it up.

Also watch- How 'Pasoori' dancer defied Pakistan dictator Zia's dance ban: Sheema Kermani's story

NS: Do you think art and politics can be separated? Does an artist have the responsibility of being political?

SM: Because I am a political person, because I'm a socially conscious person, because I have an ideology and world view, because I consider myself a Marxist, because I believe in justice and equality for all. So, I believe that has to be a link between my work, my art and my politics. I see that. I feel that it has to be integrated, otherwise it is meaningless. By politics, what I mean and what we mean is, is everything is the way where men and women live with each other, the kind of exchange people have, the kind of relationships people have, the kind of values we hold. It means also how when a woman walks on the road, how the men look at her, what is the status of women in this society? Because I'm conscious of all of these things. When I produce a work of art or when I perform or when I sing or when I dance, my sensibilities are coloured by all these lenses. When we do a play in the community or when I'm dancing, what am I saying to my audience? I'm saying that there are possibilities of a better world and let's search for that better world. Let's look towards that better world, let us try to create that better world. So, yes, art and politics for me has to be to me - it's one, it's together. They're not to be separated.

NS: How has dance proven to be empowering for the women that you teach?

SM: Most of the girls who come to learn dance, you know, we have this whole concept about girls' bodies and that they should not be seen. Girls should not stand in such a way that their breasts are noticeable. And I think the whole feminist movement builds on this fact that women do not have confidence in their bodies. I get my girls to stand straight, strengthen their spine, push their shoulders back, not be hunched, be confident. Have confidence in their bodies feel that there is nothing to be ashamed of in our bodies. So, I think the politics of feminism are very intertwined with dance, because it is through dance that you make your body strong. It is through dance that can make your emotional being strong.

Watch - Pasoori ( Cover Version ) - Dana Razik ft. Durra Razik and Thooba Razik

NS: Can you tell us an activist what gives you hope in times of uncertainty?

SM: The way the young people react when we go and perform in low-income areas and the kind of energy that we get from these young people, the feeling of their desire to change their environment, to change their conditions, change everything around them, and to find make a better life for them, especially girls. I mean, I feel that in Pakistan, girls, women, one can see, one can sense that they have just about had enough and they are ready for that change. They're ready to do kind of break all these discriminations, these taboos that they are being forced to live under. They are ready for a new set of values, a new way of life, where they can exist with equality and understand their freedoms and feel their freedoms and express their freedoms. And I think it is women in this country, as far as Pakistan is concerned, I feel it is women of Pakistan who have always resisted various forms of oppression.

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