Siren Song

Musical Traditions

By Taha Kehar | August 2020

Book Title: Siren Song: Understanding Pakistan Through Its Women Singers
Author: Fawzia Afzal-Khan
Publisher: Oxford University Press Pakistan
Pages: 211
Price: Rs. 1,250

Most women singers and performers in Pakistan have defied society’s narrow, conservative sensibilities, which confine them within the private sphere. They have forged their own path in the music industry. Their struggle to withstand cultural and familial prejudices has often been viewed through a western lens that propagates a false narrative of victimhood about the so-called “oppressed Muslim women”.

Fawzia Afzal-Khan’s Siren Song: Understanding Pakistan Through Its Women Singers offers a much-needed alternative reading of the subject through the prism of cultural and critical feminist studies. With a fundamentally distinct approach that challenges orientalist ideas of victimhood and avoids relying on state-sanctioned narratives, the author demonstrates how women singers in Pakistan have displayed their surefootedness on rough terrain in a patriarchal society. At its core, this account explores how female public performers negotiated the onslaught of moral outrage in an intrinsically Muslim society.

The author doesn’t rely on a simplistic analysis to an issue that is inherently complex and needs to be understood through a fine balance of critical theory and practical insights. The methodological framework of Afzal-Khan’s book falls within the realm of cultural studies and draws on the observations of notable dance historian Sally Banes. Steered by these theoretical underpinnings, the author looks beyond “the sociology of women singers’ lives” and examines the unique ways through which their performances produce “cultural representations of gender identities” that defy prevailing gender norms. By veering away from the individual trajectories of women singers, Afzal-Khan situates their musical legacies within a broader context and explores their influence in cultivating gender identities in Pakistan. As a result, she succeeds in presenting a feminist critique that ponders the role of music in inspiring social change.

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