Not for ‘Respectable’ Women: Attitudes towards Theatre in Pakistan
Keywords:Theatre, Theatre and Islam, Prostitution, Respectability, Women on Display
Theatre, and the performing arts in general, though popular in some circles, are virtually no-go areas for regular vocation not only for the religious-minded, but also for those looking to gain or maintain social credibility in the general public in Pakistan. Actors/ performers are routinely denigrated as bhand (jesters, buffoons) and tawaif (prostitutes). What explains these attitudes towards the performing arts? This paper traces the colonial origins and development of the tabooing of performing arts for women, as it simultaneously historicises (Muslim) attitudes towards theatre in the country. Our primary argument is that while different theatrical practices have existed across the Islamic world, orthodox opinions denouncing dramatic performance have generally prevailed when they have been consolidated by the social exigencies of virtue, propriety and decency within the larger matrix of the family, and the place/ space accorded to women in the family. Islam, in this sense, is not the primary determinant in perspectives on the dramatic arts, even though it infuses attitudes towards them with distaste. In this respect, we demonstrate that the historically material performer-prostitute conflation is deeply entangled with South Asian assumptions about theatre, and becomes self-perpetuating in the case of Pakistan.
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