Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Beauty Ideals in Pashto Music

For the past several years, I have been a keen observer of how women, men, and other genders are portrayed in the entertainment media, such as the music and film industries. I’m particularly fascinated by gender and sexuality performances in South Asian entertainment media—or what it means to be a woman and man according to these media. An excerpt of a paper I’ve written for a Music, Gender, and Sexuality course can be read here, titled “Gender and Sexuality Performances in Pashto Music.” There, I surveyed some Pashto music videos and the responses to them from Youtube users as well as Pashtuns in online communities to gather ideas about how these videos portray women and men, what exactly the role of the dama (female entertainer, such as actress, dancer, or singer in the Pashtun society) is and what it suggests about the Pashtun society, and who the intended audience of Pashto music and visual performances actually is (not surprisingly, it is men, as can be seen in this performance taking place in all-male setting called hujra, and occasionally upper class women, as seen here, with women sitting usually in the front and the men in the back rows). Centering the discussion on the role(s) of the dama, I analyzed the tension between the ideal of what the Pashtun society considers a “decent” Pashtun woman and the reality of the dama portrayed in these music videos.

Here, I would like to continue discussing the topic of music and gender performances but will focus on the beauty ideals as depicted in Pashto music, through lyrics and visual performances, and what exactly the ideal woman is like in Pashto lyrics—with a focus on her age and her skin color.
Gendered Differences in Visual Performance

It may be well known that “gender differences and gender asymmetry are reproduced by assigning different qualities, attributes, and social roles to individuals based on their sex.”[1] This claim finds much evidence in Pashto music videos. For instance, in terms of look, the male performer does not bear the pressure of being aesthetically appealing to his audience, but the woman does. In fact, because the South Asian society prefers light-skinned women to dark-skinned ones, the Pashtun female entertainer, singer, dancer, actress must look white in order to appeal to her audience (this point, however, will be elaborated in the next part of this discussion). Interestingly also, beauty ideals, in terms of physical attractiveness, differ in the Pashtun society from those in the Western: Pashtuns tend to prefer “fatter” and “heavier” women—but not “too fat or heavy”— to “thinner” ones; being thin (wacha, fem.; wach, masc.) is associated with starvation and bad health, being heavy (sarba/sorab) with good health and is a sign of fertility. The Pashtuns are not unique in setting such ideals, however, as thinness as ideal is a rather recent phenomenon, since being fat used to be fashionable and is still considered desirable in many non-western cultures. Still, it should be acknowledged here that the performer's popularity and success cannot always be attributed to looks or age, since among such performers is Zarsanga, though it would be worth observing how access to the Internet (such as Youtube) has changed attitudes towards her among the younger generation. While the preference towards heaviness appears to be changing with today’s young Pashtun generation, the older generations as well as traditionally in the society, heavier women are preferred highly, as can be observed from the success of many of the Pashtun entertainers even in the younger generation. For the older generation, for example, the successful female entertainers include actress Musarrat Shaheen and singers Shakila Naz and Mahjabeen Qazalbash. In the younger generation, singer Dil Raj, who is in her early teens, appears to have gained weight most probably due to social pressure, as can be noted in her earlier performances contrasted against her more recent ones. Another singer who seems to have gained weight also likely due to pressure is Urooj Momand, who occasionally performs duets with her sister, Musarrat Momand (note that Urooj is very thin compared to Musarrat); in her older songs, Urooj was thinner compared to her more recent ones.

Nonetheless, one of the younger most beloved entertainers is Sahar Khan, a relatively more slender performer who appears in the following songs, among others: Marhaba, MarhabaEy Zama Charsi JananaStarge Me Sre Laka Machai LaramaPa Speeno Speeno Lecho Shna Bangrri. Although it would be inaccurate to claim that all of the other performers are “fat,” many are, in comparison to Sahar Khan--that is, “fat” according to Western ideals of beauty and weight for women. The current Western ideal body image for the woman can be summed up to: “the thinner the woman is, the more beautiful she is and the higher her chances of success in the entertainment media!”[2] These “relatively heavier” Pashtun entertainers include Nadia GulSahar MalikMusarrat Momand and the women in virtually any random Youtube search for Pashto songs, Pashto singers, Pashto dancers, and other similar queries.

Moreover, as can be seen in the above-referenced songs, as seems to be inherent to the performances of many patriarchal cultures, the woman tends to have a more sexual role, such as that of a seductress, and does most of the dancing and performing, whereas the man does not; he merely seems to be watching the woman perform and every once in a while, dance with her. The audience gets the impression that her male partner is craving her to fulfill his sexual appetite as she urges him on.

Importantly, with a few exceptions, the only role assigned to the woman is singing or dancing; she does not play any instrument; Nazia Iqbal, a popular singer deemed experienced, is one of the rare female singers who plays a musical instrument played by many male ones, although she is not commonly seen performing this way. There are many male Pashtun musicians, however, who both sing and play an instrument, among them Sardar Ali TakkarNashenasGulzar Alam andHaroon Bacha. John Baily, too, observes this in the Afghan society: women are expected to play the “easy” instrument so that, if they miss a tune on the tabla, the feminine instrument, it is not easily caught, as they can simply “bang away on” the instrument, but men, who play the rubab (which is a traditionally masculine instrument with hardly any female players), cannot and must not make a mistake.[3] Clearly, then, the gendered differences exist in the Pashtun singers’ and dancers’ performances of music and dance not because they are necessarily natural to their sex or gender but because they have been naturalized, as they are a reflection of the gender norms of their society.

What is fascinating about the subject of Pashtun women’s public visual performance is that these female dancers, actresses, and singers seem to voluntarily defy the standards set for them as Pashtun women or as women in the Pashtun society by performing in public and seemingly serving as objects of pleasure for their almost-entirely male audiences, but few of them appear willing to defy the claim that a female can be both a musician and a singer simultaneously.

As of yet, there is no significant study on Pashto music that highlight the issues of gendered differences and beauty standards, among other themes, and I intend to continue this discussion with a focus primarily on what exactly it means to be Pashtun, a Pashtun woman, and a Pashtun man according to Pashto entertainment media as well as how both the culture and its entertainment media understand beauty and what differences exist in both. As such, the next segment of this discussion will be on the preferred or ideal skin color in Pashto lyrics and poetry.

[1] Henry Spiller, “Negotiating masculinity in an Indonesian pop song: Doel Sumbeng’s ‘Ronggeng.’” In Oh boy! Masculinities and Pop Music. Freya Jarman-Ivens, ed. (London: Routledge, 2007).
[2] I am contrasting the traditional Pashtun ideals of feminine beauty against those of the West not because I believe the West is to be modeled after, since I consider this ideal too offensive, too dangerous for women (and for the whole of society) to be modeled after, but because I want to suggest that the standards appear to be changing for the younger Pashtun generation, headed more towards the Western ideals, as seen in some of today’s Pashto music videos.
[3] John Bailey, Music of Afghanistan: Professional Musicians in the City of Heart (Cambridgeshire, England: Cambridge UP, 1988), p. 58.

Originally published on Pashtun Women Viewpoint.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Dare to opine :)

Related Posts

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...