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Updated: Aug 11, 2021

Dr Naila Sahar

Fawzia Afzal-Khan’s Siren Song: Understanding Pakistan through its Women Singers is a “Palimpsest Corrective” (a phrase used by Alfonso di Toro) of existing traditional history of Pakistani women singers. Intersecting concept of aapbiti (the self) with jagbiti (a story of time and place), this book addresses the ‘Woman Question’ in Pakistan by charting the history of the nation in parallel with evolution of its women singers, while navigating their stories through a ‘personal is political’ equation.

The singers discussed here include those who reigned when the subcontinent was ruled by rajas, those who chose Pakistan when the partition happened, and those born in Pakistan, making singing a career there. The book unravels their personal and Pakistan’s political ethos, and elaborates how these singers’ personal is fraught with the political of Pakistan. In the book, we see multiple layering of these singers’ identity, ‘which points to the truth the multiple layering, the palimpsest that is Pakistan, despite official history’s claims to the contrary’.

Nationalism is a gendered process, and the ‘Woman Question’ (Moghadam) plays a vital role in nationalist discourses and projects of Islamisation. In this book, Afzal-Khan shows how consolidation of power in the new state of Pakistan was linked with ethos of ashrafia respectability, where musical philosophies and gendered performativities were reduced to state-sanctioned Islamic ethos. It is through slippage between personal story and larger ‘herstory’ that the author exposes Pakistani women singers’ challenges in navigating public spaces while living in an Islamic country where the public domain belongs to the male, while females are relegated to the protected and private domestic space.

Singers that are discussed in this book have been chosen from different eras, and this gives author an opportunity to chart the historical implications of power dynamics in Pakistan’s political system and its state-sanctioned gendered discourses while ‘tracing the continuities between an occluded past (Hindu-majority India) with the present-day nation of Muslim Pakistan’. Seen in this way, this book can be viewed as a counter-narrative to Pakistan’s official history, as it exposes ploys of nationalist, patriarchal and religious pieties that partake in intrinsic contradictions of holding middle class respectability codes of conduct only for women, while anchoring them as embodiments of Muslim feminine virtue and asking them to conform as obedient daughters and wives. Pakistan’s women singers not only resisted conforming to a monolithic definition of the Pakistani woman, but also adapted personas that connoted ‘fluidity, dissonance and resonances that simply cannot, and will not, be contained in any normative box.’ These women singers shattered stereotypes and made their voices heard despite living in a claustrophobic state.

A majority of Western feminist studies have dealt with women from the Third World as a homogenous entity of poor and passive victims without agency, who need saving and thus need to be spoken for. In the post 9/11 scenario, when Muslim women have been reduced to distorted caricatures of voiceless hijabis niqabis and are depicted in media as a resource in the politics of fear to encourage distrust, this book challenges ‘the double bind’ (Spivak) that imprisons them simultaneously in the Eurocentric discourse for being oppressed Muslim women and patriarchal and religious discourse at ‘home’ for being brash and unashamed libertines and not being ‘Muslim enough’. Afzal- Khan demonstrates how this double bind becomes that existential crisis for the Pakistani female singers where, despite all efforts to voice themselves, these women constantly find themselves struggling with the expectations and stereotypes of what it is to be a Pakistani woman.

Tracing public and private lives of esteemed Pakistani women singers such as Malka Pukhraj, Roshan Ara Begum, Reshma, Noor Jehan, Nazia Hassan and others, Afzal-Khan explores history of the Pakistani nation state while signifying these women as symbols of a nation torn between ethos of Muslim respectability and preservation of a cultural imaginary. Classical music was dependent on court patronage in precolonial India, and with the creation of Pakistan as a Muslim country, music and art were seen as anathema in the Islamic state, which gradually ‘led to a crisis in art patronage by the new nation state’. Ashrafi codes of Islamic conduct in Pakistan determined that women’s bodies were symbols of honour and integrity of the whole nation, so respectable women must observe ‘ashraf’ or ‘elitist respectability’ discourses that ask women’s bodies and voices to be contained in chaar dewari. The life stories of Malka Pukhraj, Roshan Ara Begum, Reshma, Noor Jehan and Nazia Hassan in the book expose the hypocrisy and cowardice of the ashrafia, which composed of men who would secretly admire these women while expecting them to obey Pakistani religiosity. Malka Pukhraj faced a tussle when her own mother resisted her marriage since she knew that “marriage, and the respectability it endows, are the death knell for the public career of a female performer”, given that Malka Pukhraj was solely responsible for the family’s financial stability.

Noor Jehan owned her body and resisted pressures of patriarchy by refusing to transform her image into one of purity or piety, “infusing it with the pleasures of a sensual voice and body and rendering that sensual, sexual energy not only acceptable, but adored and desirable across class, ethnicity, gender, and religious affiliation”

Afzal-Khan reads into Noor Jehan’s biography as a treatise of discourses about women, gender, sexuality and religion in Pakistan. This biography has been written by her former husband, Shaukat Hussain Rizvi, who tried to ‘control’ Noor Jehan, as was customary of all Pakistani husbands who perceive wives as their property. Afzal-Khan writes that women in this male imaginary are “temptresses and devious sexual beings.” She further writes: “It is no stretch to suggest that Rizvi’s view of Noor Jehan as a promiscuous, oversexed woman was, and remains, the prevailing view of women in almost all cultures and certainly so in the patriarchal culture of Pakistan where the religious ideology of Islam as understood and practiced by Muslim male elite simply confirms this misogynistic view.” Despite Rizvi’s censure of Noor Jehan in this biography, she remained unaffected and continued to be respected and revered by the nation. Noor Jehan owned her body and resisted pressures of patriarchy by refusing to transform her image into one of purity or piety, “infusing it with the pleasures of a sensual voice and body and rendering that sensual, sexual energy not only acceptable, but adored and desirable across class, ethnicity, gender, and religious affiliation.”

The book relates lives of other Pakistani women singers who adapted different resistance strategies to avoid public and patriarchal criticism of their singing profession. For instance, Abida Parveen who is a Sufi singer “exploited the state’s religiosity” during the 1980s by infusing in Sufi lyrics that seemed religious on the surface, some ‘incendiary devices’ to subvert the dominant patriarchal discourses. Nazia Hassan, a heartthrob of the ’80s, who was seen as an icon by the youth of those times, challenged classical music as the only worthwhile musical legacy of Pakistan and made a signature intervention with her ground-breaking pop music albums with the help of a London-based Indian composer, Biddu. She thus crossed borders and boundaries by making it to British pop charts and created her own unique place “within the realm of gender politics during Islamization in 1980s Zia-era Pakistan.” However, she made it clear in her interviews that she was singing as a hobby and didn’t want to pursue acting, as that was considered even “more profane than music according to the ashrafi classes of Pakistan.” According to Afzal-Khan, Nazia’s drawing such limits helped her to uphold a respectability ethos of social imaginary at large “wherein music is fine if it is a side interest or hobby, but not when pursued for money and fame—and certainly not at the expense of a respectable ‘proper’ career as a lawyer, a human rights advocate” that Nazia was. Nazia Hassan resisted by conforming, and exploited this patriarchal notion of sanctioned ashrafi ethos of respectability as a stratagem of her protection to such an extent that General Zia-ul-Haq, the military dictator who introduced Islamisation in Pakistan, posing to be a bit ‘protective’, patronizingly asked her and her brother to leave the country.

Through the stories of Pakistan’s women singers in this book, we learn that their lives are accounts of resistance, resilience and struggle not only against autocratic regimes, but also against religious patriarchy, neo-colonialism at home and western imperialism at large. Afzal- Khan’s tone in the book is matter-of-fact and honest; being a Pakistani herself, she doesn’t shy away from narrating Pakistan’s troubled past and present in terms of gender politics and relaying women rights and liberation. Her book is a very important discussion of the challenges faced by various generations of Pakistan’s women singers and their battles with discourses of piety and purity, sacred and secular, marriage and respectability, public and private spaces, etc. It is through these women singers’ struggles with these discourses that Afzal-Khan explores several issues that are germane to the discussion of women, gender, sexuality, and religion in contemporary Pakistan. She concludes the book’s argument when she writes: “Instead of being passive victims of the status quo, these iconic singers have shaped their own destiny and intervened in important ways in shaping that of their country and culture, such as to give the lie to tired clichés of oppressed Muslim womanhood that conjure up images of passive head-to-toe covered women with no say or agency in their lives.” This book is a significant feminist intervention, and a must-read for anyone who is interested postcolonial studies, resistance studies, Third World feminism and cultural studies, or in knowing the history of Pakistan with regard to its cultural imaginary and politics of gender and sexuality.


Naila Sahar did her PhD as a Fulbright Scholar at the State University of New York, Buffalo, in the department of English. The topic of her PhD dissertation is Reimagining Muslim Women: Gendered Religious Life and Resistance in the Age of Islamophobia. Her research interests include feminist studies, Islamic feminism, gender studies, gendered religious nationalism, South Asian studies and postcolonial studies. Her work has appeared in South Asian Voices, South Asian Review, Gender Matters and Journal of Commonwealth and Postcolonial Studies. These days she is working as Assistant Professor in the English department at Forman Christian College (a chartered university), Lahore.  


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