Someone should write a musical about Australia’s recent parliamentary #burqagate. Hell, I might even write it myself. It would be an all-singing, all-dancing cabaret, featuring burqas, beehives, budgie-smugglers and blue ties galore. I even have the perfect title for it.

Or at least, I would have the perfect title for it, if Pakistani playwright and theatre director Shahid Nadeem had not thought of it first. BurqaVaganza, performed by Nadeem’s Ajoka theatre company in Lahore, was banned by the Pakistani authorities in 2010 for allegedly “polluting young minds”. Ajoka ran into trouble after Raheel Qazi — the leader of the conservative Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami women’s wing — wrote a letter to the Pakistan National Council of the Arts complaining that their play promoted “dangerous elitist and liberal ideas”. Qazi never saw BurqaVaganza herself, but its title and the fact that it featured men and women dancing around in burqas was more than enough to raise her suspicions.

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Ajoka circumvented the ban by scheduling a different play, only to have director (and Nadeem’s wife) Madeeha Gauhar appear onstage to announce the company’s “determination to make its voice heard” by performing BurqaVaganza instead. The play has since been performed around the world and is still available on YouTube … except in Pakistan, where YouTube is blocked in order to restrict access to “blasphemous materials”.

I met Shahid Nadeem and Madeeha Gauhar at their home in Lahore last year to talk about politics, religion, free speech and, of course, burqas. Both women’s rights and freedom of expression have become contested tokens in the ongoing game of one-upmanship between Muslim and Western cultural warriors. Dissidents like Nadeem and Gauhar are regarded as evidence of support from “their” side of the border for “our” way of seeing the world. However, BurqaVaganza is not a Jacqui Lambie-style attack upon burqa-wearing women. As Nadeem explained, his play uses veiling as a device for asking broader questions about national and international politics — and having fun while doing so.

“The play was not offensive to any religion. It was a fun play about the cover-ups in society. If everyone wore a burqa, how would the world look? We had Ku Klux Klan burqas, American Marine burqas, we had American astronauts conquering the moon — these were all shown as different types of burqas,” he said.

“Then we had various personalities from the national or international scene. Asif Zardari, Sonia Gandhi, George Bush, Tony Blair — they were all there. When you lift their veil, you saw the mask which the actors were wearing. We are not making fun of the burqa. We are just saying, ‘Let’s have some fun and look at ourselves and be self-critical’.”

Our conversation took place before the murders of the Charlie Hebdo journalists catapulted the issue of Islam and freedom of expression to the top of the global news agenda. It’s an issue that has seldom been out of the headlines in Pakistan, and it has dominated Nadeem’s career as a human rights activist and writer since the outset of his career in the 1960s. However, the contours of the struggle have shifted over time.

“Telling the truth and telling it plainly and bluntly has never been easy in Pakistan. Initially when I started writing, the problems were with the national security establishment. Your loyalty to the state was questioned — you were pro-India, or an Indian agent, you were against the idea of Pakistan. So Ayub Khan, the military ruler in the ’60s, used this to crush freedom of expression,” Nadeem said.

“After that came the Bhutto era [meaning Benazir’s father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto], which was slightly better in the sense that you could debate the issues that had led to the creation of Pakistan. Then came Zia-ul-Haq, which was definitely the worst period in terms of repression and also in terms of censorship. The seeds for the later Talibanisation were laid at that time, in the ’80s. So Ajoka theatre was created at that time, and we kept on challenging this narrative.

“And we paid the price. We were not allowed to use the theatres which were all either controlled by the government or they were under government influence. We were forced to perform in an clandestine manner. I myself spent some time in prison.”

Of course, this was back in the good old days before 9/11, when the Cold War was still running red hot and bearded Afghan and Pakistani warlords were our allies in the proxy war against the Soviet Union rather than a threat to our way of life. President Zia-ul-Haq might have sanctioned the imprisonment of outspoken writers and “adulterous” women, but he had also allowed his country to be used as a channel for United States military aid to Afghanistan. Who cared about the occasional imprisoned playwright when the future of the free world was at stake?

Pakistan now has an elected (although still authoritarian) government, while the United States unleashes drone attacks upon Pakistani religious fanatics (or some of them, at least) rather than using them as a conduit for military aid. This has generated new sources of danger for writers and artists.

“Now there are other factors because of the war in Afghanistan and al-Qaeda. America is now enemy number one,” Nadeem said. “And if you’re talking about women’s rights and human rights, people think you’re fulfilling an American agenda. Until a few months back, the major threat was coming from the Taliban, who were making their presence felt in the cities and in the cultural life of the country also. So instead of the government, these non-state actors became a major factor trying to suppress freedom of expression.”

Those hostile to the burqa in Australia could easily claim that BurqaVaganza boosts their case by lampooning the garment they so despise. However, Nadeem is adamant that he does not want to be conscripted as an ally for the likes of Cory Bernardi and Jacqui Lambie. “The main focus of the play is Muslim majority societies where women are being forced to wear the burqa. We definitely oppose the bans on burqas in the West — any ban on women’s attire. They have the right to wear whatever they want and to define modesty however they want.”

Australia’s own BurqaVaganza seems to have retreated to the wings for the moment, but no doubt it will have many return seasons. After all, as the Ajoka cast proclaim: “We all live in a BurqaVaganza!”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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