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Ghazala Javed – Image taken from YouTube video grab
Ghazala Javed – Image taken from YouTube video grab

A little over two months ago, news of a popular Pashtun female singer’s death streamed local and global media, fuelled by rumours of the Taliban’s involvement in her murder. Ghazala Javed, 24, and her father were shot dead on June 18, in Peshawar’s Dabagari Garden area.

“She was shot six times by gunmen as she left a beauty salon,” said a police officer working on the case. These shots were not fired by the Taliban. The police claim that her ex-husband, who had remarried and would force his first wife to quit singing, was the prime suspect and was hence arrested last week. Her sister, who filed the FIR said, “When Ghazala found out that he had a second wife, she asked for a divorce. This really annoyed him as it is against family honour for a husband to be asked to leave.” Although Javed’s family did not specify their suspect, local police claimed her ex-husband’s involvement with much confidence.

According to her cousin Wajid Omer, who plays harmonium in Peshawar, “She was killed by unidentified men. There were two bikes, and four men and they opened fire when she was leaving the salon. Since her father was also there he got targeted too. Both got hit and killed then and there.”  Ghazala’s sister was admitted in to a local hospital for several days due to trauma.  Cousin Wajid explained, “She couldn’t take the pain of two funerals in the house.”

Ghazala’s death has raised several questions about the law and order condition in KPK, the government’s responsibility in dealing with the issue of security and the threat of extremism, all of which squeezes the margin of survival of musicians and artists in the area.

Ghazala who originally hailed from the Banrr village in Swat, which fell to Taliban rule in 2007, had fled to pursue her music career away from their tyrannical insolence and continued to sing in Peshawar, 170 kilometres away from her hometown.

She enjoyed tremendous following in the region, not just among boys and girls but middle-aged and elderly locals as well. She sang of youthful love and desire, mostly self-written.  The threats she faced from the Taliban were easily countered by the respect she enjoyed from her progressive ethnic Pashtun fans, both for her music and her boldness. Ghazala would travel to Dubai for her recordings, in order to keep the music-related activity to a minimum in the Taliban-threatened region.

One of her seniors in the music industry, who does not want to be named said, “Ghazala Javed was a remarkably talented young lady. When she entered the music industry, she instantly developed a fan following, not just in Peshawar, but across Pakistan.”

Perhaps it was her beauty that initially attracted most listeners, but her fans kept growing in the region for her angelic voice and the sense of ethnic music. She defied the Taliban and continued to take on whatever problems came with it. “As a musician I know that is not easy, not something I will be able to keep up with,” said the musician.

“Her death has shocked me so gravely, I can’t seem to come to terms with it months later” added her fellow. “The irony is when the government and human rights organisation can’t seem to take any action against such killings.”

Even though Ghazala was not killed by the Taliban, but the constant threats she received have overshadowed the plot. She was that quintessential inspiration for an artist in KPK and her tragic murder will have a pronounced impact on the careers of young singers. Especially the female singers who want to pursue their career in music, in the deeply orthodox society of KPK.

One of Ghazala’s fans and recent students, Anila says that she might not have the courage to sing after loosing her mentor and teacher to an unknown death. “It shocked me, it made me cry, but it also made me fear in the wonder, if I will be able to have a safe career if I pursue the things my mentor taught me.

“They talk about freedom of expression. What is it? Freedom of expression does not necessarily come with writing or activism. To me, singing is my freedom. And that I don’t have. But I have decided to certainly try to pursue what I am passionate about.”

Most other female singers in the area did not express their pain openly as they felt the fear of a backlash. A close friend of Ghazala’s also a singer anonymously said, “We could be targeted for saying anything for or against her, but I would just like to pay my due respect to her. She was certainly a role model for many young singer and a great fellow of mine.”

KPK is an in-friendly domicile for artists, musicians or poets and is mostly obsessed with conventional social and religious constraints. Apart from the religious justifications against such professions, there are other social and family pressures. Additionally the security concerns from different militants and extremists groups usually overshadow the talent that the Pushtoon community has the potential to enjoy.

Dabagari Garden, where Ghazala was killed, used to be a sanctuary for the all and sundry in the music industry in KPK. Singers, instrument players, dancers, and artists, used to live peacefully in the district until 2002 when the religiously-inclined MMA (Muttahidda Majlis-e-Amal ) came to power. These musicians then started vacating the area and looking for other avenues of work and play.

Considering how recently the Taliban poetry is making rounds in the local and global media, it becomes increasingly intriguing, what really is the benchmark behaviours they expect from people.

There are about 150 known musicians in different areas of KPK, most of whom will not say anything about their conditions in public out of the fear. A 22-year-old harmonium player, Imran Khan from the district of Dabagari, was abrasively beaten up by an unknown group for speaking openly about Ghazala’s grief. “I just spoke about the unnecessary fear that creative people in our town generally have to face. Everyone should have the freedom to choose their profession, as freely as in the rest of the country.” Imran who got scars from the beating concluded, “If music serves my soul, then my soul should die, or I should die.”

What killed Ghazala could be a prevailing patriarchal mindset and indeed, in some way, the Taliban ideology now deeply ingrained in the Pashtun society. Such killings have proved to be inspirational in many cases in the tribal areas. However, in order to deal with this, there is strong need for action from the government to administer the law and order situation more vigilantly. The need of a judicial system, based on fare inquiries and investigations, is gravely need in the area to deal with the fanatic activism that is prevailing in KPK, the threat of which does not just board against the female singers but makes life difficult for Pashtuns as people to live freely and make tasteful choices for entertainment.

The author is a journalist based in Pakistan – currently reporting from conflict areas.