Dancing girls of Swat back in business

April 15, 2010

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Where women outside cloak themselves in dupattas, Swats dancing girls go without headscarfs and their readiness to even shake hands with men seems shockingly intimate in Swat. - File Photo

MINGORA Their cousin was kidnapped and killed in a hail of bullets - her body dumped at a roundabout, dripping blood.

That was 15 months ago when the Taliban roamed Swat with impunity.

Today Shabana and her sister Shabnam are back in business, proffering their favours and their dancing skills for discerning gentlemen with cash to spare now that Pakistans army say they have pushed back the extremists.

Business starts towards dusk. As the sun dips in the sky, Shabnam is already with a client. Aged 16, she has the fresh-faced beauty of youth.

“We received death threats earlier, but not now,” she says, a year since the army offensive began and nine months since commanders declared the northwestern valley, carpeted with mountains and peach trees, free of Taliban.

Shabana says her sister is illiterate, likes her job and is happy. But deadened eyes give a different impression.

Northwest Pakistan has suffered encroaching Muslim conservatism for years and in July 2007 radical cleric Maulana Fazlullah launched a Taliban insurgency to impose a harsh brand of Islamic law across Swat.

Dancing, music, art and films were outlawed by the militia and retribution was death or flogging, particularly for those associated with prostitution.

Shabnam straps leather pads covered in small silver-coloured bells to her ankles. Pashtu pop blasting out of the stereo jars in a small guest room as she stamps her feet, wiggles her hips and flicks the bangles jingling on her arms.

She looks apathetic, even bored. Perhaps she has already too often endured discomfiting advances of men far older, perhaps overweight and cloaked in the body odour that permeates the streets of Mingora, Swats biggest city.

Shabana is 24 and has already been working for nine years. A thick crust of dead skin lines her feet. Shabnam is now the one in the limelight.

The mere fact that they are back in their meticulously clean quarters on the first floor of a house tucked away in a back street, attests to the success of Pakistans military campaign.

“The Taliban earlier threatened this whole street over their FM radio, telling us to stay at home like all the other ladies,” said Shabana.

After their cousins murder, they fled terrified to Peshawar, struggling to eke out an existence among clients they didnt know and wondering if they would ever be able to return home.

Then Pakistan sent thousands of troops into Swat, diverting forces away from the border with India following public uproar and international embarrassment over the Taliban commandeering one of the countrys top holiday destinations.

“The situation has normalised. There is no danger. People are coming. Through the army we have security,” said Shabana, nervously flicking off call after call on her mobile.

“Sometimes I get fed up and turn the phone off,” she says, embarrassed. “I get messages all day. Its the men who cant speak words who speak this way.”

The sisters say there is no threat but they exist on the fringes of a conservative society in a city where security is tense.

Their versions of Pakistans traditional baggy trousers and shirts, are slashed at the ankle and upper arm. They go without headscarfs and their readiness to even shake hands with men seems shockingly intimate in Swat.

Respectable women outside cloak themselves in dupattas - shawls rammed onto the eyebrows and folded over the nose, with billowing material disguising even the bulkiest body from neck to calf.

In Pakistan, dancing girls are born into the trade. Shunned by mainstream society, daughters have no option but take up the family business when their mothers beauty wanes, or in this case when Shabanas mother died.

The man whom the sisters call father keeps stern watch. Before crossing the threshold, AFP journalists waited in the street while a messenger went up to check they were invited.

“There are 10 to 12 dancing girls in this street. Strangers are not allowed to come here. You can only come through a references,” says Shabana.

Even her true identity is doubtful. She uses the same name as her murdered cousin. “People just look at our flesh, they dont care about our names,” she said softly, by way of explanation.