Swat`s dancing girls fear returning

Published July 17, 2009

A pedestrian enters an audio and music shop in Peshawar on July 11, 2009. — AFP Photo

PESHAWAR Clad in a low-cut dress and heavily made-up, 16-year-old dancing girl Shabnam used to spend her nights twirling gracefully for locals and tourists in Pakistans Swat valley.

Famous for its beautiful, pale-skinned women, bejewelled dancers of Swat would beguile at house parties, stag nights and hotels, and Shabnam was just 12 when she followed her mother and sisters into the sometimes steamy profession.

But then Taliban fighters infiltrated the valley and her hometown Mingora.

Terror forced Shabnam to flee and although some displaced civilians are returning to areas around Swat, she says she is too scared to go home.

'I dont think the situation will return to normality. The Taliban have terrified not only us dancing girls but the entire population in Swat. I think the Taliban can return any time,' she told AFP.

Pakistans northwest has seen creeping religious conservatism over the years and in July 2007 Taliban extremists launched a bloody insurgency to impose a harsh brand of Islamic law across Swat.

'About two years ago, the Taliban sent a letter threatening us to stop dancing and singing,' Shabnam said.

Such entertainment forms were branded un-Islamic and retribution was harsh, particularly as they are frequently associated with prostitution.

'If I dance at a party for whole night, then do you think they will let me go without sex?' said Shabnam.

'It depends on the people, the place and the community where I perform. Sometimes I had sex with four to five people,' she replied.

She left Swat after her cousin was killed.

'My cousin Shabana was the most beautiful and popular dancer of Swat. She was murdered in Mingora citys Green Square,' she tells AFP.

'She was shot dead.'

Fearing she was next, Shabnam fled to the northwest metropolis Peshawar, and says dozens of other Swat dancing girls also escaped.

For two months, Pakistani security forces bombarded fighters in Swat and surrounding districts in an anti-Taliban offensive — the latest of multiple assaults against the militants, but Shabnam says her career is over.

'Dance was the sole source of our familys income...if any business is affected it is my business, which suffered badly,' she said.

Shabnam — her stage name — still plies her trade in Peshawar, but the Taliban cast a shadow here too.

Many well-known television and stage actors, and artists based in the city stopped singing or switched to belting out religious hymns after several entertainers were abducted and threatened.

Famous Pashtun singer Gulzar Alam survived at least four assassination attempts and is now in self-imposed exile in Kabul.

Where video and music shops used to stock the latest Indian and western releases, now they have been cowed into filling shelves with pious Islamic music or more extreme Taliban propaganda.

'The Taliban will bomb my shop if I do not keep the jihadi and religious stocks,' said Ahmad Shah, a young shopkeeper, who like all the people AFP spoke to for this story gave a false name for fear of militant retribution.

The pro-Taliban material ranges from tirades against the United States to gruesome clips of beheadings and bomb attacks.

'Some people like Taliban CDs about execution of criminals and slaughtering opponents,' said Jan Mohammad, a shopkeeper in Peshawars Karkhano market.

'Most of the war CDs are against America. These are propaganda CDs, in which they try to attract young people. These jihadi hymns motivate youth to wage jihad against the aggressor, and bring more recruits to Taliban ranks.'

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani claims that the military has 'eliminated' the extremists and the government has bussed back thousands of the nearly two million people displaced by the most recent offensive since July 13.

'We will definitely go back to Swat if the situation returns to normal as it was two years ago,' said Rozina Khan, 20, another dancing girl who fled to Peshawar with her widowed mother, two sisters and brother last December.

'I stopped dancing when the Taliban sent a threatening letter to our area in Mingora two years ago warning us to quit dancing.'

'When I saw Shabanas body I thought enough is enough. I still go to dancing parties in Peshawar if the place is safe. This is my profession. I cant do any other work.'

But Shabnam still fears the Taliban and says will not return home.

As for selling sex, 'this is a routine in our profession,' she said.

'I always charged extra money for sex. In almost all dancing parties I will have to have sex.'

'What else can I do? I dont want to die, I want to live,' she says.



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