The Kashmir Valley, in India’s far north, has long been a musical hub, with its unique blend of sounds and scales from Central, Eastern and Southern Asia. Numerous poets and singers have hailed from the region, while song and dance is de rigeur at wedding ceremonies.
In recent years, the region’s melodic palate has incorporated flavors from the West, provoking the ire of Muslim hardliners – especially when it comes to anything noisy and danceable.
The reality of religious oppression of music in the region was driven home when a pioneering Kashmiri all-girl rock outfit called Praagaash (“From Darkness into Light”) was forced to call it quits on Monday after being targeted in a fatwa by Mufti Azam Mufti Bashiruddin. The state-backed cleric said he issued the Islamic decree “because music is banned in Islam”.
Praagaash finished third at last December’s ‘Battle of the Bands’ in Srinagar, Kashmir, in one of the band’s only two live performances. Drummer Farah Deeba, guitarist Aneeka Khalid and vocalist-guitarist Noma Nazir subsequently made the decision to pull the plugs on their amps and have since gone into hiding.
“We respect his (the mufti’s) decision that music is haraam (forbidden) in Islam and therefore we have quit,” one of the band members said. “What can I do if it is not allowed in religion?”
In response, a heated debate has erupted across India, with netizens, government officials and religious groups chiming in from both sides of the fence.
Jitendra singh, BJP president of Jammu and Kashmir called the fatwa “an attempt towards the ‘Talibanisation’ of society.”
“I hope these talented young girls will not let a handful of morons silence them,” said Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir Omar Abdullah in response to the fatwa. “Shame on those who claim freedom of speech via social media and then use that freedom to threaten girls who have the right to choose to sing.”
Omar, who even offered the girls a refuge in New Delhi if safety becomes a concern, reminded the mufti that Padma Shri Raj Begum, Mehmeet Syed and Shameema Azad (the wife of Union health minister Ghulam Nabi Azad) are but a few of Kashmir’s female musical icons.
This fact – that the group’s members are all female – seems to lie at the heart of the fundamentalist backlash. Indeed, the dozens of rock and Sufi-hybrid bands Praagaash competed with at the recent ‘Battle of the Bands’ all comprised male musicians.
Muslim group Jamaat-e-Islami has sided with the mufti. “The shariat strictly prohibits immodest activity, in particular obscene dancing of women in the presence of men,” said Jamaat-e-Islami spokesman Zahid Ali.
A netizen said, “The fatwa is misogynist. … There is no fatwa when boys perform publicly?”
Alongside the fatwa, the tenth-grade girls, aged 15 and 16, were put under further pressure by verbal abuse, including threats of rape, on the band’s official Facebook page. A criminal case has been opened and at least six Facebook users who made threats have been identified, according to police.
Inspired by a medley of influences from classic rock (the Beatles), to pop punk (Green Day) and metal (Metallica, Iron Maiden), Praagaash’s music is part of a much bigger scene. Kashmir’s rock community has been slowly growing over the last several years, with ground-breaking bands like BloodRockz and Tales of Blood building the foundations.
According to Adnan Muhammad, a mentor to Praagaash and trailblazer in the Kashmiri rock scene, men who play in rock bands also face intense pressure in Kashmir.
“We are used to people seeing this music as being against our religion,” Muhammad told the New York Times. “We respect their wishes but still carry on the best we can.”