If ever there was an example of how stereotypes are mere figments of an imagination stuck in time, this music band from Pakistan stands out.
Zebunissa Bangash and Haniya Aslam ('Zeb & Haniya'), 33-year-old cousins from Peshawar, have tasted fame across borders, thanks largely to the internet and also due to their choice of music, fusing Central and South Asian melodies with Western acoustic guitar and drums, preserving and furthering a rich shared culture.
It is in this culture that Haniya suggests refuge for Pragaash, the all-girl rock band of three from Srinagar (Kashmir) that has decided to stop performing after rape threats online and a fatwa over their allegedly un-Islamic vocation. "There shouldn't be too much importance attached to fundamentalists who just want limelight. We have a long list of inspirational female singers such as Abida Parveen and Madam Noorjehan even in Pakistan. It's part of our tradition," Haniya says matter-of-factly over the phone from Islamabad.
"We have faced lots of abuse online, but the negative comments are invariably posted by anonymous users. So, I simply ignore (them). There is no need to feel scared," says Zeb, who is readying an album in Mumbai with music director Shantanu Moitra and lyricist-singer Swanand Kirkire.
Though the families of Zeb and Haniya are ethnic Pashtuns native to Kohat in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the heart of the Taliban-infested region of Pakistan bordering Afghanistan, the US-educated girls have refused to bow to abuse and pressures, and in fact recall times when they have performed to a cheering crowd of boys and girls in Peshawar.
Haniya seeks to dispel notions. "I have followed the Kashmir band story, and I can identify with the girls. Online threats are there, but we have never faced fatwas, physical threats or had to cancel shows. I'd admit that we were actually pleasantly surprised that the negative comments were outnumbered by the encouraging ones," says Haniya. Much of the apprehension of a fundamentalist backlash, she believes, stems from wrong notions about the region. And so-called leaders cash in on that.
Both Zeb and Haniya find it hard to explain why they haven't faced as strong a torrent of abuse as did Pragaash, but Haniya says, "It's perhaps because we don't dress up like your typical rockstars, though none of that is a conscious decision; I don't really know, man... I've never sat down and thought, 'Hmm… I AM A MUSLIM GIRL'."
For Pragaash (meaning, darkness to light) - teenagers Noma Nazir Bhatt (vocals-guitar), Farah Deeba (drums) and Aneeka Khalid, (guitar) - they have practical suggestions. "Just keep making music, even if it's in your bedroom. And wait for the limelight-seekers to ebb away," says Haniya. "Share your talent, like we did, on the internet or other like-minded forums. Who can stop that?" Zeb adds.