Remembering Shabana, the Dancing Girl from Swat Murdered by the Taliban
On a freezing cold January night in 2009, residents of Green Chowk, the central square in Mingora, a major town in Swat, Khyber Pashtunkhwa, heard the screams of a woman begging for her life as she was about to be killed in the most horrendous way imaginable.
The ill-fated woman was a well-known singer and dancer, Shabana, and her killers were none other than the local Taliban who had just a few months back captured the Swat valley and imposed their strict version of Sharia. Women outside their homes, singing, listening to music, and dancing fell under the category of “criminals” who were to be punished in the strictest way possible under the newly imposed Sharia law in the valley.
Shabana was found guilty of all these “crimes” at the same time, as she was a dancer, a singer, and an entertainer. She had adopted this profession from her childhood, earning a living and supporting her family by entertaining men and families, mostly from the middle and upper middle classes in the valley.
Shabana and her family were not alone in making their living through the entertainment profession, as thousands of other women and families from the lower middle class have adopted music and dancing as a means of earning their livelihood, a means that is inherited from past generations.
The brutal murder of Shabana sent shockwaves throughout the city and beyond the valley. The screams of an innocent, helpless woman being dragged on to the street, killed, decapitated. and then left for the seeing of ordinary citizens as an example. was a turning point for the residents of the valley who started emigrating in large numbers to neighboring districts .
“I was in my room getting ready to go to sleep around 9 pm. The Pakistani army had imposed night curfew. No one was allowed to violate the law. I heard a women screaming. She was begging someone, saying, ‘I quit, I won’t sing again, leave me for God’s sake, I am a Muslim, I am fasting. Don’t behead me.' And my mother and I started crying. Next day early in the morning, I asked my brother to check on who was killed last night and he told me after visiting the site that Shabana, a girl from Bannr, is killed,” says Ghazala, a resident of Green Chowk.
Ghazala’s brother also explains the scene in his own words: “I went to Green Chowk to see who was beheaded today. When the Taliban would behead someone, they would leave the dead body for a few hours with a note: ‘a U.S. agent deserves this treatment.’ I went closer and saw people, children among them, standing around Shabana’s dead body, I heard a man saying, “Yes, this is Shabana, a dancing girl.”
The Taliban might have committed the atrocious murder of Shabana, but our male-dominant society at large, obsessed with honor and considering women private property, has a fair share of responsibility in the death of Shabana and many other women in the entertainment sector. As the saying goes in Pashto, “Pashtuns love music, yet despise musicians”. Entertainers like Shabana keep all sorts of family gatherings warm throughout the year, be it weddings, engagements, birth of a child or even electoral wins. Music, singing, and dancing by these artists are an important part of the daily lives of all the Pashtuns, truck drivers, students, teachers, tribal elders, men, women, and children, but the term used for these entertainers is not artist but Dumm - a derogatory word that the lowest of the low in the society would refuse to be known by.
Shaheen Buneri, a journalist who has conducted research on Swat and specially on Swat’s music and dancing girls, says, “In my opinion, people take killing of female singers and dancers as for granted. When they are alive, majority considers their talent as immoral and something against their so-called religious values. They use the title of ‘dumm’ for them; ‘Dumm’ is someone without honour and respect. This is sad. The Swat society is traditionally divided between landowners (Khans) and landless (Faqir). Singers and dancers are not only landless; they are also affiliated with artistic pursuits, considered immoral by the radicalized society. Some have fun in their company but care nothing if they are killed or die.”
While the horror of Taliban’s short but brutal rule continues to linger in the air, tens of thousands of men in uniform from the Pakistani military, whom many suspect as the supporters of the Taliban, roam the city streets, countless notable residents of Swat murdered by the Taliban cannot be remembered due to fear of the Taliban’s wrath. This anniversary of the Shabana’s murder also passed by mutely, and she will perhaps never be remembered in the times to come.