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Last Updated: Thursday, 6 December 2007, 04:06 GMT
Pakistan dancing girls fear Taleban
By M Ilyas Khan
BBC News, Swat, northern Pakistan

Dancing girl Palwasha
Work for girls such as Palwasha is drying up
On a chilly October night, a late visitor bangs the huge steel gate of a house in a narrow alley of Mingora city, the headquarters of Pakistan's troubled northern district, Swat.

But no-one answers.

A painted sign on top of the gate says: "No more singing and dancing from today - 8 August 2007."

A curious neighbour walks up to the visitor, telling him the girls inside "have got letters from the Taleban, advising them to put an end to their business if they don't want their house blown up".

Whisky and dance

People in the Bunrh neighbourhood, the so-called music street of Mingora, confirm this information.

"Dozens of families have shifted to other cities, while many others are stuck here without any means of a living," says Fazl-e-Maula, the father-in-law of a local dancing girl, Nasreen.

The sign at a former dancing girl establishment in Mingora city
The sign says the dancing girl establishment is closed

Local Taleban have been spreading their influence in Swat since 2005, and are currently holding large swathes of territory just north of Mingora.

Last August, they distributed a dozen letters across the Bunrh neighbourhood threatening bomb attacks unless the dancers and musicians gave up their professions.

Swat has been long known for its fair-skinned dancing girls, popular with people who wish to have dancing at a wedding party or any other private party across most of northern Pakistan.

Unlike some dancing girls in the Shahi Mohallah area of Lahore, the women in this conservative city have never had a reputation for providing any sexual services.

This is too much - I don't feel like dancing any more
Former dancing girl Nasreen

Many people visit the girls in Swat at their houses in Bunrh for a glass of whisky and a dance.

Down the decades, many of the girls have shown themselves to be talented radio singers or movie stars.

But in recent years the tide has turned against them in a big way.

It started with the "Islamisation" policy of former military ruler, Gen Zia ul-Haq, in the 1980s, which saw the rise of the clergy's influence in social life. This made dance parties at weddings increasingly unpopular.

In 2002, a religious alliance, the MMA, came to power in North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and banned all cultural shows where these girls performed.

At the turn of the millennium, many girls were on their way out of business.

"I was too old to dance by then," recalls Shah Bano, 38. "My daughter had her admirers, but when the MMA came to power, invitations to wedding parties began to get few and far between. And there was the risk of arrest and public humiliation."

Two years ago her husband, Babu - "the best drummer in Mingora" - died. This gave her son, a staunch opponent of dancing in the family, a chance to force his sister out of business.

"I work for a local butcher," says Shaukat Ali, Shah Bano's son. "The wages are not great, but I'm glad my sister doesn't have to dance for a living."

Violent campaign

The girls who turned to music concerts and stage shows, often held in Peshawar, the capital of NWFP, were thrown out of business when the cultural shows were banned.

Taleban in Mingora
The Talaben have been gaining strength in Swat

Some of them benefited temporarily when the aficionados and businessmen on NWFP's dance and music scene diversified into the video CD business, producing and distributing long plays and dance sessions on VCDs and DVDs.

But a violent campaign by militant Taleban has caused this business to decline across large parts of NWFP. Hundreds of video outlets have been blown up. Others have voluntarily closed down or switched to other businesses.

These repeated reverses have frustrated many girls and their families. Nasreen, 26, a mother of two, is one of them.

She says she was "hurt when some maulanas [clerics] sighted her and banned her stage show in Peshawar four years ago".

"It was a problem because the men of the house - my husband and father-in-law - knew no other trade except to play musical instruments."

Optimists and rebels

In 2006, she received almost half a dozen contracts to perform for music video CDs, often recorded on private premises.

Bollywood decorations in Palwasha's house
Palwasha idolises Bollywood stars

It brought her enough money to buy a passenger van for her husband. However, due to his inexperience the income from the van has been far from satisfactory.

She says she tried to supplement the household income by receiving guests at home, until the Taleban in Swat issued their threats in August, leading to a complete ban on all singing and dancing in Mingora.

"This is too much. I don't feel like dancing any more," she says.

But Mingora's music street is not without its optimists and rebels.

"My heart tells me that things will change for the better, but I hope I'm alive by then," says Palwasha, an enthusiastic 18-year-old novice.

And for a novice she has done very well so far.

Unlike Nasreen, she has taken risks and done more than 20 CD plays and video dance sessions, despite an explicit ban by the Taleban.

She has also sung numbers or performed on songs for the official Pakistan Television (PTV) and a Pashto language private TV channel, AVT Khyber.

Three months ago, she did a small role for a teleplay produced by Pakistan's Geo Entertainment TV channel.

She aspires to go to Lahore and act in movies, but neither she nor her uncle and guardian have any contacts there.

And it is dangerous to stay on in Mingora.

"I have defied the Taleban's ban, and sometimes I suspect that they know it. I only hope to get out of here before they blow me up," she says.

The names of some of the people in this article have been changed.

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