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International Women’s Day With Abida Parveen

  • Posted On: 11th June 2013
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International Women’s Day With Abida Parveen

International Women’s Day, marked on March 8 is a global day celebrating the economic, political and social achievements of women; past, present and future. The first International Women’s Day was celebrated in 1911, as a part of the growing awareness and political activism of women in the US and Europe. Since then, the concept of a global day to celebrate the achievements of women and campaign for their equal rights and participation has spread through the developed and developing world, partly with the support of international forums such as the United Nations.

Thus it was very appropriate when on March 8 this year, I attended a performance by one of the most respected and talented female musicians in Pakistan: Abida Parveen. Abida Parveen has been described by Adam Greenberg as “a rarity in the world of Sufi music, a female lead performer”. Indeed through her life, Abida Parveen has defied the odds of a traditional culture and risen to become a symbol of mystical values such as peace, conciliation and devotion. Abida Parveen’s significance – and that of her music in Pakistan – is social, religious and political.

Abida Parveen comes from a musical background. She is the daughter of prominent Pakistani vocalist Ustad Ghulam Haider, who trained his daughter and allowed her to accompany him to various religious performances. Her husband Ustad Hussein Sheikh, a producer at Radio Pakistan also helped her further her career and subsequently she trained with the great Salamat Ali Khan. During her career, Abida Parveen has been awarded both the “Pride of Performance” and the “Sitara-e-Imtiaz” by the Government of Pakistan. She sings in a number of languages such as Urdu, Sindhi, Saraiki, Punjabi and Persian. Although most famous for her rendition of the verses of Sufi poets of the sub-continent such as Bulleh Shah, Sachal Sarmast and Pir Meher Ali Shah, Abida Parveen has a vast repertoire to her credit: she has sung well-known folk numbers such as “Bale Bale” and “Ho Jamalo” and recited the ghazals of Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Ghalib to audiences both within and outside Pakistan. Abida Parven inspires respect and love among people from various provincial, social and ethnic groups of the subcontinent for her simplicity and devotion.

The performance I attended on International Women’s Day was held in Karachi by the ‘Saaz o Awaaz’ musical group. It was a traditional musical evening with floor seating and cushions. The evening started punctually, with an introduction for Abida Parveen (although few words could describe her accomplishments completely!). She was soon on the stage with her larger than life presence and enthusiasm, and her powerful voice reverberated through the room. She commenced the evening with a Sufiyana Kalaam in Persian and then continued with a mixture of ghazals and Sufi verses. Her voice grew more powerful and entrancing as the evening progressed: for her, the act of singing seemed like a passionate offering to God, in which she was making her audience a part. Themes such as love, sacrifice, simplicity, struggle and devotion appeared in the lyrics of her music: themes that are so reflective of the essence of not only Islam, but humanity. Amidst the economic and political upheavals confronting not only Pakistan but also many other countries of the world, Abida Parveen’s music and her message put life in a different, humbling and less self-focused perspective that evening.

I felt it appropriate to be spending International Women’s Day with a woman who is an icon for so many people; men and women. Abida Parveen still tours the US and Europe for her concerts which are a treat for Pakistanis living outside the country. Her music serves as a bridge between the lost devotional traditions of the 18th and 19th century and a generation of 21st century youth who is often, spiritually as well as geographically, separated from their roots. Moreover, her music also forms a timeless bridge between India and Pakistan during political tension.

If Pakistan needs a woman to represent the country on International Women’s Day, then Abida Parveen, with her universal message of music and peace, has my vote.

Ambreen Saleh recently completed a diploma in “Islamic Studies and Humanities” and has an MSc degree in “Political Economy of Development” from London. Currently, she works with the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) in Pakistan.

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