The non-violent fight against extremism: Pashtun dance in Pakistan

This week in Pakistan religious extremists attacked a cultural event at the University of Peshawar. But Pakistan’s Pashtun minority are determined to show the strength of their cultural traditions.

Senin, 29 Mei 2017 11:16 WIB

Pashtun men dance the Attan (Photo: Mudassar Shah)

Pashtun men dance the Attan (Photo: Mudassar Shah)


This week in Pakistan religious extremists attacked a cultural event at the University of Peshawar, protesting against the expression of Pashtun music and poetry. 

It follows a similar attack in March. 

But Pakistan’s Pashtun minority are determined to prove the strength of their cultural traditions. Striking back in a forceful show of non-violent resistance, they are performing traditional dances all over the country. 

Asia Calling correspondent Mudassar Shah, has this report from Lahore and Peshawar.

On a sunny March morning at Punjab University in Lahore, students celebrated Pashtun Cultural Day.

Colourful dancers gathered in a circle on the lawns. They step backwards and then forwards, moving to the beat of the dhol, a double-headed barrel drum. 

The lead dancer gives a command by quickly touching the ground with his hand, and the drummer picks up the pace, beating faster and faster.

The students were dancing the Attan, a traditional Pashtun dance, and a symbol of harmony and togetherness. 

Pashtun are the dominant cultural group in Afghanistan, and a significant minority in Pakistan. 

Dr Hanif Khan is History professor in Peshawar University. He says that a Pashtun event without Attan is like food without salt.

Attan is a symbol of happiness for Pashtuns, it cannot be replaced. Attan is like the a soul of the body,” he said. 

Attan is danced on special occasions, like weddings, and at the resolution of disputes and feuds. 

It was also once a war dance, performed to raise morale before soldiers entered into battle. 

And that seemed fitting on this occasion, as the dancers came under attack from Islamic student group, Islami Jamiat Talaba or IJT. The group shouted insults, called the event immoral and un-Islamic, and beating the dancers.

IJT is a powerful conservative organisation that operates as the de facto moral police at campuses across the country. 

“We, the custodians of religion and Pakistan, warn ethnic groups to avoid confronting us, otherwise we will treat them like our enemies,” threatened Leader of IJT at Punjab University, Jibran-Bin-Salman.

In the past IJT has stopped Valentine's Day and other cultural and music events. 

But this time, university students and staff across Pakistan united to forcefully reject the attack.

On the day of the attack, students responded with street demonstrations. And they quickly spread. Since then, Attan has been performed across the country, alongside supportive street demonstrations, as people around Pakistan demonstrate their solidarity with Pashtun culture.

Dr Nassar Ahmed is a professor in Engineering at the University of Peshawar, and he loves dancing Attan.  He rarely dances at big public gatherings, but he says he made an exception for a recent solidarity demonstration.

“Religious extremists and fundamentalists want to suppress our identity and destroy our culture by attacking cultural programs and activities,” he said. “Such attacks are part of an ideological war that has been started in an attempt to destroy Pashtuns and their culture. That’s why I have come out, to show resistance to forces like this.”

In recent years, cultural events and Attan dances have become rare in Pakistan, as religious hardliners insist they are immoral activities. 

Despite that, Taliban militants have been known to dance the Attan to raise their morale.

Tariq Afghan is Abulky man with a small beard from a remote area, and he has organised Attan events in Khyber Pakhtunkhawa province.

He is a lawyer by profession, and also a diehard activist.

“We would like to give a loud and clear message to the world that Pashtuns are a peace loving people, who are against terrorism and extremism,” Afghan told me. “Our opponents attack our peaceful dance with violence, even though we have shown by organizing the event that we believe in non-violence.” 

Afghan believes that there is beauty in diversity and strength in difference, and he wants to show that culture can help people to understand one another better.

Meanwhile the attack has raised the profile of the Attan, as Pashtun activists have declared they intend to make the day of the attack International Attan Day.  

We will celebrate 21st March as International Attan Day from now onwards so that our opponents know they cannot spread fear among us,” Afghan asserted. 

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