LAHORE, Pakistan (Reuters) - Zeb Bangash and Haniya Aslam are pursuing a line of work that not too long ago would have been deemed inappropriate for young Pakistani women of their standing: they’re making music.
Educated in the United States and from well-to-do families, cousins Zeb and Haniya, as their duo is known, are part of a rising tide of youth turning to the arts not only as a way of making a living, but of finding creative release from the frustrations of living under the threat of terrorist attacks.
Especially in the cultural hub of Lahore, on the Indian border, a growing number of bands are sprouting up as part of a renaissance of the arts.
Many are spurred on by defiance of the very Taliban militants who have attacked music, theater and film through bombings and assassinations, most notably in the scenic Swat valley northwest of Islamabad, which they took over before being routed by government forces over the last few months.
“I think what happened in Swat with the Taliban really jerked the country out of a stupor,” said 31-year-old Aslam. “People started realizing their culture was under threat, that they have to actually hold onto it, or else you’re going to lose it.”
While the most severe Taliban attacks have happened in the northwest, far away from Lahore, militants did carry out bomb attacks outside two theaters in the city in January.
To the duo, who originally hail from the northwest of the country where the Taliban are rife, music is much more than a passing interest, despite any risks involved.
They have both left their jobs to pursue their musical careers full-time, and have released their first album, named “Chup,” meaning “quiet,” an eclectic mix of folk and classical eastern melodies.
Being female is not nearly the barrier it would have been even a few years ago, as the conservative Muslim country emerges from the impact of an Islamization drive in the 1980s by then military ruler General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq.
Other hangovers from that era, including a 65 percent tax on musicians’ earnings from concerts, hit harder. With security a constant concern, concerts tend to be small and low-key, further cutting into potential revenue.
“The industry is new, but it’s really exciting,” said Bangash, also 31. “It’s also a little tricky, because the systems aren’t really in place.”
Given such constraints, not all young musicians are counting on making a living out of it.
British-born Qundeel Sadiq, a 31-year-old who returned to Pakistan in 1992 and now runs her own television production company, views her band, Roadhouse Blues, as a part-time pursuit.
She has watched the number of private music schools in Lahore mushroom in the past couple of years, and is pretty sure she knows why interest is growing so quickly.
“The country’s gone through so much grief in the last couple of years that they really need an emotional outlet, or some art form or the other, just to get it out of their system,” she said.
“I think the transition came first with painting, the next step was the performing arts, ... and then thirdly came music.”
Editing by Miral Fahmy