The dancing Sheedi girls


Hakima and Lubna practice singing in their home in Kotri for an upcoming wedding in Karachi. PHOTO/Jahanzeb Raza

It begins with a beckoning siren. The Sukkur Express is set to depart from Kotri Junction Railway Station in southern Sindh on its way to Karachi. With a single switch of the engine and a mighty torch upfront, the railway tracks come to life.

Amid the hundreds boarding the train are a band of six Sheedi women — an ethnic minority in Pakistan who trace the origins from tribes East Africa. The women quickly bid farewell to the male family members accompanying them to the station, as the train wheels begin to turn. Overloaded with luggage, the women are draped in warm shawls, with their heads covered.

“Did you remember to restock the paan [betel leaf]?” inquires Hakima, authoritatively, the eldest of the lot. “Yes we did, addi!” reply the other five in unison.

Singing and dancing for money at festivities was the traditional vocation for some Sheedi women of Sindh. But it is increasingly a dying profession

“Paan is to her what whiskey is to classical singers,” whispers the youngest, giggling. At that moment, the wind, bearing no respect to their purdah, sweeps their headscarves right off. Strands of their jet-black oiled hair escape their tightly-clasped buns.

The journey, like many Sheedi women in the past have undertaken, is a commute. While men in the Sheedi community are predominantly involved in occupations such as farming, factory labour, shop-keeping and blue-collar jobs, they are unable to make ends meet. The Sheedi women take on employment to help run the families.

Due to a lack of education, skill and access to economic opportinies, some Sheedi women resort to something they know best: singing and dancing. Performing at the weddings of the wealthy, they earn what is known as ‘ghor’ or ‘baksheesh’ in their language.

“Ghor is given in the form of cash,” says Professor Nuzhat William, a former dean of Government Degree College for Women in Karachi. Her family has been engaging the services of female Sheedi performers for two to three decades. The rupee notes are often placed on the forehead of the groom to ward off evil, and the women later collect them. Other times, the money is showered in the air and the performers pick it off the floor. “The more ghor showered, the greater the sense of enjoyment,” William explains.

An ethnographic study titled “Sheedi Community in Sindh” and conducted in 2006, reveals that the dying profession constitutes approximately 4.4 percent of the total female Sheedi economic activities. According to researcher Sikander Ali Nizamani of Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad, Sheedi women take up other jobs, such as domestic work, cotton-picking and embroidery. But singing and dancing is a cultural practice that once accounted for their primary subsistence in rural Sindh.

In a 2008 article titled ‘Indian Oceanic Crossings: Music of the Afro-Asian Diaspora,’ published in African Diaspora, Shihan de Silva Jayasuriya explains how victims of slave trade used music as the main link to their ancestry. And given the sub-Saharan African roots of the Sheedi tribe, this affinity for musical expression is no surprise. Owing to their underprivileged circumstances, it also become the go-to source of income.

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