Even a well-intentioned festival can struggle to break free of the structures that have come to define us
I will find it hard to forget Jami taking to the stage at the Lahooti Melo this past weekend to read the account of sexual violence that triggered the theme at this year’s Melo, ‘An Ode to a Liberated Woman’.
I haven’t fully processed the collective discomfort, silence and pain that I shared with a mostly male audience at Sindh University, in Jamshoro, as we listened to an account of rape in excruciating, jarring detail. It was perhaps the first instance of a #MeToo story being recounted at open event in a public space, to an audience that had shown up not knowing to expect it.
"Here was I, with a man who has a daughter as old as me, on top of me with everything numb inside me. Now with me being under his weight he asked me, ‘Why did you agree?’ To which I could only respond with, ‘I don’t know’ in a burst of tears. I just wanted it be over. All I was thinking was that I had let it all happen just like I did when I was only ten years old. I did not dare stop that maulana who harassed me then, and there’s nothing I can do to stop this man now. Too unclear right? But what was clear here? It was clear to him that I am already struggling, vulnerable, and just as old as his daughter. When he asked why I agreed while he was on top of me, I was in tears. I said i don’t know, he still proceeded."
The silence rolled over us in waves — deafening, painful. Jami shared the story of a girl who had been raped by an unnamed famous director she had met at the very first Lahooti Melo. There were no trigger warnings, no disclaimers. The experience was jarring on multiple levels - we were not given the space to consent - to the experience, who we shared it with, and when we experienced it.
As a discourse, #MeToo was transformed from being something we had experienced through either the safety of our computer screens, or conversations in safe spaces with people we trusted, or debates in spaces mostly accessible to those with class privilege - to a raw, terrifying and tangible reality as we were forced to acknowledge it as a collective in a public space. That, coupled with the fact that the story of immense female pain was recounted in a male voice, to a mostly male audience that initially hooted and catcalled before unravelling into silence — made for an opening day at Lahooti which left audiences with a lot to unpack and process.
We spoke to Jami about his decision to read the letter and he shared with us: "This year’s Lahooti Melo was a dream come true. It was all about supporting our victims of sexual harassment and making sure they get a voice. The letter I read out in front of hundreds was one of the toughest experiences in my life. I didn’t realize how brutal it was and for the first time I felt my hands shake. I’m hoping we empower the victim and bring justice to all the victims."
Before we walked through the gates of the festival, we had our doubts about the theme — who is a ‘liberated’ woman? And more importantly, who gets to define what ‘liberation’ for a woman looks like? Jami’s reading of the letter was painful, but the collective acknowledgement that the audience was forced into felt strangely empowering. It was also empowering to be in an environment in which attempts were being made to initiate discourse that addressed issues of sexual violence, sexism in higher education and the importance of consent.
However, the vast majority of these attempts were feeble at best, with a lot of generalisations, stereotypes and a heavy dose of male paternalism all woven together to create an experience that left us disappointed and yearning for better organised discourse. The festival consistently created opportunities for important conversations to take place but logistical difficulties, odd speaker choices, lazy moderating and a mismanagement of time consistently got in the way of healthy discourse.
Before we delve into the specifics of the discourse and the ways in which it was initiated - let us first address all the logistical grievances (and there were many) that audiences were subjected to.
There were probably a sum total of four trash cans present at an event catering to thousands, and the field at Sindh University that the event was held in was covered in trash on both Saturday and Sunday evening. There were also only three bathrooms for all the women at the event, and they were being guarded by two policemen.
Similarly, the helpdesk for women who wanted to report harassment at the event was also being ‘manned’ by four men. Some of the students shared with us that the girl’s hostel at Sindh University had an 8 pm curfew and so the female students hosting the event could not enjoy the concerts each evening, which, ironically were an ‘ode’ to their ‘liberation’. There was also no shade from the intense sunlight beating down on audiences attending talks at the mainstage.
The talks themselves did not seem to follow any specific schedule — there were cancellations, delays and re-adjustments that were never announced to audiences scurrying across the field in hopes of catching the conversations they had shown up to attend. On the second day, the mainstage area, without any prior notice, transformed into a ‘family-only’ space with limited access, excluding a number of men who had travelled to participate in discourse that was supposed to be open to all.
Saif Samejo, the man behind the event, described to us how a number of sponsors, speakers and performers had pulled out of the event because of the chosen theme, and how this had resulted in a restricted budget and a programme that had to be revised a number of times.
While this is concerning, it does not excuse for the lack of organisation that audiences were subjected to - announcements could have been made about the changes, more trash cans could have been arranged for, and female volunteers could have been present at the women’s help desk, at little cost or grievance to the organisers.
The strength of the festival lay in the issues it was attempting to address through its programming, and yet that was negated by a lack of planning that got in the way of effective discourse.
While there was great female representation on the panels, there wasn’t close to enough female representation in the audience, which is particularly concerning given the theme of the festival.
The ‘power sessions’, 6-7 minute speeches followed by a short discussion, were described to us by Samejo as an opportunity for successful women to share their stories with other women. These talks were specifically designed for women to engage with, and explored ideas such as ‘The Radical Power of Female Friendship’ or ‘Empowering Rural Women across Sindh’ — yet there were barely any women present at these sessions to benefit from the work put together by the speakers.
The language that the talks were conducted in also left audience members unhappy, and questions were constantly raised during Q&A sessions about the lack of accessibility.
Panelists and speakers shared with us that they were not given specific guidelines regarding what language they were supposed to present in, which resulted in some conversing in Urdu, some in Sindhi and others in English. While those are the languages that are representative of the audiences in attendance, better programming guidelines for the speakers and moderators could have ensured that all of the conversations were equally accessible for everyone.
It is also important to question why a festival in Jamshoro had panels that mostly consisted of speakers from Karachi - involving more students and faculty from Sindh University might have made the entire experience more relatable.
The talks themselves were structured in a way that was limiting — each session lasted for approximately 30-45 minutes, giving moderators time to introduce some ideas, and ask only a single, brief question of each of the panelists. The ‘conversation’ devolved into a series of short speeches in which a number of speakers got away with making statements that they should have been held accountable for.
For instance, during the conversation on Gendered Higher Education, the Secretary of School Education and Literacy Department Sindh, claimed that the issue of sexual harassment in Pakistan would become irrelevant in 5 years, due to certain policies that he could not bring himself to discuss in detail.
This trend, of male panelists making uninformed and paternalistic statements about sexual harassment and female empowerment was a consistent feature at the festival. A number of men got away with making self congratulating and vague statements about their contributions to ‘female empowerment’, as they patronisingly celebrated the status of women as mothers and sisters who deserved respect.
Mohammad Hanif was perhaps the only male panelist to point out that it isn’t a man’s place to decide what female ‘liberation’ looks like, suggesting that men should make an effort to not take up space at the festival, especially given the theme of the event. He accurately observed that men are often unable to talk about the liberation of women without bringing themselves into it.
Two male students visiting from Mehran University shared their thoughts on the festival with us, ‘they were mostly talking about feminism. It is biased and one sided and they are mostly blaming men.’ Our conversation with them left us wishing that the male panelists had utilized the space they were given to talk about the importance of male allies, or the toxicity and limitations of masculinity itself, instead of wasting our time with self congratulating false promises and patronizing philosophizing.
Some of the sessions were also oddly programmed — Eva Zu Beck especially was a strange addition to the festival proceedings. She took to stage and claimed that many in Sindh were proud of her because someone had finally managed to represent Sindh ‘properly’. Her statement was oddly reminiscent of the famous orientalist saying: ‘‘they cannot represent themselves; they must be represented.”
Frieha Altaf was another surprising addition. Her presence on the ‘It’s Okay not to be Okay’ panel on mental health was jarring as she has only recently been accused of harassment by a former employee who took to social media to share that she had been bullied by Altaf in the workplace, resulting in emotional trauma. The conversation could have taken an interesting turn if the moderator had utilised the opportunity to enquire about the episode — however, the moderation on most of the panels was almost as lazy as the speeches themselves.
Panelists such as Mahtaab Rashdi got away with making statements such as, “marital rape is an advanced thing, we need to address the obvious first,” when questioned about government policies and legislative developments on marital rape.
The most meaningful panel was the one on the #MeToo movement in Pakistan. Panelists were asked incisive questions and they raised thoughtful points such as “What kind of woman do we believe? What does she have to wear, what socio-economic class does she have to belong to? What kind of woman do we find trustworthy?” Or, “a journalist’s job is not just to report what he said or she said, but to report what is true.”
Another interesting panel was titled ‘Let the Rivers Flow’. While it wasn’t blatantly linked to theme, panelists did critique institutional power structures as they commented on how building ‘the dam’ will stop the flow of water towards Sindh. Dr Hassan Abbas questioned, "They would say when they were building Mangala and Tarbela dams that they would cover their cost in just three years and after that time span we will start getting the profits. But not so surprisingly when the dams’ walls had to be elevated, the then government had to take loans for it. Where did the so-called revenues of the dams go? If we actually earn the profits from these dams why are they now collecting funds for the new dams?”
He was joined by M. Ali Shah, the representative of Pakistan Fishermen Folk who described how the rivers took million of years to take the form they were in and how humans took only sixty years to destroy them.
The performances at Lahooti this year were better received than most of the panel sessions. On the second day, in particular, audiences would come cheer when performers would take to stage, and then disperse when the panel sessions would begin.
The music performances did a good job of representation and effectively catered to a whole range of preferences with performers ranging from folk singer Mai Dhai to French DJ duo FDVM. The performers also seemed to enjoy the festival, sharing their thoughtful observations with us. "I have been saying for years that the future of the music industry in Pakistan is not in more corporate-sponsored music shows on television, but in music festivals that build communities around the experience of enjoying and dancing to live music. Lahooti Melo is one of my favorite festivals and an excellent example of how a festival, besides providing entertainment, can also connect people around humanist values,” said Arieb Azhar.
As a founder of two music festivals — Music Mela Islamabad and Art Langar - Azhar described to us the will, determination and hard work required to pull off an event of such magnitude, observing, “Lahooti has also shown us the value of developing meaningful festivals outside of the major cities of Pakistan.”
The festival also hosted a range of dance performances. We spoke with one of the performers, Suhaee Abro, who shared, “Lahooti Melo gives great exposure to people coming from all social backgrounds and cultures. That’s beautiful. This year’s theme was also very important. There were sessions regarding consent, sexual harassment etc. which I thought was amazing to have so openly. As a dancer I feel happy to be performing in front of such a huge audience who might or might not know about dance as a form of art.”
While Abro’s assumptions about the audience might be off the mark, she is right in pointing out that Lahooti Melo this year was brave.
The girl who shared her pain and her story with us, and the organizers who decided that something must be done about that pain, contributed towards strengthening one of the most important movements of our time. Discourse is dangerous, and while the discourse at Lahooti could have been sharper, deeper and broader in its reach - it was dangerous in the ways that count.
And so, despite the many logistical challenges and grievances that we were witness to this past weekend, we find ourselves looking forward to Lahooti Melo next year.
While there is a lot the organizers can do in terms of ensuring that the audiences they invite are in a physically comfortable space, they must be commended for their efforts in creating an environment that was successful in creating much needed intellectual discomfort.
Nazish Brohi, one of the panelists, accurately observed: “I’m very impressed by the fact they have been able to develop an organic response to changing social conditions.”
The organizers behind Lahooti must be celebrated for the many risks they took in their endeavour to be socially responsible and relevant, a trait that other festival organizers across the country could greatly benefit from.