Sheema Kermani's Message Marking 75th Anniversary of International Human Rights Day

Dec 01, 2023
By Sheema Kermani

“Distance does not count in love. If you love me, I am with you even if you are a distance of thousands of miles”.

Haji Syed Waris Ali Shah

For both my parents the distance from the land where they were born to the land that they had migrated to was not to be counted; in their hearts lived their ‘watan’ – for him it was Barabanki, UP, the erstwhile province of Awadh, for her it was Hyderabad Deccan.  Their childhood and their past they cherished and carried with them as an essential part of their being. They had strong roots in the soil they grew up in, the soil where our ancestors had been buried for the past six hundred years or more.

My parents got married in 1948 in India, a year after the tragedy of the partition of the sub-continent – a tragedy that affected the lives of millions of people who witnessed horrendous violence. Families separated, torn apart, displacements, deaths, rape, loot, murder and the refugee problem which continues, more so in Pakistan than in India.

1948 was also the year when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was established by the United Nations. An important aspect of this declaration is the recognition of cultural rights and this is what I would like to focus on. It was hoped that there would be a greater recognition of human rights-respecting cultural mixing and syncretism and increased respect for mixed cultural identities – but unfortunately that has not happened!

My two siblings and I were born in Pakistan. It is in Pakistan that my parents are buried. My journey as an artist has been intertwined with my search for a cultural identity. I believe that for an artist to be creative it is so important to be deeply rooted and in sync with one’s cultural history and heritage. Culture is what forges our identities. I believe that for human rights to be attained, one’s material, intellectual and spiritual needs must be taken into account. With this idea in mind, I set up in 1978, a feminist cultural group and called it Tehrik-e-Niswan. The main aim has been and continues to be, to try and integrate art and politics, with especial emphasis on women’s rights and the rights of all the marginalised. In a society where there is constant conflict, art, if it is truthful, reflects the conflict and the decay. It shows the world as changeable and can help to change it.

I grew up in Karachi which was a cosmopolitan city; it was a multilingual, multi denominational, multiracial city. I cherish the fact that we have a great many languages, religious denominations, literatures, traditions of music and dance and great many distinct cultural traditions within us. Many different communities and groups used to live here.  Marriages between these groups were common, as were those between Sunnis and Shias. Religious and cultural practices tended to accommodate a wide spectrum of customs and traditions. Given that my family came from the beautiful mix of the Ganga-Jamuni culture, our home was totally secular. Thus, we would celebrate the ancient Zoroastrian-Persian Nowruz, or New Year as well as Diwali. Muharram would be respectfully observed, and music, jewellery, bright colours and all celebrations were eschewed during this solemn month of mourning and remembrance. We also celebrated Christmas and Easter. There is something very comforting and deeply humane about a country so heterogeneous. When I was studying in Karachi I had four Parsi girls, three Hindus and five Christian girls in my class. Sadly today you find only Muslims –all others have left the country!  It is the very suppression of all of this that has been the greatest tragedy of Pakistan. Only if we can revive our links with what we have lost we may be able to survive. Clearly the need is for a human rights-based approach to questions of mixed cultural identities, cultural mixing and syncretism. Such an approach is grounded in interrelated commitments to the universality of human rights and cultural diversity.

One is always amazed to discover the various elements that become part of traditions and culture. I have always believed that it is not religion alone that creates different cultures! In fact, living in Pakistan one has for the last so many years been told that dance is not part of our culture and that it is part of Indian culture; by calling it Indian culture ‘they’ obviously imply that it is part of Hindu life and not Muslim life. Therefore dance still remains a taboo subject in Pakistan. This division of culture on the basis of religion has been totally unacceptable to me. I became a classical dancer and a theatre practitioner in this environment. My experience in the field of performing arts has reaffirmed my belief that it is not religion but the patriarchal system that determines the status of women and the status of artists in society.

In recent years, since the rise of religious fundamentalism, increasingly monolithic notions of culture and identity and purist views of the interrelationships of diverse cultures have taken hold. Those of us who come with an understanding that cultural mixing and syncretism, or the blending, combining and merging of various cultural elements, representations and meanings, are the basis of a dynamic human culture find it increasingly hard to cope with the theory of a single monolithic cultural narrative, because we believe that our cultural lives and our basic human rights are all connected.

Religious fundamentalism plays a huge role in the context of political repression. We have to come into a dialogue with our past and our future.  We cannot have a single totalitarian identity. This dialogue is necessary to build a civilized, just society, to strengthen peoples power, to develop a culture of peace.  

So from Lucknow and Hyderbad Deccan to Karachi, where my parents lived for most of their lives and where they died, the distance does not count! 

Sheema Kermani is a Pakistani classical dancer and social activist. She is the founder of Tehrik-e-Niswan Cultural Action Group (Women’s Movement). She advocates on culture, women’s rights, and peace issues.