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Is segregation at concerts a real solution?

As concerts and music festivals for thousands become regular in Pakistan, reports of women getting molested at such events have become just as common. So, what then is the solution? Instep speaks to s

Is segregation at concerts a real solution?
Atif Aslam photo by Sheraz Aslam; Meesha Shafi performing at a concert in Chicago.

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As concerts and music festivals for thousands become regular in Pakistan, reports of women getting molested at such events have become just as common. So, what then is the solution? Instep speaks to some industry heavyweights on the subject.

 

A female (whose name shall not be revealed) at a production of a TV series once told me that crowd control has always been the most difficult part of her job.

She isn’t the only one. We, in Pakistan, are finally learning to celebrate music again, in all its colours. This means attending live shows, listening to new music and most of all, paying for it.

For some women, attending large shows comes with the risk of being molested or being groped at minimum. In the age of social media, such stories have started emerging. But they always come out after the event. And we’re left wondering how to change this horrifying exploitation women experience. It is not okay to turn a blind eye to what is meant to be a beautiful experience turned into a traumatic one. The fear alone makes many distant from the live music experience.

However, if the last few years have taught us anything, it is that the public is willing to attend local festivals that aim to cater to thousands. Those who can afford it buy high-priced tickets to certain gigs featuring the likes of international acts like FDVM, Diplo, Major Lazer, Chrome Sparks or pay a great deal to see Junoon reunite after 13 years – for the first time – in Karachi. Paying for music is one step in the right direction after developing a profound love for free tickets/invites.

But getting groped and molested or worse cannot and must not be taken lightly and shouldn’t be a part of that live musical experience. It is this very reason that keeps people, particularly women, at home rather than embracing live music and reclaiming public spaces.

What needs to be done to ensure security of fans, women in particular, while pulling off a big concert is thus a question that needs immediate attention or the culture of concerts will dissipate after years of security concerns, lack of NOCs, rising extremism that simply made large shows improbable as well a target. The fear seeped into the public’s heart so much so that we stopped the culture of concerts altogether and forgot the best way to enjoy music.

Smaller shows became the only way to experience live music or corporate shows to which most people simply didn’t have the access to.

Now new bands like Kashmir are playing in colleges with a degree of regularity. The culture has returned. Maybe not in full force – but it is getting there with multiple festivals open to the public as well as aesthetically-designed gigs on the distant horizon.

For Bilal Maqsood from Strings, the answer doesn’t lie in segregation.

“Segregation is a no-no-no,” says Bilal Maqsood with emphasis. “Even in a place where segregation is enforced, people don’t want it. Look at Saudi Arabia.”

The reform of mixed concerts has indeed occurred under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman where mixed concerts have attracted the likes of prolific international artists such as Mariah Carey, David Guetta and Enrique Iglesias even as the country grapples with other human rights issues.

Bilal Maqsood continues: “We need to learn to how to control those men who ruin the experience of thousands of others. We cannot segregate. The incidents that are reported, we really need to take those perpetrators to task so that others know about the one who got caught and what happened to him.”

“Such cases have happened in our concerts. It is not something that has begun now,” says Bilal Maqsood thoughtfully. “It has been happening since the time of Vital Signs but now people are using social media to tell their stories and that is how we are finding out. This is a big issue because the lewd ones can ruin the experience of 5000 people.”

Posing one solution, Bilal Maqsood says, “I think we should have anti-harassment police force who are trained for this job and it should include men and women. They should be deployed all over the venue and surveillance should be compulsory at such events that attract massive crowds. So, that way the guy(s) who are coming with ill-purposes know that they are being watched. And the force should have brighter, colorful, neon uniforms so they are instantly recognisable. If people know that they (the anti-harassment force) are right there and if a girl screams, they will come instantly, that attitude will change.”

“Right now the feeling is, ‘in a massive crowd, even if I do something to a woman, she won’t be able to do anything about it’ but if the cop is right there, the girl is empowered that I can go to the show and tell the cop if there is an issue.”

For Meesha Shafi, who has played shows at amphitheaters, opera houses and museums abroad, in addition to playing shows at home, the very notion of segregation is taking us back as a society that lacks basic civility and one that is a dangerous notion.

“Segregation is not a healthy thing to begin with,” says Meesha Shafi. “The society cannot be a zoo. To even think along these lines is alarming. This is what is being discussed in 2019? Come on…that’s a wake-up call in itself. However, if it is enabling women to come out of their houses and watch an artist, or attend any event that is of interest to them and is a healthy activity – with the other option being sitting at home and not being able to go or getting nervous, then I suppose its fine. Segregation is still not a healthy solution in the long run but from that perspective, it is better than not going.”

The society needs to evolve, I pose to Meesha. “Fast,” she says, “I mean, don’t take your time on this one. We are so behind. There is some serious catching up to do.”

To Atif Aslam, Pakistan’s biggest music star, who has played at the iconic Royal Albert Hall; seen and played at some of the biggest venues abroad and therefore has an understanding of how big shows are conducted outside Pakistan, it is of particular importance that people do their groundwork before organizing a concert, and not afterwards. “I’m not only concerned for the women who come to my show(s) but families, everyone,” says Atif.

(Above) Salt Arts co-founders Raania Azam Khan Durrani and Junaid Iqbal with artist, producer and musical savant Haniya Aslam. – Photo credit: Asad Faruqi (Below) Strings performing in Karachi at a Salt Arts gig. Photo credit: Bisma Tariq (BN&MM Photography). –Photo courtesy: Salt Arts.

(Above) Salt Arts co-founders Raania Azam Khan Durrani and Junaid Iqbal with artist, producer and musical savant Haniya Aslam. – Photo credit: Asad Faruqi
(Below) Strings performing in Karachi at a Salt Arts gig. Photo credit: Bisma Tariq (BN&MM Photography). –Photo courtesy: Salt Arts.

To Atif, segregated shows make sense. He wants to see family enclosures, female-only enclosures, mixed ones as well as ones for single men to make sure no fan feels nervous or uncomfortable.

It is a view shared by Ahsan Bari, music producer and savant and Sounds of Kolachi superhero as well. In an earlier conversation on segregation of genders at concerts, Bari had told Instep, “It is wise,” using the Junoon concert as an example, which had a segregated section along with mixed sections and family enclosures.

“Things have changed drastically in the last 10 to 15 years. During this period, extremism has risen to the next level. The result of everything that has happened means that girls and women don’t feel so safe anymore. That is my observation. This is the reason why women/girls don’t attend concerts anymore. They don’t feel comfortable. So, if there is a circle just for females, it is fine. They can come alone. The Junoon concert was also not small. There were thousands of people. The girls and boys who wanted to enjoy together, they had space, too. And so did families. It’s not a bad idea for a country like Pakistan. It will take some time for us to stand together. But the mindset, right now, you don’t know. Some people are not used to standing next to girls. You never know what will happen. For the time being, it is wise, until we can grow the culture where both genders feel comfortable; it is better to do it than to have a mishap.”

What if the segregation grows? I asked him.

Said Ahsan Bari: “It also depends on what kind of a concert it is. There is, for example, a Salt Arts concert – it was small and there, the mixing of genders worked. For such big concerts (as the Junoon reunion), Pakistan is still too young, fraught. We cannot afford it. The frustration in society, what if something happens to a girl? In such an environment, it is better to take as many precautions as possible. The fact that the show happened in the first place is a good thing.”

But ask yourself this: do we want to be a country that stands with the rest of the world or one that is following Malaysia as one of the many missions of Naya Pakistan? They seem to be the only country where segregation is still practiced. I say ‘still’ because the year is 2019 and not the 1920s.

Raania Azam Khan Durrani, co-founder and artistic director at Salt Arts, the music and arts company with over 50 live shows to their credit, says that segregation is not a solution. From the perspective of a creative producer, she makes a compelling counter argument and several valid points against segregation.

Raania A.K. Durrani notes, “We are at the tipping point as an industry. Right now we must focus on building communities and chipping away slowly and steadily at the notion of a safe social space, which is neither isolated nor segregated. Audience development through consistent communication and programming – assuming the goal is also change making – with an earnest investment in the cultural ecosystem for the long term, is one approach.”

She adds: “This approach reduces the numbers pool and immediate profits perhaps, but impacts the quality and experience of all involved, changing mindsets with more permanence. This often does not work for artists or even sponsors, who deserve greater numbers and energy, but a poor audience experience is an audience lost – a good one promises a return. We must honour the paying audience’s experience – now that it has finally returned to the concert grounds, hence programming the content strategically – implementing capacity control and most of all being patient.”

“Performances stopped altogether in Pakistan for several reasons, one being unruly crowd behaviour and lack of empathy for promoters, artists and mostly for each other. It must be our top priority to enrich, educate and cultivate good audiences – even if that means waiting patiently to make impact on massive numbers and genres, until the audiences are ready and truly begin to understand the pleasure of listening to live music in a respectful, kind and gender balanced environment and realise how they are mostly responsible for their experience as a group.

We all have to say no to anything that compromises the experience for women and girls at shows and change is inevitable. But big change requires discipline and forward thinking. Segregation is the easy way out and it sets us back – it must be avoided at all costs, where it can be. Geography and socio-cultural norms play a huge part in this, perhaps more women-centric programming to begin with to recognise the need. However, the goal is gender balance overall within the entire production unit: artists, management teams and security staff, and audience.”

“It will take time,” says Raania, “and commitment, from change making artists, producers, journalists, technicians, responsible audience members and all of us to have one voice and to make very clear that music and public art showcases are shared experiences; they are not avenues for hooliganism, vandalism or for oppressing women.”

Maheen Sabeeh

2 comments

  • Personally, I think Ahsan Bari and Atif Aslam’s proposals in this piece are the most realistic, well thought out, and inclusive. Great suggestions. Make a little bit of space for people with diverse needs and preferences. Alongside this, have better security in the mixed area (and also perhaps, only allow mixed groups to enter mixed areas). It’s better to be creative with solutions.

  • This is a useful report on an important issue, but this statement by the writer made me laugh a little: “(Malaysia seems) to be the only country where segregation is still practiced. I say ‘still’ because the year is 2019 and not the 1920s.”

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