Heroes and heroines come in many different shapes and sizes.
None, however, are as graceful as Sheema Kermani – the Pakistani classical dancer, teacher, actor and human rights activist who was recently in London to choreograph and perform ‘Twelve’, a hard-hitting theatre production by Janet Steel exploring the issue of ‘Honour’ killings in Britain.
Kermani, who choreographed the entire production and performs, is incongruously graceful and haunting in a play about so-called ‘Honour Killings’. The title refers to the number of such murders that take place each year in the United Kingdom – it is the official figure, one which is – depressingly enough – a fraction of the actual figure.
A dozen stories recount real tales of victims of this horrific practice – women such as Shafilea Ahmed and Samaira Nazir.
Kermani is no stranger to issues such as honour killings – whilst the number of incidents in Britain is horrifying, it still pales in comparison with how widespread the issue is in Pakistan where more than 3000 girls and women are killed each year for a myriad reasons – from daring to be independent to leaving abusive husbands.
It is also the kind of issue that gave rise to Tehrik-e-Niswan, a cultural movement founded by Kermani in 1979 and which campaigns for the rights of women through the arts.
Her achievements are made all the more remarkable by the fact that Kermani, now in her sixties, has been dodging bullets of one type or another for the last four decades. Even as artists of her ilk fled Pakistan in the face of different forms of oppression – from Zia ul Haq to the Pakistani Taliban – Kermani remained, battled and has emerged – largely – unscathed.
In fact, Kermani was the only dancer in Pakistan throughout the years of General Zia-ul-Haq’s Martial Law, when dance was considered anathema to Zia’s much-reviled programme of ‘Islamization’.
Undeterred by the extremism around her, Kermani has dedicated her life to not only promoting classical dance and theatre but also reviving her country’s rich cultural heritage – one which become all but lost in the maelstrom of Islamic extremism.
The UKAsian caught up with Kermani in London to talk about her work and how she’s managed to fly under the radar.