Zunn: Showgirls of Pakistan

Image via Indiegogo.


If you drive or walk through the streets of any Pakistani city, you will undoubtedly find yourself asking, where are all the women? In Pakistan, the streets are still largely the domain of men where women commute at their own risk. Although Pakistan is a rapidly urbanizing country, where more and more women are going to work, the culture still remains conservative.

Pakistan is also a country where the masses have little to no access to public entertainment. Urban cinemas have only recently begun to sprout, but with steep ticket prices these venues only cater to the wealthy. The majority of rural and impoverished urban people have two modes of recreation: the mujra and the traveling circus. Catering to urban men, the Punjabi “theaters” provide low-brow entertainment that relies upon a formula of sexual innuendo and striptease performances, or mujras.

In rural areas, the traveling circus is a great institution oriented primarily toward the family. Like the mujratheater genre, the traveling circus is supplemented by striptease performances by transgender dancers on side stages. The circus travels in conjunction with the death or birth anniversary of the patron saint of the village it visits. The circus then is an amalgam of religious festivities, family entertainment, and – for the men – titillation via transgender performers and open-air mujra shows.

In both circus and theater, it is common to find women who come from a legacy of sex trafficking. Often, they are the children of Ukrainian or Tajik women who were brought to Pakistan to work in the sex trade, or women from impoverished cities like Hyderabad who were sold by their families to the theater mafia. While circus performers are often born into the circus, theater performers find the stage the only source of livelihood available to them. With no education and little if any family ties, having been made pariahs by a society that refuses to see or acknowledge their existence, these women are bound to their pimps or producers, just as circus performers are bound to the circus owners.



I am part of a team that is producing a feature documentary following the lives of showgirls in Punjabi theater. It uncovers a world that is seldom talked about but deeply woven into the fabric of Punjabi culture. From sex trafficking, to child labor, to dreams of stardom and escape, the film tells a story that is at once universal and specific to Pakistan: the dreams of women who are born to perform, fighting for respect and legitimacy, or simply struggling to survive in a closeted world where there is no one to hear them.

Growing up in Punjab, young boys are exposed to Punjabi theater at an impressionable age. Often in their pre-teens, boys accompany their fathers or other older, male family members to the theater. At these shows, both men and women on stage engage in banter that is mostly sexual innuendo, but it is the women that are especially branded and looked upon exclusively as whores in front of an almost exclusively male audience. In the late 1990s, these same shows began to be aired on private cable channels, playing continuously during late night hours. At the same time, the shows began to focus more and more on mujras, or striptease dances.

The sexual culture of Pakistan is fascinating, reflecting a deep patriarchy. While their women observe purdah (veiling and segregation from men) at home, Punjabi men, mostly of lower social strata, flock regularly to these theaters without any moral qualms. Moreover, transgender dancers are enjoyed and consumed on the same stages as women, rendering the sexual landscape of the Punjabi voyeur more complex than it may seem from the outside. On the other hand, in rural areas at the circus, Punjabi women perform acrobatics and sideshow acts, the white Ukrainian women dance, and the transgendered dancers strip and perform mujras. The politics of acceptability and decency in these arenas is fascinating, as are the women and trans people who exist in the limelight either through coercion or the choice to live their lives as both stars and pariahs, fetishized and rejected, all at once.

Our film is a narrative of longing, a world of closed doors, patriarchy and survival. It takes us to the heart of Punjab where producers watch their girls like hawks, policemen arrest showgirls halfheartedly, and the best showgirls are routinely trafficked to sex clubs in Dubai, while the rest try to find stardom on stage, or a ticket to “Lollywood.”

From the stage, to the circus, to “academies” that train dancers for a life of striptease and sex work, and mafias that strictly control them, this is the story of the Pakistani woman – unveiled, unprotected, and highly profitable. It is being made at a time during which political turmoil has pushed the world of theater and circus even more underground, further disabling female performers the opportunity to be heard. The film will travel with performers to interior Punjab: Lahore, Multan, Gujranwala, Sialkot, and surrounding villages.



Maya – When Maya’s husband left her, her in-laws disowned her, and she was kicked out of her parents’ home in Karachi. Maya had no choice but to travel to Lahore to find a new life. She found herself at the shrine of Data Ganjh Baksh, a haven for drug addicts, travelers, pilgrims, and the homeless. Here, a pimp promised her refuge and took her to the red light district, and later introduced her to Punjabi theater where she found moderate success.

She now struggles to raise her four-year-old son while she juggles theater performances that keep her out until four a.m. We meet her when she is being recruited to travel to Dubai to perform and engage in sex work through a cafe called Mirchi (Spice), where Nepali, Indian, and Pakistani girls perform. She stands to make a lot more money for her family there, as Pakistani women are preferred for their lighter skin.

Naheed – When Naheed’s father died, the family had no choice but to join the circus. Naheed and her sister started performing when they were 12. Their mother and later their brother started traveling with them, training themselves, and learning acts from whoever took a liking to them. Naheed’s brother had two children who were also ready to join the stage and contribute to the family income.

Naheed, like everyone else at the circus, performs 364 days a year, with up to seven shows a day. She is proud to live the circus life with her family, which she feels protects her from falling into sex work, a fate that befell some other performers around her. However, circus life, earning 100 Pakistani rupees per show, is not easy. As performers they are no longer accepted in their home town, and have been disowned by their extended families. While Naheed’s sister still talks about a new life, her fiancé is in the circus. Naheed’s plans for a normal life seem like a far-fetched fantasy.

Nargis and Deedar – Nargis and Deedar are stars and legends of the Punjabi theater. Now retired, married, and living strictly domestic lives, both originally hail from Lahore’s red light district. They provide shrewd insight into a world that they ruled together not long ago. Historically, the country’s film industry, known as “Lollywood,” also sourced many young starlets from the red light district. But as the failed industry is becoming more gentrified, those like Nargis and Deedar are the exceptions, having achieved stardom on stage and on film, and now having gained respectability through marriage.

Shamma – Shamma had to join the stage when her family lost all their money and her father became mentally and physically ill. Shamma joined the circus with her sister Sangam; they are now poised to become the next Nargis and Deedar. But Sangam wants to break into the high-fashion modeling industry while keeping her identity as a Punjabi theater showgirl secret. Meanwhile, Shamma hunts for an escape to North America through marriage, just as Nargis had done.


Image via Indiegogo.


You can watch the trailer for the film HERE