ISLAMABAD -- On Coke Studio, one of Pakistan's premiere television music shows, five women are singing "Main Irada," a slow and dreamy pop tune that is a celebration of womanhood. The lineup consists of Muslim, Hindu and Christian women plus two younger girls from Pakistan's northwestern Kalash tribe.
One of the singers is Haniya Aslam, a Pakistani-Canadian guitarist, composer and producer who is a leading figure among a group of female musicians who are defying gender roles in Pakistan's pop culture, revolutionizing the way contemporary pop and rock music is conceived and performed.
"Most people are surprised when I say that being a female musician in Pakistan has been very easy for me," said Aslam, who started her musical journey in 2007 with the group Zeb and Haniya, and is now based in Islamabad where she runs Citrus Audio, a music production studio.
"If it hadn't been for male colleagues such as Mekaal Hasan I don't think I could have ever become a musician," she added. Mekaal, a Lahore-based guitarist, is the mastermind behind the Mekaal Hasan Band, a popular hard-rock act rooted in the mystical Sufi Islamic tradition.
Pakistan's popular music culture has always nurtured powerful women performers, in spite of the traditionalist Islamic view that all forms of musical entertainment -- and especially Western-derived music genres like rock and pop -- are forbidden.
The first was Bangladesh-born playback singer and composer Runa Laila, who started working in the Pakistani film industry in the late 1960s. (Playback singers record songs for movie soundtracks and for actors or actresses who lip-sync the songs for the cameras.)
In 1981, Karachi's Nazia Hassan, dubbed South Asia's "Queen of Pop," was the first female playback singer to release a hit album. "Disco Deewane" was also the first album by a female South Asian singer to make it onto the U.K. charts. She went on to sell over 65 million records worldwide before dying of lung cancer in London at just 35.
Being a female musician in today's Pakistan remains "a very lonely journey," said Zahra Paracha, a Lahore-based musician who in 2015 co-founded the annual Lahore Music Meet festival with female songwriter Natasha Noorani.
"We have some talented females in our contemporary music scene, but everything in Pakistan's public sphere is male-dominated, including beliefs and norms," said Paracha.
"I guess that if I had been a male, organizing LMM might have been easier, because sponsors are not very used to dealing with women," she said. "I don't blame them, as the gender dynamics in Pakistan are hard to ignore. But I also think that being a woman makes a difference in creating a festival for everybody, and especially for women."
Islamabad-based singer-songwriter, producer and actor Natasha Humera Ejaz, who performed at the latest edition of LMM, said that "some of the pressure [on women] to not take up music as a career in Pakistan is religious, some of it is societal, and some of it is just plain fear and lack of access to any exposure to live music."
Ejaz, who is behind the electronic music project Stupid Happiness Theory, is also a long-standing collaborator with male composer Rishabh Rajhan in the group It Might Get Glitchy, and lends her voice to film scores and advertising campaigns around the world.
Ejaz said she remembers growing up listening to powerful Pakistani women artists such as Farida Khanam, Abida Parween Ji, Madam Noor Jahan, Nayara Noor, Tina Sani and Karachi-born Hassan, who inspired her own musical journey.
"The internet changed everything," she said. "For the girls that could not get permission to go out and explore [or] share their talent with the world, the net became a safe and accessible way to exist as a musical entity. Girls started forming bands, self-producing and self-publishing [their music] from home. And to be fair, there are far more women in shows and festivals today than there had ever been when I was growing up."
One of these "bedroom projects" is the clever art-punk duo Garam Anday, produced in Aslam's Citrus Audio studio. Formed by Karachi-based filmmaker Anam Abbas and medical student Areib Usman, the band's name means "hot eggs" in the Urdu language. "Garam Anday is like a cultural thing here -- street vendors peddling hot eggs -- it's a common refrain, but also alludes to the female reproductive system, and I liked that," said Abbas.
The group's video "Maa Behn Ka Danda" is a grungy punk anthem rooted in the American northwest "riot grrl" underground feminist punk idiom that urges the "mothers and sisters" of Pakistan to "sharpen their knives" against lecherous male gazes. In a scene from the video, a woman veiled in a full Afghani burqa smashes a TV set with an axe. In another, a frustrated housewife turns over the kitchen table where her male partner is waiting to be served lunch.
"We only released that one song ... and I think the way we made this music is very feminist because it's very collaborative and about enjoying the process," said Abbas.
Islamic dress codes also protect women from male or music industry pressure to dress provocatively, said Aslam, who toured India and the U.S. with Zeb and Haniya.
"In the West it's normal for a female singer to wear a miniskirt and show her skin, but in Pakistan it is the opposite. Because of our religion and society, we are free [from commercial and cultural pressures to dress provocatively] and I feel much more comfortable with that."
Female musicians also said there was no conflict between their music and Islam. "Some people say 'music is my life,'" said Paracha, "but I say 'music is my faith,' and I don't think music substitutes my religion -- it's just a complementary factor."
Paracha said the spread of COVID-19 in Pakistan has not halted her work because "now I have the time to dedicate fully to songwriting and learning new skills that I was always putting off before in favor of other things." As of mid-April the country reported less than 5,000 people infected and 63 fatalities as a result of the virus.
To these women, the Pakistani music scene has been a testing ground for their art and their ability to influence and empower other young women.
"I think the strongest statement I can make is to not stop," said Ejaz, who played her last gig at Lahore's True Brew studio on March 13 before going into isolation at her home in Islamabad.
Since then, she has been active on the internet doing live sessions and giving free online classes to quarantined children around the world. "I don't necessarily make music pertaining to women's rights," she said. "I believe my politics are expressed in the fact that I keep working."