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Just like Qur’an recitation, devotional music is often designated the realm of men. Women’s voices are often thought to be too erotic to sing or perform religious content — they sway men to sinful thoughts when they should be focusing on God. But some women have broken from behind this barrier and used their voices to rise to be national and international figures. One such women is Abida Parveen of Pakistan. A singer in the traditions of qawwali, ghazal, and kafi, Parveen ranks among the best-known Sufi performers, a female amongst many males.
Begum Abida Parveen was born in 1957 in Larkana, Pakistan. Her father, Ghulam Haider, a singer and disciple of Sindh and Punjab mystical poets, ran a music school for boys. He began to teach and encourage his daughter when he recognized her talent. An alto, Parveen sings in Urdu, Sindhi, Hindi, Punjabi, and Seraiki. She composes her own music and accompanies it with lyrics from Sufi poetry.
What’s notable about Parveen is that she stands out for her talent, not her gender. Look up any of the styles Parveen performs and her name will come up. She has been reviewed by newspapers across the world, from the New York Times to Spain’s El País to the Straits Times of Singapore, and reviews are overwhelmingly positive. The Daily Telegraph of London described her as “one of the world’s great singers — even if you can’t understand her,” a claim echoed by the another London paper, the Evening Standard, which added this description of Parveen’s performance: “It’s as if she’s commanding the universe.” In the words of the Economic Times of India, “Be it the music critic or the layman, who loves music, all believes that Begum Abida Parveen is unarguably one of the finest voices in the Orient and the queen of mystical singing. Her passionate, robust voice spans three octaves and her powerful renditions of devotional music, her fervid and inspirational singing is an experience not to be missed.”
Parveen is frequently compared to the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, a fellow Pakistani Sufi star, who carries significant name recognition even in the West. The Nepali Times described her “Pakistan’s ‘female Nusrat.’” Music critics who call Khan the “king of Sufi music” name Parveen as the queen. Parveen is a rare figure in the world of Islamic music because of her gender, but she rejects the idea that women should not participate in religious music. Asked at a press conference, she said,
“We are all the same species — all humans have a representative of godliness, so there is really no male/female division. I have been given this gift by the Divine, who does not recognize differences between male and female singing. I am simply a medium, and if you listen to me sing, even over the period of a few days, it will be entirely different because the transmission is from the Divine.”
It’s disappointing that there aren’t more female performers of Islamic music, but Abida Parveen shines brightly as an example of what Muslim women can achieve.