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In Muslim Pakistan, theaters that have racy shows for men are thriving

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Every night in Pakistan, men congregate in what are referred to as dirty theaters, places where women in tight clothes dance suggestively to blaring music. That might seem out of sync with Pakistan's identity as an overwhelmingly Muslim, conservative country. But as NPR's Diaa Hadid reports from the city of Lahore, the places where these theaters are concentrated are thriving.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: There's nothing subtle about dirty theater. Consider where we stand on the side of a four-lane highway that slices through Lahore. This is what motorists can see.

There's billboards the length of two stories of a building with the pictures of the actresses who will be performing tonight alongside a male comedian.

Tonight's show is called "Things Are Out Of Control." Men arrive at a steady clip in gleaming cars, scooters, one guy on a bike. Then we see a rarity - a couple - Afsha and Aslam Ali Shah. He's holding their sleeping toddler, Sabz-Ali. They couldn't find a babysitter.

So what's your favorite thing about the theater? Like, is it the jokes? Is it the dancing?

My NPR colleague Abdul Sattar translates.

ASLAM ALI SHAH: Entertainment or (non-English language spoken).

ABDUL SATTAR, BYLINE: Whatever can make us laugh or smile.

HADID: So the comedy.

SATTAR: The comedy.

ALI SHAH: Exactly.

(LAUGHTER)

HADID: There's a few skits. In one, the headline star, Khushboo Khan, teaches a bumbling comedian how to walk like a model. She jiggles her chest up and down - tam tam. She sticks her bottom out - tam tam. Mostly, the show is racy female dance performances.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HADID: Khushboo Khan, that headline star, gets the most cheers. She's got long, blond hair and the proportions of Jessica Rabbit. She lies on the floor and gyrates.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HADID: She wiggles her backside to the crowd...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HADID: ...Then her chest.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HADID: Then Khushboo Khan squats and a fake fire seems to erupt from her crotch.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HADID: These performances are what elites refer to as dirty or obscene theater. But in a show about sex, the word is never mentioned. I go backstage to ask Khushboo Khan about this. She's playful.

It's quite sexy, and it's out there and very witty.

KHUSHBOO KHAN: I, sexy (laughter)? Big compliment is me.

HADID: Then she says, yeah, dirty theatre is carefully done because Pakistan's censor board has to approve these shows - the dialogues, the dancing, the clothes. That's why she says even though she wears skintight outfits, you can't see an inch of her skin from her neck to her ankles.

KHAN: We have no permission. It's not allowed, wearing sleeveless, shorts.

HADID: They try to get away with as much as possible without getting shut down. They have to. Theater workers tell us audiences only want dance routines and bawdy comedy, but so-called dirty theater, with its blaring music, sequins and seduction, isn't new. It has historical roots in Lahore. The slapstick comedy has long been traditional entertainment in this area. The dancing can be traced back to when the Mughal Empire was situated in the city. Elites used to engage tawaifs, beautiful women who would sing and dance before a crowd.

SUNDUS RASHEED: These were almost like the geishas, very classy women who sort of dictated the culture of the time.

HADID: Sundus Rasheed is a broadcaster and pop culture writer. The status of these women declined as the empire unraveled and the British took over. By the time Pakistan was formed more than seven decades ago, many flocked to the new cinema industry.

RASHEED: But not everybody became a heroine in cinemas, and they started sort of devolving into dancers.

HADID: Others became prostitutes. And the presence of these performances in Pakistan today seems jarring because conservatives have been angered by so much less, like the uproar over a biscuit advertisement two years back. It featured an actress jauntily dancing in traditional, flowy dresses.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in non-English language).

HADID: It was briefly banned after a newspaper editor compared the woman's performance to that of the women in dirty theatre. And the religious right wing has been firing up their base by raging against what they call obscenity, like feminists marching on International Women's Day.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Chanting in non-English language).

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in non-English language).

HADID: One year, religious extremists hurled rocks at the women. This year, one group threatened to beat them with sticks. We asked a leader of that group - it's called JUI-F - why dirty theater didn't make them as angry as feminists.

HAFIZ FAHEEM UDDIN: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: Hafiz Faheem Uddin says women who march with their faces uncovered are unacceptable. As for dirty theater, he says...

UDDIN: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: You can only convince people through preaching and an invitation to virtue. But maybe the reason why conservatives and culture warriors turn a blind eye to so-called dirty theater is about something else - the men who come and see it. At another theater in Lahore, men eagerly cluster around a ticket window. They're here to watch "Kacha Badam." The name is from a viral Indian song. One of the guys sings it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Singing) Kacha badam, kacha, kacha badam.

HADID: The theater is tucked into an alleyway right beside a mosque. So over the call to prayer, Shah Nawaz Ahmed tells us they drove for 6 hours from their hometown for a boys night at the theater.

SHAH NAWAZ AHMED: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: He says we wanted the front row, but we could only get the 12th.

AHMED: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: He says the shows refresh their minds when so much of life is frustrating. But no, Ahmed says, they didn't tell their wives where they were going.

AHMED: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: He says, they'll find out when we update our status on social media. Another man in line, Asfandyar, says, yeah, there's a double standard.

ASFANDYAR: You will see those people sitting in the hall who will criticize their women and their family to not go outside. But they will be sitting here watching other sisters, other women, doing vulgar dance, doing vulgar jokes.

HADID: It's not OK for the wives and sisters of these men to be dance performers, but it's OK for the men to watch. Backstage after the theatre show, Khushboo Khan laughs.

KHAN: (Laughter).

HADID: She thinks the reason why conservatives and clerics don't protest is because they and their followers are in the audience.

Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Lahore.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singing in non-English language). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.