Gendered Sufi Music: Mapping female voices in Qawwali performance from Bollywood to YouTube Channels

by: , September 12, 2018

© Illustration by Lauren Biddulph


Women’s position in Sufism and more specifically within Qawwali performances has been discussed along with the lines of Islamic femininity, gendered hierarchy and the complexities of women’s agency at dargha (tombs or shrines). (Pemberton 2010; Abbas 2002 & Qureshi 1995) Sufism provides agency to women to function according to their spiritual motivations within traditional sites of ritualised performance. (Pemberton 2010) This agency, however, comes into a dialectical tension when portraying servitude as it tends to represent women as pious and in possession of spiritual authority (Mahmood 2005); at the same time, however, it is sidelining them from having agency within Qawwali performance.

The Chishti Orders (Chishtiyya) are examined here as a traditional site of musical performance. Their khanqah (hospice/community centre) primarily in Northern Parts of India were instrumental in the spread of Islam through charity work. It was at the dargha of Khwaja Moinudden Chishti and his successors that the devotional music of Sufis became popular. Sufi music has been successful in transmitting Sufi ideals to mainstream audiences in a seamless fashion. Amir Khusro from the Chishti order has been one of the biggest contributors to Sufi Music. He was credited for creating, for instance, a bricolage of Indian, Turkish, Arabian and Persian musical traditions – to which we now refer as Qawwali. This art form can also be found in Bangladesh and Pakistan. The songs are usually sung in Urdu and Punjabi- languages that resonate with all three countries, especially Pakistan and India. Pakistan also had notable Chishti shaykhs, such as Tajuddin Chishti, Noor Muhammad Maharvi, Muhammad Suleman Taunsvi, Khwaja Ghulam Farid among others. Their shrines, especially in the Punjab and Sind regions in Pakistan, are rich with Humnawa’s (Qawwali musicians). Their music can now be heard in India due to prolific use of the internet and improvements in technological apparatus. Here, I wish to explore sites of Chishti Order as the traditional site of Qawwali performances and I also seek to examine women’s participation within Qawwali at the darghas of the Chishti Order.

At traditional sites of Sufi music, one can observe how technology provides amplification for Qawwali performances. (Ernst 2014) The Islamic practice of Sama (listening to sacred words accompanied with music) has been the salient reference to Qawwali at the shrines. Qawwali is the devotional music of the Chishti Sufi order in South Asia. Qureshi (1995) describes Qawwal, whose profession it is to perform Qawwali, as a devotion to love – indeed, it is a guide towards the knowledge of love through self-realization. Sufi music’s live experience as dhikr (chanting the divine name of Allah) and sama (literary audition) in a traditional spatial model, seeks to guide its audience to fana (absorption) into the spiritual realm. (Pauwels 2010) There is a devotional form of etiquette (adab) that follows the Qawwali performances at the dargha which is enforced by a class of hereditary performing groups. (Qureshi 1999) For instance, hand-clapping is discouraged from the audience; the general sitting position is observed behind the Qawwali group so that both the audience and the Qawwals are facing the Shrine. These hereditary groups dominate the chants and the spiritual functions in the dargha.

Regula Burskhardt Qureshi has been at the forefront of studying Muslim musical culture in India and Pakistan. Her work amongst the hereditary performers emphasises, primarily, mystical poetry, musical expression and their function in supporting the spiritual needs of the audience. Qureshi’s (1995 & 1999) research into recorded aspects of Qawwali reveals the prominence of hereditary performance groups and their claims to guard the spiritual culture of the shrine as sanctioned by patrons and spiritual experts. (Qureshi 1999) Qureshi portrays the division of the shire and the Qawwali performances along gender lines. The live performances belong to the male domain and she portrays women’s participation solely in the realm of listening. Even though sidelined Qureshi (1999) argues that the recorded aspects of Qawwali music provide increasing amounts of agency to women as listeners due to the fact that women exercise more agency at home than men and are therefore decisive in their choice of which Qawwali music is played at home. (Qureshi 1999) Even, Schimmel and Ernst (2011) argue along similar lines in their delineation of women’s agency as listeners. Here, women have access to Sufi preachers and historically were even allowed to attend meetings in the ninth and tenth centuries. Qureshi’s work, as well as that of Schimmel and Ernst, does not engage, however, with the accommodation of women’s voices in religious Qawwali performances.

It is worth noting that this sidelining of women’s participation in Qawwali occurs across India. Here, the Shari’a law that helps to frame Islamic traditions has played a significant role in the marginalised role of women. (Manea 2016) The Shari’a law and its depiction of women as being lesser than men – and as a manifold source of pollution — has lead to their invisibility with regard to performances of Qawwali. (Ernst & Lawrence 2002; Jeffery 2002) According to interpretations of Shari’a law, women are traditionally prohibited from singing in the presence of men. (Barlas 2002) This rule for women not to sing in the dargah is connected to the larger concern of adultery associated with this law. The arrival of women in dargah is supposedly a cause for men to slip from their faith. The larger concern lies in the supposedly inherent guilt that is attached to male desire and to female sexuality. Male desire is, for instance, frequently attributed to so-called female titillation and the supposed inability of women to control their own sexuality. (Krishnan 2006) This need to lay blame exacerbates a sense of guilt and is internalised, often, by women. It is, therefore, used to ensure regulation of female sexuality and to control the entrance of women into male dominated public spheres. (Krishnan 2006) This plays into the exclusion of women’s bodies in Islamic rituals. The patriarchal structure of most traditional performances is evidently visible at Nizam ud-din dargah. It bears a bright red sign that states: No Women Allowed in Shrine. The sign at the dargah resonates with Bourdieu (1977) and Foucault’s (1978) notion of a body as a practical, direct locus of social control. The female body becomes a medium through which the rules of cultural life are indoctrinated as a habit. (Jaggar & Bordo 1989) Such habits become a hereditary conditioning tool for other women to follow, thus using the female body to create a culture of adherence to patriarchal control. (Jaggar & Bordo 1989) According to Qureshi ‘women have no part in the Qawwali performance at any stage’. (1995: 98) This statement is contested by Abbas, who argues against the patriarchal study of women’s role with Sufi music. (2002) She claims that women play a significant role in the dargah community and researchers do not look for their contributions in the shrine as they become blinded by the purdah (behind a veil/segregated section). (Abbas 2002) Abbas’s work gives agency to women in the larger, encompassing function of the shrine, but she does not foreground the absence of women’s voices within the musical context of Qawwali. Women’s roles within Qawwali are marginalised, although sometimes there are special arrangements made to accommodate women. But broadly speaking, these prohibitions against women are justified via Shari’a law and this has worked to keep them away from the performative aspects of the shrine and thus to maintain the androcentric domination of Qawwali. (Alcoff 1988)

New Representations in Qawwali

Qawwali encompasses secular performances, during which the Qawwal group usually wear bright, colourful clothes that draw in the audience’s attention. (Holland 2010) Qawwali, as an art form, has been entertaining mass audiences in India since 13th century. (Qureshi 1995) The Qawwal’s encourage the audience to participate and often draw cheering from the crowd. Such performances allow for the use of western instruments and emphasise dynamic melodies and rhythms precisely in order to attract large audiences.

Most of popular Qawwali concerts draw in large audiences in India. This growing popularity has been attributed to Bollywood’s incorporation of Sufi music and to the legendary Pakistani Qawwal star Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. (Nayyar 1988) Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is seen as a modernizing force for Qawwali music within the north Indian Sufi audience. (Nayyar 1988) He is known to have influenced singers such as Jeff Buckley and collaborated with various global artists such as Michael Brook, Eddie Vedder and Alanis Morisette. He also composed songs for Bollywood films.

Bollywood, as an industry, maintains that Sufi music has been a central part of its trajectory for decades. (Zubedi & Sarrazin 2017) The inclusion of Qawwali performance within film, in the form of standalone shows or competitive performances between two groups of singers, was indeed quite popular in Bollywood cinema during the 1940s. (Zubedi & Sarrazin 2017) This form of cinema is popularly known as ‘filmi Qawwali’ – of which the primary objective is entertainment. The screened performances of Qawwali are often characterised as spectacular and dramatic and, notably, often feature female groups – which is contrary to traditional Qawwali norms. (Holland 2010; Arnold 2000)

Women’s Representation in Qawwali Performances

One of primary instances of female participation in Qawwali can be seen in the 1945 film Zeenat. More specifically, it was the song ‘Ahen na bharin shikwe na kiye’, which features the first all-female Qawwali, that is of interest within this context. This was followed by Qawwali from Barasat Ki Raat (A Rainy Night) (1960) in which a female group sings alongside the voices of Asha Bhosle and Sudha Malhotra. This trend continued in the movie Nikaah (Marriage Contract) (1982), which again centres on a female singer in a competitive performance between two groups. And we can find further instances of female Qawwali performances in the movie The Burning Train (1979) and a competitive duet in Mughal-E-Azam (The Great Mughal) (1960). More contemporary films continue to highlight the existing fusion form of Sufi Music in songs like Kabira (reference to Saint Kabir), sung by Rekha Bharadwaj, in the film Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (This Youth is Crazy) (2013), which contains evident strains of Sufi. Further, the song Deewani Mastaani (Crazy Mastaani [Maastani is the name of female lead character]) from the periodic drama Bajirao Mastaani (the names of the male and female lead characters, Peshwa Bajirao I and Mastaani) (2015) is performed by Shreya Ghoshal and resonates with Sufi expression. Therefore, female vocalists are featured in Bollywood Qawwali and, perhaps precisely because they are cleaved to this notion of novelty, this has given rise increasingly to spaces for female voices in Qawwali programming.

There has been one prominent exception to male dominated traditional Qawwali space and that Abida Parveen, a female Punjabi Qawwal, who is considered to be only second to the great Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. She is also known for sufiyana kalaam (a form of Sufi poetry sung in a vernacular language with local instrumentation) performances into which she has incorporated a Qawwali style. (Abbas 2002) Reshma is another folk singer who has entered this male-dominated playing field in Qawwali with her sufiyana kalaam influenced songs such as, Dama Dam Mast Kalandar (The Lord is in every breath of mine), and Hai O’ Rabba nahion lagda dil mera (Lord my heart is not at peace without you) amongst others. However, neither of them perform Qawwali in its traditional format. (Qureshi 1999)

Christopher Holland’s scholarship (2010) makes evident that Qawwali artists such as Naz Warsi, Baby Taj, and Zila Khan are, in fact, working to get their voices heard within traditional sites of performance. Naz Wazi and Baby Taj, in particular, claim that those who have inherited the dargah space for hereditary learning prohibit women and other un-inherited performers from performance. (Holland 2010) This outright exclusion from traditional sites of performance is a situation that is faced by most female Qawwals. This prohibition is translated into a code of conduct by the heads of the shrine and thus works to enforce the exclusion of women Qawwal’s from performing at traditional sites like a dargah.

However, Shemeem Bumey Abbas’s (2002) work has recuperated and reinterpreted how the female voice functions within Qawwali. She has found a sense of female agency within the Qawwali through the perspective of a lover. She quotes Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan:

‘In the tradition of Sufi mystical poetry, these poets when they speak, they do it in the female voice, they present themselves as the female, for them their beloved, their mentor, their sheikh, is the male, whereas their own choice is that of the female, their discourse is that of the female’. (Abbas 2002: 67)

Evidently, male Qawwals try to incorporate female perspectives in their music by invoking a supposedly female psyche that yearns to be in union with the male divine. The female voice, then, is regarded as the one who yearns and thus holds agency: which throws into crisis somewhat the very notion of male agency within this context. Hinterberger (2007) suggests that this presumption of knowledge about female desire is predicated on pre-given myths about what it means to be a woman and to desire. This works not only to curtail and stereotype female desire but also to reinstate and reinforce male authority – an authority that can speak on behalf of and arbitrate on the very notion of women’s choice. Once again, then, studies that centre on women’s representation are not concerned enough, I would suggest, with absent voices, but instead are preoccupied with attributing agency to women through a precise differentiation of tasks at the dargah.

There is a paucity of literature regarding women’s voices in Qawwali outside of these traditional sites of performances. Especially with regard to new media technologies which facilitate opportunities for women to participate and perform Qawwali. This movement has been driven by access to technological apparatus that has allowed for the inclusion of electronic rhythms, slap bass and other forms of electronic beats within Qawwali performance. With digitisation, the range of Sufi music has expanded with incorporation of new genres and new voices. (Racy 1976) In turn, this has opened up spaces for female voices within this dynamic genre. Notably, female artists, such as Lata Mangeshkar and, more recently, Harshdeep Kaur, have sung Sufi numbers for Bollywood films. (Kameshwari 2017 & Nair 2018)

Social Media and Female Representation in Qawwali

India currently has the second largest demographic of internet users in the world. (Chopra 2017) It has over 300 million smartphone users and this is growing exponentially. (Chopra 2017) New developments within internet-based platforms which distribute Qawwali have helped to bring this art form to the popular global stage. Younger generations of musicians now have the ability to record themselves at a low cost and create musical productions of high quality due to increased access to free production software.

They are also developing new styles of Qawwali that are both globally influenced and secular in form. For instance, Bollywood singer Kavita Seth in the song Tumhi Ho Bandhu (You are my only friend) from the film Cocktail (2012), whilst primarily of a pop-rock genre, does include Sufi elements within the song; similarly, the song Jeete Hai Chal (Come let’s live this life) from the biopic Neerja (Name of the lead character, Neerja Bhanot) (2016) also contains similar elementsAnother artist, Rekha Bhardwaj, claims that any kind of music can include or be inspired by elements of Sufi. She notes that despite a song being considered to be an item-song (which is added into a film purely in order to entertain with a catchy, upbeat rhythm that is often accompanied by provocative choreography) its Sufi elements resonate with her to such an extent that she can still connect with the divine when performing item-songs. (Sen 2017)

The role of YouTube is paramount for the marketisation of Qawwali currently. It offers a new platform for people to upload their productions and to create social networks. YouTube functions through a participatory culture that relies on co-creation and collaboration with others. Qawwali music has multiple facets of representation on YouTube with some being part of popular channels on the social platform. Some of the key players in these channels are Coke Studio India, Coke Studio Pakistan, Nescafe Basement (Pakistan), and The Dewarists.

Coke Studio India and Pakistan are part of an international music franchise that feature live-studio performances ranging from emerging artists to established ones. Coke Studio Pakistan started in 2008 and was followed by its Indian counterpart in 2011. Qawwali performances, as a form of cultural expression, can be found in both Pakistan and India’s Coke Studios. Nescafe Basement functions similarly to Coke Studio, since it also produces live studio-recorded music. However, it focuses on young artists and their training. The Dewarists, like these aforementioned studios, stage live recording sessions but also partake in music documentary and travelogue genres. These channels have significant popularity and attract an average of over 1 million subscribers per channel. These channels are known for helping to bring the Sufi genre into popular culture.

What I am trying to establish here is whether there is, indeed, an inclusive space opening up for female vocalists within the secular form of Qawwali, in part thanks to technological interventions and the emergence of new platforms prominently featuring Sufi music. Unlike, Pemberton (2010), Abbas (2002), and Qureshi (1995, 1999), who have not engaged with women’s voices in secular Qawwali, these supposedly ‘absent’ voices are my focus. These scholars have only sought to justify (rather than argue for) the participation of women within the genre and examine solely traditional sites of Sufi music performance. By contrast, I am examining women’s representation on digital media platforms and seek to understand if changes in technology have improved or opened up sites of contestation and participation for women.

A Brief Outline of Methodology

To conduct this analysis, I used an inferential model as well as descriptive statistics. Descriptive statistics methodologically help to collate the data in order to read for the presence of female voices in Sufi music so that trends and patterns can be analysed (presented here through charts and graphs). I collected this data from various sources such as YouTube Channels of Coke Studio India, Coke Studio Pakistan, Nescafe Basement and The Dewarists. I then categorised this data nominally and constructed its frequency distribution; this method proved to be most fruitful in analysing absence/presence of female voices in Qawwali. In order to select certain data, I looked at a decade’s worth of filmmaking practice within the Bollywood industry. Film songs from 2007 to 2017 were taken into account and were analysed individually to listen for traces of Qawwali influence. I categorised these songs according to artist, gender and year of performance. I broke down further this data in terms of gender representation in Qawwali performance.


International research on women in music within this context suggests that musical spaces are often guarded and policed in order to maintain patriarchal hierarchies. (Strong 2016) Online platforms such as Youtube have played a major role in conveying this music to the popular imagination. The YouTube channels looked at here have brought new forms of Sufi Music into the popular and public realm. According to the findings of a study on user-generated mediums (UGM), platforms such as Youtube and Myspace are often used platforms for self-expression. (Shao 2009) Furthermore, studies suggest that the ease of using these platforms and the level of control they enable over content are two attributes that render UGM appealing for emerging artists. However, the question remains whether new technology and its platforms have afforded more spaces for female Qawwals to perform and present their music. The traditional spaces cannot accommodate women’s Qawwali performances since, as we have seen, they are still governed by a hereditary model justified within Shir’a law. Nonetheless, social media (and its coterminous YouTube channels) has aided the emergence of talented musicians – and as a global platform it works to support their endeavours towards becoming more established in the field.

Moreover, there is an inherent connection between all these different mediums, which has worked to transform this music over time. In the 1990s, Qawwali incorporated rock and pop attributes which gave Hindi films a new, vibrant genre of song – popularly known as the ‘Sufi rock pop’ genre. (Sarrazin 2017) The genre has subsequently become the catalyst for an independent music scene in which fusion is playing a major role. (Sarrazin 2017) As a result, the onscreen portrayals of Qawwali performances through Bollywood and Youtube channels have become a motivating force in helping to attract people to the dargah in order to experience Sufi music in a live setting. (Holland 2010)

It is worth noting that Qawwali music only accounts for one percent of the total songs released in Bollywood. (Fig. 1.1) Bollywood released 6,664 songs in the last ten years and of this number only 66 were Qawwali tracks. (Fig. 1.1) However, whilst Qawwali music over the last decade may have been used as merely a recuperated element, it has also become a prominent aspect of representation of Islamic culture within Bollywood films. These statistics also convey the number of films made within the Bollywood industry that are not dealing with specifically Islamic themes. Such marginalised representation is part of a wider socio-political environment, which has been prominently anti-Islam both in India and worldwide.

Fig. 1.1.

Moreover, from the 66 Qawwali tracks, there are only twenty-two songs that have female voices present. This diminutive ratio shows that a mere twenty-six percent of these Qawwali performances have a female presence in Bollywood. (Fig. 1.2) This percentage also reflects the novelty of the female voice in Bollywood. Female Bollywood singers such as Neeti Mohan, Neha Bhasin, Jonita Gandhi and Aditi Singh Sharma acknowledged the very real existence of a gender politics within the context of musical performance in a panel with Anupama Chopra for her TV show ‘Film Companion’. (Manral 2017) The singers collectively agreed on the lack of female songs in Bollywood films.

Fig. 1.2

The underrepresentation of the female voice is in part due to a dearth of roles beyond the subordinate woman and the choice of filmmakers to prioritise male desire and perspectives over those of women (often through music within the film’s narrative context). However, the fusion of Sufi music with other genres works to open up a space for female vocalists within the relative niche area of Sufi music within Bollywood filmmaking. In the last ten years, for instance, solo female voices are mostly heard within the context of fusion songs. Even if we look at the twenty-six percent of Qawwali performances that contain female vocals in Bollywood, forty-four percent of such performances are with male artists. (Fig. 1.3) Otherwise, they are generally given a small part in a group of three or four vocalists. (Fig. 1.3) Despite technological advancement and the higher visibility of women in popular culture, Bollywood has not encouraged equal representation of women Qawwals, then. Nonetheless, it has provided a space for women Qawwals which is absent to such women artists at traditional sites of performance. New platforms have also emerged via social media (through spaces like YouTube channels) which has aided the expansion of popular music in India beyond the monopoly of Bollywood.

Fig. 1.3

Technological developments have, essentially, aided the movement of Qawwali music into new habitats: at one time limited to a dargah-based experience, one can now hear this music within the family home and popular cultural and social settings. The Internet has precipitated the rise of new stars such as such as Harshdeep Kaur and Shilpa Rao who would not have been associated with and recognised for the Sufi genre without the assistance of social media and Bollywood. The recordings of new artists outside the dargah bear a sense of infidelity since they bring new forms and fusions to existing and established Qawwali songs. Examples of these are: Sunidhi Chauhan’s Aapka Kya Hoga, which is a remake of the original song from the film Laawaris (1999), and Tulsi Kumar’s Mere Rashqe Qamar, which is another remake of the original song as performed by Rahat Fateh Ali Khan.

There is thus a new and decentralised sense of ownership over Sufi songs that works to alter and re-create new formats from existing Sufi songs. There is also a new form of stardom that has emerged with the growing visibility of new artists due to technological advancements, which was entirely absent earlier. However, this exposure is seemingly bringing more of the same ‘popular’ figures into the limelight. Thus, the rich are getting richer whilst their fan bases have found new platforms (forums, Facebook groups, YouTube channels and blogs) through which to build communities and networks. There is a significant shift in the fan base of Qawwali from that of predominantly landed and poorer classes to urban elites and middle-class audiences. (Manuel 2008) Manuel (2008) argues that this shift within the audience has arisen alongside the commodification of music through CDs, cassette tapes and a growing celebrity culture which is centrally focused on singers like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Abida Praveen (and even expanding to contemporary artists who have used few Sufi or Folk aspects in their songs like Rabbi Shergill and Rekha Bharadwaj). Furthermore, such shifts have given greater prominence to popular filmi Qawwali than to its traditional folk variations.

These YouTube channels are a direct product of new approaches to South Asian music. These channels of Coke Studio India, Coke Studio Pakistan, Nescafe Basement and The Dewarists have all propagated some form of Sufi music during their various seasons of production. (Fig. 1.5) The four channels combined evidence that twenty-eight percent of their music – up to and including 2017 – is influenced by Sufi elements. (Fig. 1.4)

Fig. 1.4

Fig. 1.5

Among these, Coke Studio Pakistan is the leader in this market for the sheer volume of tracks influenced by Sufi music. (Fig. 1.6) Coke Studio Pakistan’s ratio of twenty three percent is, indeed, higher than other channels in terms of its contribution to Sufi music. (Fig. 1.6) Notably, women have contributed to thirty-eight percent of all Sufi based songs over these four channels. (Fig. 1.7) Their representation within both Coke Studios stands at forty percent. These findings evidence a contrasting scenario between the traditional sites of performance and other spaces. The digital shows a growth in the number of women performers of Sufi music, who at sites of dargah are forbidden to perform. Momina Mustehsan gained popularity after her rendition of Afreen Afreen with Rahat Fateh Ali Khan via Coke Studio Pakistan. However, the singer’s physical beauty and her sense of fashion became greater points for discussion over social media to the detriment of discussion of her musical ability. (Humayune 2016)According to the studies by Lieb (2013) and Hatton and Trautner (2011), female artists are treated primarily as sexual objects and are pressured into complying with specific standards of marketing to ensure a career in the music industry. Strong (2016) argues that such marketisation of the female body is on the increase, especially with regard to existing successful female artists: a bias that is notably not extended to male singers.

Fig. 1.6

Fig. 1.7

Fig. 1.8

Looking at Qawwali, one can still see patriarchal domination within the realm of performance. Knowledge of Qawwali, for female singers like Rekha Bharadwaj, came from male singers such as the Sabri brothers and Shankar Shambhu (Gupta 2016). Female artists turn increasingly to the the limited number of female Qawwali and Sufi artists such as Abida Parveen and Zila Khan as an example due to a lack of representation. Nonetheless, women performers account for around twenty percent of Qawwali performances in popular online spaces – just six percent shy of the representation Bollywood has provided thus far. (Fig. 1.9) Qawwali, as a style, has only made up three percent of all the productions created for the YouTube channels examined here. (Fig. 2.0) Therefore, this is a significant and notable improvement when compared to shrine culture that does not, generally speaking, provide any access whatsoever to women. However, within the context of a larger narrative, these channels have failed because they have not provided adequately the relevant conditions to help move marginalised female voices out of obscurity.

Fig. 1.9

Fig. 2.0


In conclusion, Sufi music’s voyage from ancient classical art form to its contemporary manifestation within popular music is also a journey from exclusivity (i.e. sight singing) to publicity through reproducibility. Throughout this transformation, online platforms have aided and provided innovative production spaces. YouTube channels such as Coke Studio, The Dewarist and Nescafe Basement have become prominent spaces that help in producing musical fusions. These channels are catering to a growing and niche audience with the aid of social media. This wave of technology-based mediation and dispersion has increased the audience base for Sufi music. The proliferation of the internet and the decreasing price for broadband networks have helped to expand access to this musical genre. However, social media and its role in popularisation and progression remains highly questionable with regard to Qawwali. This art form has remained an exclusively male business. Women’s marginalised existence within Qawwali has translated from the shrine into digital spaces. Whilst there are new female Qawwali groups emerging beyond Bollywood, for instance, Manwa Sisters (Lodhi 2016), Shaheen qawwal group (Saumya 2018), these names sadly are exceptional cases within the grander male-dominated narrative of Qawwali.

Moreover, YouTube, as a platform, has helped to create a new phenomenon in Qawwali: a combination of old traditional music with a contemporary twist. However, the relatively new phenomenon of Coke Studio (amongst other YouTube channels) has enabled a shift within the indigenous approach to Sufi Music. For instance, Abbas (2002) states that in Sufi practices and performances, it is hard to find women performers. Yet technology and its digitalisation of Sufi music has enabled the incorporation of other genres into that of Sufi music. This fusion has gained popularity within Hindi films and it is now relatively easy in fact to find Sufi inspired tracks in most Bollywood movies. The liberties Bollywood as an industry has taken with Sufi music have opened up a space for artists such as Lata Mangeshkar, Rekha Bhardwaj and Harshdeep Kaur to provide Sufi numbers for Bollywood films. This has brought prominence and notability to Sufi Music, and by extension, to Qawwali visibility within both Indian and global musical spaces.

Globalisation and technology have helped to bring the music of Pakistan closer to an Indian audience viaYoutube. According to Manuel (2008), Sufi music’s popularity has increased since the 1990s. Notably this is not with reference to religious/traditional Sufi songs, but to that of modern fusion music. It has been suggested that most Qawwali performances are recognised today only by lyrical content and extra-musical aesthetic features. Qawwali, like other aspects of Sufi music, is evolving with the contemporary moment and is taking on new and idiosyncratic forms of representation. And yet despite undergoing significant changes and a growth in popularity, women Qawwals have not received their due opportunity within popular culture. This can be linked of course to scepticism over the precise form of empowerment that digitally enabled self-representation provides to women and young girls. (Dobson 2015) Dobson (2015) argues that the dynamic, mercurial identity of social media platforms and the profit-driven content of most social media companies acts, in fact, as a hindrance to empowerment. Concomitantly, women still find themselves on the fringes of Qawwali culture. According to Abbas (2002), there is a lack of academic attention towards female voices in Sufi practices. The prominence of female singers in Sufi practices of South Asia and the Middle East stands in stark contrast to the absence of knowledge about them in the West. This uneven flow of information about female singers represents the degree of importance (or lack thereof) given to the issue of female participation in music as a whole. Their agency to perform is generally curtailed in secular, commercial spaces of production. There have been highly skewered narratives that defend such exclusion along the lines of women not having proper hereditary training like male Qawwals. However, this needs to be set within the broader context of the social exclusion of one gender (half the human population) from the traditional site of spiritual musical performance. There have been exceptional women, such as Abida Parveen, who have been challenging this space for a long time and they will find more followers in the future. But we need to create spaces for them.

Emerging artists on YouTube are working to change audience expectations and increasingly contemporary Qawwali is being noted for its style and innovation. Bollywood has played a significant role in casting the female voice in Qawwali performance. The continued support from Bollywood and social media will, no doubt, enhance women’s access to Qawwali performances. Coke Studio and The Dewarists in India have also helped to bridge the gap between Bollywood and independent musicians. UGMs like Youtube are providing women with agency and power to control their own representations. (Molyneaux, O’Donnell, Gibson & Singer 2008) This is manifest in the official Youtube sites of female singers and their music shows wherein their online representation as singers is viewed as a powerful extension of their personality. Female singers are making sure that, from the way they dress to their singing style, their visual persona is not shaped according to the convenience of patriarchy. However, further research still needs to be conducted with regard to how progressive these shifts in perspective within Sufi music/Qawwali really are; and indeed, whether there really have been significant paradigm shifts within an industry that has socially, politically and historically been a force of regression and conservatism. We must work towards ensuring that these female artists do not remain marginalised.


Abbas, Shemeem Bumey (2002), The Female Voice in Sufi Ritual: Devotional Practices of Pakistan and India, Austin: University of Texas Press.

Alcoff, Linda (1988), ‘Cultural Feminism versus Post-Structuralism: The Identity Crisis in Feminist Theory’, Signs, Vol.13, No.3, pp. 405-436. Available online:

Barlas, Asma (2019), Believing Women in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’an, New Delhi: University of Texas Press.

Bourdieu, Pierre (1977), Outline of a Theory of Practice, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Chopra, Arushi ( 2017), ‘Number of Internet Users in India Could Cross 450 Million By June’, Live Mint, 2 March 2017, (last accessed 5 June 2018 ).

Dobson, Amy Shields (2015), Postfeminist Digital Cultures: Femininity, Social Media, and Self-Representation, New York: Palgrave.

Ernst, Carl W. (2014), ‘Sufism: History, Politics and Culture’, Sufi, 86 (2): 29-35.

Ernst, Carl W. & Bruce Lawrence (2002), Sufi Martyrs of Love: The Chishti Order in South Asia and Beyond, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Foucault, Michel (1978), The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, New York: Pantheon.

Gupta, Deepa (2016), ‘Rekha Bharadwaj: The Music Compatibility Between Vishal and Me is Extraordinary’, FirstPost, 20 November 2016, (last accessed 5 June 2018).

Hinterberger, Amy (2007), ‘Feminism and the Politics of Representation: Towards a Critical and Ethical Encounter with “Others”’, Journal of International Women’s Studies, Vol.8, No. 2, pp. 74-83,

Hatton, Erin & Mary Nell Trautner (2011), ‘Equal Opportunity Objectification? The Sexualization of Men and Women on the Cover of Rolling Stone’, in Sexuality and Culture Vol.15, No.4, pp. 256–78.

Holland, Christopher Paul (2010), ‘Rethinking Qawwali: Perspectives of Sufism, Music, and Devotion in North India’. MA diss,, The University of Texas, viewed 13 November 2017,;sequence=1

Humayune, Oshin (2016), ‘Momina Mustehsan’s Coke Studio Gig: Of Internalized Misogyny and Insatiable “Tharak”’, FistPost, 24 August 2016, (last accessed 6 July 2018 ).

Jaggar, Alison M. & Susan Bordo (1989), Gender/body/knowledge: Feminist reconstructions of being and knowing, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Krishnan, Kavita (2006), ‘Sacred Spaces, Secular Norms and Women’s Rights’. Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 41, No.27 – 28, pp. 2969-2971,

Jeffery, Patricia (2000), Frogs in a Well: Indian Women in Purdah. New Delhi: Manohar.

Kameshwari, A. (2017), ‘Happy birthday Harshdeep Kaur: The young singer who adds a Sufi twist to Bollywood songs’, The Indian Express, 16 December 2017, <> (last accessed 3 July 2018).

Lieb, Kristin (2013), Gender, Branding, and the Modern Music Industry, New York: Routledge.

Lodhi, Adnan (2016), ‘Manwa Sisters: Pakistan’s First Female Qawwal Group to Felease Debut Song’, The Express Tribune, 2 August, 2016, (last accessed 5 June 2018).

Mahmood, Saba (2005), Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Manea, Elham (2016), Women and Sharia Law, New York: I B Tauris.

Manuel, Peter (2008), North Indian Sufi Popular Music in the Age of Hindu and Muslim Fundamentalism, Ethnomusicology, Vol. 52, No.3, pp. 378-400.

Manral, Anvisha (2017), ‘Why Anupama Chopra’s Panel on Gender Politics in Indian Music seems one – Sided’, FirstPost, 15 June, 2017, (last accessed 5 June 2018).

Molyneaux,Heather, Susan O’Donnell, Kerri Gibson & Janice Singer (2008), ‘Exploring the Gender Divide on YouTube: An Analysis of the Creation and Reception of Vlogs’, in American Communication Journal, Vol. 10, No.1, pp. 8–22.

Anna Morcom (2007), Hindi Film Songs and the Cinema, New York: Ashgate Publishing.

Nayyar, Adam. (1988), Origin and History of Qawwali, Islamabad: Lok Virsa Research Center.

Nair, Jyoti (2018), ‘A style as intriguing as the name’, The Hindu, 4 January 2018, (last accessed 23 July 2018).
Pauwels, Heidi (2010). ‘”The Woman Waylaid at the Well” or Paṇaghaṭa-līlā: An Indian Folk Theme Appropriated in Myth and Movies’, Asian Ethnology, Vol. 69 No.1, pp. 1-33.

Pemberton, Kelly (2010), Women Mystics and Sufi Shrines in India, Columbia : University of South Carolina Press.

Qureshi, Regula Burckhardt (1999), ‘His Master’s Voice? Exploring Qawwali and ‘Gramophone Culture’ in South Asia’, Popular Music, Vol. 17, No. 1, pp. 63-98.

Qureshi, Regula Burckhardt (1995), Sufi Music of India and Pakistan: Sound, Context and Meaning in Qawwali, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Qureshi, Regula Burckhardt (1986), ‘The Mahfil-e-Sama: Sufi Practice in the Indian Context’, Islam and the Modern Age, Vol. 17, No.1, pp 133-166.

Racy, Ali Jihad (1976), ‘Record Industry and Egyptian Traditional Music: 1904 -1932’, Ethnomusicology, Vol. 20, No.1, pp. 23‐48.

Sarrazin, Natalie (2017), ‘Divine Fusion: Sufi Music with a Rock n Roll Soul in Hindi Cinema’s Rockstar’, Performing Islam, Vol. 6, No.1, pp. 11-21,

Saumya, Kota (2018), ‘On a divine plane’, Telangana Today, 8 July 2018, (last accessed 23 July 2018).

Schimmel, Annemarie & Carl W.Ernst (2011), Mystical Dimensions of Islam: Thirty-fifth Anniversary Edition, Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.

Sen, Debarati (2017), ‘Bollywood is Soaking in the Sufi Spirit’, The Times of India, 17 January 2017, (last accessed 5 June 2018).

Shao, Guosong (2009). ‘Understanding the Appeal of User-generated Media: A Uses and Gratification Perspective’, in Internet Research, Vol.19, No.1, pp. 7–25.

Strong, Catherine (2016), ‘Gender, Popular Music and Australian Identity: Introduction to Special Issue’, in Journal of World Popular Music, Vol. 3, No.1,

Werbner, Pnina (2007), ‘Intimate Disciples in the Modern World: The Creation of Translocal Amity among South Asian Sufis in Britain’, in Martin Van Bruinessen and Julia Day Howell (eds.), Sufism and the ‘Modern’ in Islam, New York: I.B.Tauris, pp.195-217.

Zubedi, Irfan & Natalie Sarrazin (2016), ‘Evolution of a Ritual Musical Genre : The Adaptation of Qawwali in Contemporary Hindi film’, in Jayson Beaster-Jones and Natalie Sarrazin (eds.), Music in Contemporary Indian Film: Memory, Voice, Identity, New York: Routledge, pp. 162-176.

Download article


Feeling inspired by MAI? Dedicated to intersectional gender politics in visual culture? Want to keep your feminist imagination on fire? MAI newsletter will help refresh your zeal for feminism with first-hand news on our new content. 

Subscribe below to stay up-to-date.

* We'll never share your email address with any third parties.


The team of MAI supporters and contributors is always expanding. We’re honoured to have a specialist collective of editors, whose enthusiasm & talent gave birth to MAI.

However, to turn our MAI dream into reality, we also relied on assistance from high-quality experts in web design, development and photography. Here we’d like to acknowledge their hard work and commitment to the feminist cause. Our feminist ‘thank you’ goes to:

Dots+Circles – a digital agency determined to make a difference, who’ve designed and built our MAI website. Their continuous support became a digital catalyst to our idealistic project.
Guy Martin – an award-winning and widely published British photographer who’s kindly agreed to share his images with our readers

Chandler Jernigan – a talented young American photographer whose portraits hugely enriched the visuals of MAI website
Matt Gillespie – a gifted professional British photographer who with no hesitation gave us permission to use some of his work
Julia Carbonell – an emerging Spanish photographer whose sharp outlook at contemporary women grasped our feminist attention
Ana Pedreira – a self-taught Portuguese photographer whose imagery from women protests beams with feminist aura
And other photographers whose images have been reproduced here: Cezanne Ali, Les Anderson, Mike Wilson, Annie Spratt, Cristian Newman, Peter Hershey