Fawzia Afzal-Khan

Trained as a vocalist while growing up in Pakistan, Professor Fawzia Afzal-Khan has always sought to share the culture of her native country with others.

“As a performer, I mix jazz into my own musical traditions and am developing a style that I call ‘East meets West,’” says Afzal-Khan, who, in addition to teaching English and gender studies at Montclair State, performs her music on college campuses and other venues.    

As part of her role as the University’s director of Women’s and Gender Studies, she conducts scholarly research and is bringing it to the public through a documentary film on female Pakistani singers.

She decided to film a documentary after learning about a “Bridging Culture Through Film” grant opportunity from the National Endowment for the Humanities that unites a scholar and an independent filmmaker to examine an international theme in the humanities.

“In my research and teachings, I have always played this cultural ambassador role by connecting English literature to non-Western countries, so the grant seemed like a natural fit,” explains Afzal-Khan. “I thought I could connect my passion as a singer with Women and Gender Studies.”  

After working on the proposal for two years, she won the $70,000 grant, which helped her produce a 14-minute trailer with Kathleen Foster, a filmmaker she met while contributing to Foster’s 2007 documentary Afghan Women: A History of Struggle. Afzal-Khan hopes to receive another grant to finish the film for release in 2015.

The film, From The Melody Queen to the Muslim Madonna, focuses on Pakistani history since its partition from India in 1947 “as told through the eyes, lives and music of its female singers,” Afzal-Khan says.

The film introduces classical singers such as Noor Jahan, the “Melody Queen” who inspired the title and imbued early Pakistani music with elements of Islamic mysticism. “I want to show that side of Islam because the Islam that the West knows is this terroristic, fanatical version of Islam. The Islam of the people is the Islam of music and poetry that comes out of mystical shrines,” explains Afzal-Khan.

‌Throughout the film, a visual timeline traces Pakistan’s political changes and how those impacted Pakistan’s musical scene and female singers. “In 1978, Islamic policies were forced down people’s throats,” says Afzal-Khan. “But even when the state was trying to crush female singers and snuff out their music, they found ingenious ways to stay alive and continue to produce music.”  

The “Muslim Madonna” of the documentary’s title is Deeyah, a Pakistani-Norwegian pop singer who made a feminist music video released in the United Kingdom in 2006. She was excoriated by orthodox Muslim communities and abandoned her singing career, but still works behind the scenes, fighting the marginalization of women.

By documenting these defiant women, Afzal-Khan hopes to counteract the victimization of Pakistani women in the media.

“I want American audiences to see a different side of Pakistan and come to a deeper understanding of Pakistan’s history which is deeply rooted in traditions of music and poetry,” says Afzal-Khan.