KUALA LUMPUR - The Kelantan government must lift the ban on its traditional cultural performances and the restrictions it imposes on women performers in the state, says the United Nations Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights Karima Bennoune.
Bennoune, who has been around the country for a two-week period ending yesterday, said that the state government's ban on its traditional cultural performances such as mak yong, wayang kulit, main puteri and dikir barat has negatively impacted the survival and preservation of these traditional art forms.
"I have serious concerns about the restrictions and full bans that have been imposed on a number of artistic and cultural practices in Kelantan," she said, after having spoken to traditional cultural practitioners in the state.
"Let me be very clear, the bans on mak yong, wayang kulit, main puteri and dikir barat, and the restrictions on women performing for mixed audiences must be lifted without delay," she added.
The banned art forms, she was told by the artists and practitioners, were an important part of the history of Kelantan and a source of pride to people of the area.
Solutions offered by some, like practitioners and performances moving away from the state, did not contribute to the preservation of the art forms.
"Sometimes the answer you hear is, 'don't worry, these art forms are being practised somewhere else' ... to me, this is an entirely insufficient answer.
"Simply moving these art forms away from the very region where they emerged is insufficient to guarantee cultural rights," she said.
She added that the Kelantan government needed to start taking steps to counter the negative impact of its ban and restrictions.
Bennoune said that the restrictions on women performing for mixed audiences could result in an erasure of women from cultural arts.
"Women have been involved in the arts in Kelantan and other parts of Malaysia for centuries and I am very worried about the restrictions on women from performing in public for mixed audiences that I was told about.
"That does have a chilling effect, which has happened in other places as well, with the stigma on women performing in public," she said, adding that the restrictions on women from performing in public also signalled the growing religious fundamentalism in the state.
"I am deeply concerned at the level of involvement of religious authorities in policy decisions throughout the country, and this involvement is also present in the culture and cultural rights area," she added.
On the topic of artistic freedom, Bennoune also called for the Government to review and clarify the criteria for censorship of books and films in the country, which she noted has become "stricter over time".
Bennoune was in Malaysia on the invitation of the Government to conduct an observation and assessment on its efforts to implement and ensure the cultural rights of Malaysians.
She will present her final report to the United Nations at a later date.