Afghanistan's women vocalists are taking back their right to sing

Afghanistan's women vocalists are taking back their right to sing

The Taliban had banned women from playing music when in power from 1996 to 2001 but change is afoot
Updated 05 Apr, 2019

Soria Hussaini was not sure what would happen when she decided to perform the first Kabul street concert by a woman in recent memory.

The 20-year-old, whose family fled civil war in Afghanistan for Iran during the 1990s, worried about her safety. But nearly 50 people watched the unadvertised concert by Hussaini’s rock group, Azadi, in the city’s Kart-e-Char neighborhood in March, singing and clapping along with the music.

“Some were against this concert, but we did not give up,” she said. “We are all scared of suicide bombings, explosions, abductions and other issues in this country.”

Hussaini’s concert was unusual both for its public setting and the positive response it received in a country where views on women and entertainment are often ultra-conservative.

In sharp contrast, a video surfaced this week and was widely shared on social media showing men whipping a woman, purportedly a Taliban punishment for singing in public. It was not clear when the video was filmed, but it generated fierce online criticism of the Taliban.

Reuters was not able to verify the authenticity of the video. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said he could not confirm the video depicted members of the group, and that it was investigating the incident.

Intensifying peace talks between the United States and the Taliban have brought a focus on the place of women in Afghan society. Many say they fear greater freedoms won in recent years will be eroded under a settlement with the Islamists.

The Taliban banned women from playing music or appearing in public with their faces visible when in power from 1996 to 2001.

One symbol of the changes since the Taliban were overthrown is 18-year-old Zahra Elham, who last month became the first woman to win the vote-in singing competition Afghan Star in the 14 years since local TV station Tolo began screening the popular show modeled on American Idol.

“They finally supported a girl. That day, I witnessed that there is justice, they let a girl move forward,” she said.

Not everyone celebrated her success, however, said Elham, who recalled a frightening 2-km (1.2-mile) walk home from the TV studio one night in January, as her celebrity grew.

“Everyone was taunting me on the way,” said Elham, who hails from the Hazara ethnic minority that has long suffered discrimination in Afghanistan. “There were comments about ethnicity since, in our tribe, it is not desired for a girl to become a singer. Now my fear has increased.”


TV journalist Farahnaz Forotan, 26, received a more supportive reaction when she launched last month a social media movement with the hashtag “MyRedLine”, encouraging women - and men - to publicly declare what rights they would not surrender.

Forotan launched the movement by declaring that her pen, symbolic of her profession, was her red line. Since the Taliban government fell in 2001, a robust media industry has emerged in Afghanistan, including many female journalists.

Forotan’s personal RedLine video has been viewed nearly 12,000 times on Facebook. She is planning visits to all 34 Afghan provinces to expand her campaign.

“I thought that we were at a more sensitive and historic situation than any other time in the past and this sensitive and historic situation needs historic deeds,” she said.

Supporters recorded short smartphone videos of themselves declaring their own “red lines”, including a female lawyer citing her work defending women’s rights.

“We emphasize that we won’t go back,” Forotan said, referring to the Taliban era.

Meanwhile Hussaini, who still lives in Iran, is already planning two more Afghan street concerts, one in Bamiyan province and another in Kabul.

“I see a good future in Afghanistan and am hopeful that street concerts will become more common here,” she said.


Prateik Apr 05, 2019 01:27pm
Nobody should stop women from harnessing their hidden talent.
Parvez Apr 05, 2019 01:49pm
Brilliant news ....
Amjad Durrani Engineer USA Apr 05, 2019 07:33pm
As long as Afghan women keep their modesty in dress and behavior in public , this is welcome change. Prior to Russian invasion, city of Kabul displayed a more relaxed environment, which has been lost during decades of conflict going on. A country’s progress and propsperity is measured through gender equality and free participation in social and cultural events as long as it upholds and respects local traditions and values. This is a pleasant change and one hopes that it continues in the future too.
Abbas Syed Apr 06, 2019 03:40am
@Amjad Durrani Engineer USA What right man has to lecture a woman on modesty of her dress. Who is to determine the modesty of the woman's dress? Man, then gender equality is bogus.
Umesh Apr 06, 2019 05:35am
@Amjad Durrani Engineer USA What is modesty? Who decides? Do you consider women of US,where you seem to stay,to be modest? If not, why stay there? Return to the land of pure.
Asif Ali Apr 06, 2019 09:09am
@Amjad Durrani Engineer USA , modesty is only for women?
Amjad Durrani Engineer USA Apr 06, 2019 10:19am
@Asif Ali For your kind information , Afghanistan having a literacy rate of 38% , and with its deeply conservative tribal system in vogue, is primarily very traditional, and custom oriented country. The pushtun in the south of the country who make up 43% of 31 million population, being religiously conservative, discourage female education as well as their social participation in a mixed audiences. On the other hand the minority tribes of northern Afghanistan comprising of Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras & others are more educated and liberals. They are instrumental in providing space to the women to participate in healthy cultural activities but still adhering to strict traditional code to avoid any backlash from conservatives. Accordingly , all those striving for women emancipation need to tread very cautiously , not to show any disrespect by trampling social values and traditional customs of the civil society.