The Taliban may no longer control the airwaves, but young women in Afghanistan still face torture and death for performing music. Meet the women who are pushing back—by rapping, singing, even playing the cello.
By William Hochberg
(Photo: Pacific Standard)
“Try to be a woman in Afghanistan.” The phrase is a gauntlet, thrown by a young woman unleashing hip-hop verses into the camera. She’s standing in the dilapidated Darul Aman Palace about 10 miles outside the center of Kabul, wearing distressed jeans and rapping in her native Dari tongue: “You [men] never feel ashamed of your own infidelity, but when I raise my voice, you cut my tongue. Get lost! You did not create me.”
It’s Soosan Firooz, perhaps Kabul’s best-known female rapper, and she’s shouting down an abusive lover in a music video for her anthem of Afghan women, “Naqisul Aql.” Firooz says that her brash, unapologetic hip-hop has earned her threats of kidnapping, acid attacks, and death — one of several reasons that her father became her de facto bodyguard. Fans and haters alike comment on her YouTube page. One supporter urges: “Keep on fighting sister even if that involves you dying for your right in your country!!!!!”
Graffiti on one of the front walls of the bullet-pocked palace reads “Death to the worldwide infidels” — perhaps scrawled by militias after the fall of the Afghan Marxist regime in 1992. The Taliban went on to outlaw virtually all accompanied music, an arrangement that lasted until a United States-led coalition ousted the extremist group in 2001. Still, as comparatively open as life in Kabul has become under the protection of Afghan and coalition troops, the cultural renaissance following legalized music has been no Summer of Love for the country, and particularly not for Afghan women. Competitors on the reality television talent show Afghan Star have been threatened with death, while women deemed insufficiently submissive are at risk of having their noses cut off, getting acid thrown in their face, enduring severe beatings, or worse. A report from the United Nations Women Afghanistan Country Office ranks Afghanistan among the worst places on Earth to be born a woman.
Female Afghan musicians say spinning their tunes is safer than it used to be — but only marginally. A young rapper named Sonita Alizadeh says her family considered selling her as a bride when she was 10 and again at 16. She left them and launched a career, recording a rap video called “Daughters for Sale” in which she wears a wedding dress and, on her forehead, a barcode.
“In Afghanistan, just being a woman and singing, no matter what you are singing about, is very brave,” Alizadeh says. (She now lives in Utah, thanks to the non-profit Strongheart Group, an advocacy organization that sponsored Alizadeh’s emigration and enrollment at Wasatch Academy, a private secondary school in the state.)
Nevertheless, opportunities to learn performance and songwriting are greater than before, and Kabul has slowly blossomed with music. That’s the view of Ahmad Sarmast, an ethnomusicologist and the founder and director of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, where young, disenfranchised children come to study music (often with the help of foreign aid workers), including classical, traditional Afghan music, and even pop genres. Between 2013 and 2015, Sarmast saw his enrollment of girls almost double. ANIM currently has around 250 pupils, including 70 girls and an all-female orchestra, Sarmast says. His promotion of co-ed music education, and especially of teaching music to girls, made him a target for the Taliban, and, in 2014, a suicide attack during a performance left him with shrapnel wounds and partial hearing loss.
The Taliban’s violent suppression of music applied equally to Bach inventions, Afghan ragas, and indigenous rap with a beat. Holly Bishop, an American music instructor with the Connecticut-based non-governmental organization Cuatro Puntos, tells me about one of her students, an Afghan girl who said she fended off an arranged marriage by threatening to tell the whole village she was studying music in Kabul. “The girl’s mother who was arranging the marriage backed off,” Bishop says, “out of fear of punishment from the Taliban and her family for allowing her daughter to learn music.”
“Despite the increased security we need nowadays, there’s still a very vibrant and exciting music scene in Kabul,” says Saad Mohseni, the country’s foremost media mogul, whose MOBY Group owns TV and radio stations around the country. Mohseni’s network has aired two Western-style music competitions: Afghan Starand The Voice of Afghanistan.
In an early season of Afghan Star, the Taliban threatened the life of a girl who sang and danced too freely, as seen in the 2009 documentary of the same name. Nonetheless, the show, now in its 12th season, is more of a hit than ever, Mohseni says.
“These performers are becoming role models, or even superstars, for the new generation of Afghans,” Mohseni says. “I think that encourages people to come forward. Sure, conservative Afghan families are reluctant to have their daughters go out and perform on our shows … but the fact is they’re com- ing out in larger numbers than ever.”
A version of this story first appeared in the
of Pacific Standard.
Massood Sanjer, director of general entertainment for MOBY Group in Kabul, says if you have a TV or radio receiver, the airwaves over Afghanistan today are vibrant and uncensored — though Sanjer still remembers the late 1990s, when the Taliban was in power and exerted stringent control over the country’s radio network. Back then, the Taliban forced Sanjer to read daily propaganda on Voice of Sharia, the Taliban’s state radio organ — exploiting his nearly flawless English, which Sanjer taught himself by watching Western TV shows and films as a boy.
While the Taliban used to beat men for listening to music, they “reserved their greatest enthusiasm for punishing women,” writes Rod Nordland in his new book The Lovers, the non-fiction tale of a young couple that elopes and escapes rural Afghanistan for America. Women suspected of “moral crimes” would be “taken to the National Stadium and, in front of a capacity crowd that had been rounded up and ordered to attend, stoned to death, or shot in the head, always piously covered up by a robin’s-egg-blue burqa as they sat in the dirt waiting for the end,” Nordland writes.
The relative cultural freedom of the city-state of Kabul — or the Ka-bubble, as Western expats call it — is fragile. Earlier this year, a Taliban suicide bomber reportedly rammed a TV truck belonging to Mohseni’s network in central Kabul, killing seven and injuring more than 20. Since then, death threats against media workers and personalities, especially against women, have grown more frequent, according to a BBC report.
The irony, according to Sarmast, is that the Taliban isn’t fighting against Western culture. What they’re really fighting is Afghanistan’s own rich musical heritage. “It’s a totally uneducated, narrow, and almost illiterate people who are misinterpreting Islamic ideology,” he says. “There is nothing explicitly written against music in the Holy Quran.”
Even so, in the wake of Taliban rule, musical culture in Afghanistan is evolving in response to past suppressions, and Afghan women worldwide are taking the lead with performances of inherent rebellion. Take a young woman named Paradise Sorouri, who — uncowed by repeated death threats — continues to rap and sing as part of a duo with her fiancé (he goes by the sobriquet Diverse). Their group is called the 143Band, named for the number of letters in the three words “I love you” — a rebuke to the hatred that greets so many female musicians in Afghanistan: “They think if you are a rapper or singer, then you are a prostitution promoter,” Diverse told me via Facebook chat.
In a 2012 video, Sorouri sings the refrain: “Afghanistan is my country name / But is full of pain.” Her performance is all confessional fire: “I was burned in the face in the name of Islam / Disgraced for revenge / Had acid poured all over me … oh people don’t feel sorry for me / Just send my words to the world.”