Farida Tarana’s music video is nothing like the raunchy Bollywood or Central Asian ones regularly shown on Afghan television, albeit with bare female arms, shoulders and cleavage smudged out.
The 25-year-old is conservatively dressed and stands almost still as she sings her first single, Qalbam Fedayat (My heart belongs to you).
But the performance is daring in its own way: Tarana does not wear a headscarf, making her the first Afghan woman inside the country to record a music video with her hair uncovered since the Taliban regime fell six years ago. “It was a big step,” she said nervously around the time the song was released in mid-February. “Someone had to do it.”
“People like my mother prefer to wear a headscarf but the new generation — if they had the freedom, they would give it up.” There were threats, said Tarana. “They were calling to tell me they would kill me, that they would put a bomb in my car or home.”
Two weeks after the release of her single, she left the country, saying from her parents’ home in Iran that she was afraid.
Choosing whether to wear a headscarf does not top the mountain of hardships facing Afghan women, who have the second-highest chance in the world of dying giving birth and also face forced marriages and violence.
Indeed most women wear a face-covering burqa when in public. But Tarana’s decision, and the sharp reaction, reflect attitudes towards Afghan women in a society juggling religious fundamentalism as it nudges towards modernity.
As countries mark International Women’s Day on Saturday, such issues also illustrate their efforts to assert themselves in a conservative society.
Government employee Lailuma Sadid, one of a handful of women in Kabul who usually does not cover her hair, said she brushes off insults about her dress. In the most recent incident, a man told her in the city centre: “If you stand here for another minute, I will put a bullet in your head and drag your body on the road tied to a car,” she recounted. “If we take things like this seriously, then we better not leave the house,” Sadid said.
Afghan women are trapped by a “backward society, ignorance, illiteracy and cultural retardation,” she said. Most are treated as property once they are married and few enjoy equal rights in the post-Taliban constitution.
But there have been improvements since the hardline Taliban were ejected. “Women can work, go to school, leave home without a male relative. We have women represented in the cabinet — maybe not enough, we have women in the parliament.”
The biggest challenge remains maternal mortality, said Ramesh Penumaka, country representative for UN Population Fund. About 24,000 women die around childbirth a year, he said. The figure is about 25 times the number of civilians being killed in violence linked to a Taliban-led insurgency.
“It’s because girls are married very young. More than half the girls are married before they are 18 years, some as young as eight years,” he said.