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Afghan ensemble Zohra is a reflection of the transformative power of music

Just picking up a musical instrument is an act of courage for Zohra, Afghanistan’s first all-woman orchestra

columns Updated: Dec 01, 2017 18:40 IST
Zohra,music,Afghanistan
Zohra, an Afghan women’s orchestra, performs at the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit, New Delhi, November 30, 2017(Sanchit Khanna/HT)

When the call came, she was home at Kunar for her holidays. Negin Khapalwak had just got admission into the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, the only music school in her country. But there was a problem. The then 14-year-old had not yet told her parents that she had applied.

When she was nine, Negin’s father had packed her off to live in Kabul in an orphanage — not because she was an orphan but because that was the only way he could ensure she would learn to read and write. Kunar was then a Taliban stronghold and while the boys could study in the mosque, the girls had to stay home, out of sight.

By the time the Taliban regime had fallen, female literacy was barely 17% in the country. According to Unesco, there are provinces where it continues to be less than 2%. It was unusual for a girl to get an education; to get a musical education even more so. For the next five years, Negin says, she couldn’t go home because her own uncles had threatened to kill her.

At 18, Negin became her country’s first woman lead conductor. “I had heard music on the radio, but I had never seen a girl play,” she says. For three years she played the sarod and then learned piano before picking up the baton.

All cultures have a tradition of music. Afghanistan’s tradition goes back a thousand years. But, starting with the invasion by Soviet troops in 1979 and right up to — and even after the fall of — the Taliban in 2001, music was taboo, banned because of its ‘corrupting influence’.

Then, almost 10 years after the fall of the Taliban, a musicology professor, Ahmad Sarmast, a burly man with a soft voice, who had been living in exile in Australia, returned home to set up the Afghanistan National Institute of Music to provide a safe learning environment for all students and especially the most disadvantaged — orphans, street vendors and girls.

This came at a huge cost. In 2014, a student concert was targeted by a suicide bomber. One person was killed and Sarmast lost his hearing, temporarily.

Undeterred, Sarmast continued. A year later, the all-women’s orchestra named after Zohra, a Persian goddess of music, was born with just six girls.

Today, the 26 young women who are its members, the youngest just 13-years-old, continue to defy social norms, some play without their families’ approval or even knowledge.

The girls wear a burnished determination. Nazira had never seen a musical instrument. She is her country’s first cello player. Marjan used to sell chewing gum on the streets. Her relatives are furious that she’s learning music. But, she says, she wants to be a ‘good teacher for the future of our girls’.

Slowly, these women and girls are spreading their wings. They are the first in their families to study music in 35 years, or get any education at all, or even leave their villages let alone their country.

They have performed at concerts from Turkmenistan to Germany. This January, they played at Davos at the World Economic Summit.

The threat remains. Following the Europe tour, some parents objected to the publicity, worried that it might provoke new attacks on their daughters, said one of the teachers.

The opposition to Zohra comes from those who are threatened by what the orchestra represents: Gender equality, girls’ empowerment, dignity and working together to address social challenges. “They are aware of the transformative power of music and this scares them,” says Sarmast.

When we talk about empowerment, we sometimes forget that courage comes in all shapes, sizes and forms.

Somewhere a girl asserts her right to ride a bicycle or play football or just go to school like her brother. It doesn’t matter whether she lives in Herat or Haryana. The only thing that matters is her drive to excel, her determination to be heard and her grit to stand up and be counted.

And sometimes the girls are just girls.

At the HT Leadership Summit where they had performed earlier in the day, a sighting of actor Salman Khan at dinner leads to excited whispers. But the girls are too shy to go up to him. Someone mentions it to Khan who graciously comes forward and poses for photos.

Let’s just say the shrieks were not exactly musical.

Namita Bhandare writes on social issues and gender

Twitter: @namitabhandare

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Dec 01, 2017 18:40 IST