A tale of Afghan women, music, and freedom

Sep 17, 2021 05:52 PM IST

Music was an act of resistance for the girls in Afghanistan’s first all-women orchestra. Some managed to leave the country, but others lie low, their future uncertain, as they await clarity from the Taliban

When she came to India as part of the first all-female orchestra in the history of Afghanistan, Maram Ataee was just a girl of 15. The ensemble, Zohra, named after the Persian goddess of music, was performing at the 2017 Hindustan Times Leadership Summit and had already made waves in Davos and Germany. Everywhere they went, they sparkled — these fresh-faced 30-odd girls, the youngest, just 13.

Zohra, Afghan women’s orchestra, performs during the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit in New Delhi, in 2017. (HT Archive) PREMIUM
Zohra, Afghan women’s orchestra, performs during the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit in New Delhi, in 2017. (HT Archive)

Since I was introducing the girls at the summit, I got to spend time with them as they lounged backstage in their purple scarves and black salwar-kameez. They were the ambassadors of something larger: The triumph of hope and the power of music to transform lives and rebuild a country ravaged by violence.

The Taliban banned music, but 10 years after its fall, musicology professor Ahmad Sarmast returned to Kabul from exile in Australia with the vision to reclaim his country’s musical identity by setting up the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM). Its students were the first in their families to study music. Most had never touched an instrument. Many came from the provinces and had no education. Some girls faced parental and social opposition.

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Ataee was born in Egypt where her parents were studying, and had begun playing the piano when she was five. In 2016, her father returned to Kabul to take up a government job. But, he told her: No more piano. There’s no future in music. It was a security risk. Moreover, what would people say?

For the girls, music was an act of resistance. Ataee prevailed and joined ANIM a year later. “It was the first friendly environment for me,” she said. “Many of the girls had faced opposition at home and we supported each other.”

In 2020, with no inkling of the future, Ataee and some of the older students began applying for admission to American universities. On August 10, five days before Taliban fighters entered Kabul, Ataee landed in Michigan where she is now a student. Her parents, she said, are safe in the United Arab Emirates.

There is as yet no official ban on music by the Taliban, Dr Sarmast said on the phone from Melbourne, where he is now. ANIM has not been shut down, but classes are suspended and the future is unknown. The 300-odd students and 85 faculty members are waiting at home. “I have advised my students to keep a low profile. But I am not much hopeful that we will be allowed to resume”, he said.

The early signs do not look good. The Taliban’s new rules include strict dress codes for women who can study only in gender-segregated classrooms that are taught by women, or old men. Working women have been asked to stay home. No woman figures in the new council of ministers.

Ataee is “thankful” that she “left Afghanistan in the nick of time”. But, she adds, “I had hoped one day to teach the younger girls.” That hope, like so many others, is now on hold.

Namita Bhandare writes on gender

The views expressed are personal

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    Namita Bhandare writes on gender and other social issues and has 25 years of experience in journalism. She has edited books and features in a documentary on sexual violence. She tweets as @namitabhandare

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