In the face of verbal attacks and accusations they are dishonouring their families by daring to perform, the women of Afghanistan’s first all-female orchestra are charting a new destiny for themselves through music. The group has catapulted onto the world stage with a performance at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
Zohra, an ensemble of 35 young musicians aged 13 to 20, performed before 3,000 CEOs and heads of state during a session on Thursday and at the closing concert on Friday. Led by Negina Khpalwak, who celebrated her 20th birthday on the return flight from Europe, the girls have overcome death threats and discrimination in this deeply conservative war-torn country to play together.
With their hair hastily knotted, and eyes focused on their instruments, Negina led the musicians earlier this month at one of their last rehearsals in the capital city, Kabul, before the concert.
“She is Afghanistan’s first female conductor,” Dr Ahmad Sarmast, the musicologist who founded Afghanistan’s National Institute of Music (Anim) and the Zohra orchestra, said of Negina.
Sarmast understands the risk facing women in Afghanistan who pursue music – which was banned during the Taliban’s 1996-2001 rule and is still frowned upon in the conservative society. Zohra, he says, is “very symbolic” for Afghanistan.
“It’s so hard for Afghan girls. Some fathers do not even let their daughters go to school, not to speak about music school,” Negina said.
Her parents, she said, stood against her entire family to allow her to attend music lessons. “My grandmother told my dad: ‘If you let Negina go to music school, you won’t be my son anymore.’” Since then, her family has left their native Kunar province in eastern Afghanistan, and moved to Kabul.
Life is hard in the capital, and jobs are scarce, but “it is better than being dead”, Negina said, recalling what her uncle promised her: “Wherever I see you, I’ll kill you.”
Negina’s goal is to win a scholarship “to study outside of the country, and study, and study”. Then, she says, she will return to her country and become the conductor of the National Orchestra.
Fifteen years after the end of Taliban regime, gender equality remains a distant dream in Afghanistan despite claims of progress. According to a 2016 survey, just 19 per cent of all Afghan women had attended school. Of women and girls under the age of 25, only 36 per cent said they had been to school.
“If you don’t stand up you will have no future,” Negina said. “I want to pave the way for other girls.”
Music has offered Zohra’s girls the chance of another life. Among the now adept players of the violin, piano and traditional instruments of Afghanistan, several once begged on the street.
At 18, violinist Zarifa Adiba has already performed at New York’s Carnegie Hall. In Davos, she also conducted four pieces as the second conductor of the orchestra.
“Being Afghan and living here is every minute dangerous for your life: you don’t know where will be the next blast, and when ... will it be here?” she recalled.
For musicians, she said, remembering the Taliban regime, the danger is even worse. But far from giving up, Zarifa says it is up to her generation to reverse mentalities.
“Now it’s up to my generation to try to do something for my country, but it will take at least one generation to change,” she said. “I wish to apply to Yale University, my first choice, or to Harvard, or Stanford. I will study ... and then I will come back as a positive person.”
For Sarmast, who wants to promote “a better side of the country than the Kalashnikov, rockets and suicide attacks”, these girls are Afghanistan’s best ambassadors.
“We hope to change the perception of Afghanistan abroad,” he said.