Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Clerics Fume as Women Make Music in Herat

Girls and women get a chance to sing and play instruments, but conservatives are firmly opposed.
By IWPR Afghanistan

Nahid Afshar, 21, wants to be a famous singer, but in a country where many people consider it sinful even to listen to a woman’s voice, she has had many hurdles to overcome.

“It was always my desire to be able to play and sing and become famous in my society,” said Nahid, who is in the final year of secondary school. “Whenever I tried to make a start, though my family stopped me.”

Now, thanks to the initiative of musician Jawad Tabesh, Nahid faces one less barrier to her success: Herat now has a music training centre dedicated to educating women.

Although Herat is more liberal than under the Taleban, religious fundamentalists oppose women making music and have taken action against the centre. Tabesh, however, says he will press on.

The centre is basic, a small room located on the second floor of an old apartment building. But to Nahid, who finally managed to persuade her parents that she is serious about her music, it is a palace.

She practices her singing here and plans to record songs once she has attained a high enough level of artistic skill.

“Many of my classmates also want to come. Their families, though, will not let them,” she said.

There are about ten young women at the centre, each busy with a different instrument or vocal exercise. The sounds of the harmonium, tabla, or drum, mix with guitars and other stringed instruments, as well as female voices.

Tabesh is a pioneer of music in Herat, and decided to start a training centre for girls after repeated requests.

“I had been asked several times to establish such a place,” he said. “There were many problems, however, such as the general atmosphere in Herat, and the lack of government support. I decided to go ahead anyway, to serve my countrywomen and our music.”

Women are very interested in learning music, Tabesh said, but the problems of society have kept this a distant dream. Their families may withhold permission, and religious fundamentalists rail against women participating in musical activities.

Still, he has ten students who have decided to take the risk.

“A few days ago some masked men broke our sign,” Tabesh said. “I receive numerous warnings to close the centre. But I will not bow to such demands.”

Elaha, 25, is learning to play guitar at the centre. She hopes to become a professional singer, to play for women’s music parties and earn enough to support her family.

“I know that people do not like women to engage in such activities,” she said.

“But the fight has to start somewhere. For seven years during the Taleban, I was shut in at home,” she continued, tears welling up in her eyes. “I wasted the best years of my life. Who can give them back to me? But now that the situation has improved, we should take advantage of it.”

While things are certainly much better for women than they were in the years up to the ousting of the Taleban in 2001, the situation is not good. Women face a host of problems that men do not have to deal with.

Two Herati female singers participated in the popular television programme Afghan Star, based on American Idol in the United States. They did extremely well, with one, Setara, reaching the final rounds.

But neither woman has been able to return to Herat following their appearances on the show because of numerous threats against them. They are both living in Kabul.

The second, Farida Tarana, recently won a seat on the Kabul provincial council.

Nahid is painfully aware of the limitations she faces. “It is a big problem for me that others interfere in my private life,” she said. “Men on motorcycles follow me and threaten me sometimes. But a boy can do whatever he likes and no one will say anything to him.”

Tabesh is determined to keep his music centre going, despite all the problems. He said that he has asked the government and donor institutions for help, but so far he has received nothing.

“We have asked the department of information and culture for a better place to practice, and some instruments, but they are not cooperating at all,” he said. “I charge each student 1,000 afghani (20 US dollars), but this barely covers the rent. I also spend money from my own pocket.”

Nematullah Sarwari, head of the department of information and culture in Herat, said the government welcomes Tabesh’s initiative and will provide the centre with proper facilities as soon as the department’s own new building is completed. This, however, will take a year or more, he added.

However, not all of Herat’s residents support the idea of a music centre for girls, despite laws prohibiting discrimination against women.

But this has yet to penetrate some of the country’s more conservative elements.

“According to Islam, it is forbidden even to hear a woman singing,” said Mullah Gulab Shah, 45, of the Omar Farooq Mosque in Herat. “It is even worse if a woman is singing to music, since music is also haram (forbidden) in Islam.”

According to the mullah, the centre should be closed.
“I am against the establishment of any kind of music training centres for women. It is against Islam,” he said.

But 28-year-old Pazhman Ezedi, a graduate from the Fine Arts Faculty of Herat University, believes that the centre is a great service to music and to a sad generation of women.

“The era of old thinking is past,” he said. “People should look at the world with clear eyes, and not be deceived.”

Sadeq Behnam is an IWPR trainee journalist in Herat.

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