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

Sound of Music in Afghan North

While insurgents burn down girls’ schools in southern Afghanistan, music lessons are proving controversial in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif.
By Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi
At a music school in Mazar-e-Sharif, all you hear is the sound of instruments playing and girls singing coming from the various rooms.

This is a music school specifically for girls – the only one of its kind outside the capital Kabul. It only opened in mid-August, and already has 30 students who learn singing and how to play the guitar, electric keyboard, harmonium and drum.

The school was set up by the Balkh Musicians’ Union with a 9,000 US dollar grant from the Afghan Foundation for Culture and Civil Society, and there are plans to replicate it in other provinces.

For now, it is free, although there are plans to charge fees in future.

This kind of institution would be inconceivable in southern Afghanistan, where the Taleban regularly torch normal schools attended by girls.

Women and music are a double taboo for the extremists, and even in the north, there are many in northern Afghanistan who think public musical performance is inappropriate for women.

Mariam, 16, plays the guitar and wants to be a successful singer and musician. She faced a lot of opposition before her family would let her sign up for the school.

"When I told my mother I wanted to learn the guitar, she became very angry with me, saying it is not something for girls,” she recalled. “But after a lot of distress, she let me learn."

Even now, she faces hostility from neighbours who have found out what she is up to. As with other girls at the school, she is regularly accused of wanting to be a dancer – seen as the ultimate shame.

"My neighbours' behaviour towards me, and even towards my family, has changed a lot since I registered at the school. When people see me on the street, they insult me even if I’m not going to the school. They say, ‘Look, the girl wants to become a dancer’."

But Mariam insisted she would persevere, saying, "I’ll never learn music unless I put up with all this. It was a problem at the beginning, but now I’m used to it."

One of the teachers, Amir Mohammad Sultani, said, "When the centre was opened, I did not believe even one girl would come to the centre to learn music but now we see that the numbers increasing from day to day."

He added, "When I see how interested the girls are in learning, I I become hopeful about the future of music in Afghanistan.”

Mohammad Sabir Naqshbandi, who heads the centre, said the next step would be to set up similar schools in other provinces, and separate music teaching centres for boys.

The aim was to move over to a fee-paying system to cover running costs and pay the staff, he said. In Mazar-e-Sharif, the service would be free for another six months.

"We are in contacts with all the music associations in Afghanistan and they have promised to provide teachers or instruments if we need them," added Naqshbandi.

But teaching girls music has already proved controversial. Among the people interviewed by IWPR, there was a rough split between young people – who were in favour of it – and older men, who were dead against it.

"It is a major sin for a girl to sing and dance in front of men,” said Mullah Rahmatullah, 50, a cleric in Mazar-e-Sharif. “Girls should stay home, not study music."

He added, "These westerners want to destroy our culture by turning our girls into dancers. If my daughter did that, I would kill her on the first day, because I don't need a dancer for a daughter."

But Nasratullah, a 25-year-old man from Mazar-e-Sharif, disagreed, saying, "It’s a very good thing for girls to be learning music. Women still have a very low profile in music. What difference does it make if women learn music or sing songs? If my sister or any other female relatives are interested, I will help them do it."

The students seem determined to continue. Mina, 18, who is specialising in singing at the school, said her family had accepted her choice, although she still worried about a backlash from conservative Muslim clerics. She says that when she told her family about the issue, they accepted it with interest.

"My single hope is to sing on stage in front of people and hear them applaud me," she said.

"I am still afraid about whether the mullahs will allow me to sing even if I learn the music completely. But despite these problems, I will continue struggling until I attain my goal."

Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi is an IWPR staff reporter in Mazar-e-Sharif.

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