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As Taliban return, Afghanistan's female orchestra fears the future

by Zarifa Adiba | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 24 August 2021 14:25 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: Zarifa Adiba, Conductor of Afghanistan's Zohra Orchestra, speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, January 19, 2017. Handout photo by World Economic Forum / Sandra Blaser

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I conducted Afghanistan's first all-female orchestra, Zohra. With the Taliban's takeover, I fear we may never play our instruments again.

By Zarifa Adiba

Aug 24 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – On a cold day in January 2017 I was standing on stage, a baton in my hand.

I was conducting Afghanistan’s first female orchestra in Davos, Switzerland at the World Economic Forum.

30 girls from across Afghanistan, we had overcome death threats and intimidation to make it to our first international performance at an elite European ski resort.

Warlords, Taliban, Islamic State, suicide bombings - I knew the images many of the politicians, bankers, economists and activists seated in front me had of my country.

But as we began to play our cellos, drums and traditional instruments like the rabab, we offered up another face of Afghanistan, one of beauty and peace.

Now that the Taliban are in control, that performance feels like a vanishing dream.

In its place, a nightmare vision of the future looms: A country without music, where men rule and girls aren’t allowed to go to school.

When I started learning the viola in 2015, I hid it from members of my family who I feared might react violently if they knew.

My aunt would secretly drive me to music school.

Sometimes when I left for practice I would kiss my mother’s hand and think to myself, ‘if I go, I may not come back alive.’

My love for music got out when footage of me conducting the orchestra in Switzerland was shared around the world.

My uncles told me music was not appropriate for girls and my family pulled me out of music school.

These were the hurdles we faced even before the Taliban seized power.

Despite the risks, there were major gains in the past 10 years.

Girls have gone to school, they have played football, they have been running, they have taken part in the Olympics, they have been writing, they have become musicians like me.

My generation were working hard to make Afghanistan peaceful for the next generation.

So when I heard that Kabul had been overrun by Taliban fighters I felt broken. It was the hardest day of my life.

Two of my friends were at Kabul airport among the desperate people who clung to the sides of U.S. military aircraft taking off.

‘You wouldn’t want to see how hopeless and fearful people were,’ they text me the next day.

Whenever I think about my orchestra, Zohra, and the way we girls represented our country through playing our traditional songs, it brings a smile to my face.

We performed in Switzerland. We talked about the importance of girl’s education. We presented a beautiful image of Afghanistan.

Whatever happens I will use my viola, my bow and my baton as tools for empowerment. Music is a beautiful thing and, no matter the circumstances, it can become the identity of a nation.

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IN PICTURES: Afghan women record their 'last day at work'

Six ways life has changed for Afghan women since the last Taliban regime

(Editing by Tom Finn (Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly)