A recent report on the first Afghan women’s orchestra taking Davos (Switzerland) by storm stirred some memories. Lately, it was unthinkable that music would be something which would be allowed in Afghanistan, more so, for women to indulge in it. The reasons are not far to seek. Music is reckoned as un-Islamic by the rigorous practitioners of Islam. Under the Taliban’s ultra-Islamic rule, leave alone women, it was taboo for even men.
Women in Afghanistan always got the raw end of the stick. No one knows how many women sacrificed their life in wriggling out and away from under the heavy weight of Taliban boots where they were being constantly squashed. They were so effectively subdued that their world was confined only to within their veils. A few stray stories could come out of the veritable prison that they were in by the brave and indomitable ones who were successful in escaping from the clutches of those brutes. And, surprisingly, not too long before that they were so very free.
I recall my two months in Kabul in 1983 – around 35 years ago. A part of the country was under the occupation of the then Soviet Russia. Vast parts were under the control of the Mujahideens and, as UN consultants, we were permitted to move around only within 3 square kilometers of Kabul. Even the hills surrounding the city were held by Mujahids. Every night there would be fire fights and one would hear shrieks, generally emanating from women.
And yet, during the day business would be as usual. Shops would open up and do brisk business. Dhabas and restaurants would be preparing for the custom expected for lunch. An occasional strain over loudspeakers would waft in of a Hindi film song.
Women were largely free. They would be in offices by 8.00 AM well dressed, tastefully made up with stylish hair-dos. They were freely working with men and would be generally in Western dresses, some even wearing denims and tee shirts. No burqas, hijabs or chadors for them. They did not know English but were great admirers of India and, of course, Bollywood films – India’s infallible soft power. A senior lady among them by the name Zermina spoke fluent English. She was connected with the family of the exiled King and, hence, was much travelled. What struck me most was the freedom that educated women enjoyed despite being in an Islamic country. Zermina used to tell me that during King’s rule night-life was great; there would be late night parties, socials and cabarets in restaurants and Kabul was considered as Paris of the East – unbelievable, but that’s precisely what she said.
But those free days came to an end as the Soviets retreated – beaten back by the Mujahideens, the Talibans and Pakistani regulars and irregulars actively encouraged by the US. Dark days descended on Afghanistan as the country came under the ultra conservative Taliban who smothered freedom generally and of women in particular. They were all pushed back from the public spaces and driven back into their veils or within the limited spaces of their houses. Many were killed for raising their heads. Rapes and murders became order of the day.
Though the country has now a democratic government presided over by President Ghani yet the ultra conservatives continue to have their sway in large parts. Let us face it; it is a Muslim country, after all, where most are conservative and where Islamic social values hold primacy. Adhering to their faith as the Afghanis do, it will take a long time for them to become a liberal society. For these Afghani ladies, therefore, to come out from such a hide-bound society and collect together for musical sessions and then to come out on a trip to regale an elitist Western audience speaks hugely of their guts, courage and commitment to the idea of freedom and to their chosen performing art – a medium through which they hope to realize their dreams.
We, from the fringes, can only call out “bravo” to them and wish them Godspeed.
*Photo from internet