by Noorjahan Akbar
“You stone me, but your stones will soon finish.
Your colorful lies and excuses will soon finish.
I who remains,
I who sings,
I might get tired,
But I won’t break. I know...”
- From“Sangsaar” by Elaha Sorur, a song about the power of Afghan women.
In Afghanistan, there is little effort to combat derogatory and belittling portrayals of women in media. Women’s organizations focus on more tangible and urgent atrocities such as gender-based violence and women’s political participation. Recently, I wrote about Western influence on Afghan media and how it contributes to the commodification and sexualization of women in advertisements and music videos. But, women are also using media to change perceptions and represent themselves accurately. In many ways, women are reclaiming their place in media after decades of censorship, silence, and war. One of the biggest ways women are doing so is through music.
When Farida Tarana, 27, became the first woman to compete on Afghan Star – the most popular singing talent show in Afghanistan – it was a big deal. National and international media covered her widely and votes from viewers led to her reaching the top eight contestants on the show. Tarana received a lot of support, but was also threatened by extremists. This did not deter her. She decided to get involved in politics. She ran for a seat in the Kabul Provincial Council and won. Hers is a success story like that of many other women in Afghan media today.
While the U.S. led intervention in Afghanistan is often credited for Afghan women’s accomplishments, it is inaccurate. Women first started participating in the media as writers, anchors and producers in the 1920s, with the initiation of Radio Kabul. Merman Parwin was the first woman to perform on the radio in 1950 and radio has played a significant role in bringing women’s music to the forefront of society. At one time female musicians were considered prostitutes; but when women from King Amanullah Khan’s family and other women of high socio-economic status began performing on radio, the profession became more respectable.
In 1977, Farida Mahwash became the first female musician to be recognized as an Ustad, or master of music. She and others like her paved the way for public performances by women and scores of young women followed in their footsteps until the 1990s when women’s voices and faces were practically erased from public media by the Mujahidin and Taliban governments.Women such as Parasto, Ustad Mahwash and Wajiha Rastagar did not stop at singing love songs, as was expected; but also sang about independence from colonization, education, and support for the Afghan security forces.
In the 2000s, when women were again allowed to perform in public, they raised their voices. Despite opposition and renouncement by clerics, women continue to participate in Afghan Star. Others perform in concerts and, as access to software and the Internet increases, use new technology to create and promote their music.
While women’s folkloric music – sung in private ceremonies and gatherings – has long included songs about the atrocities women face, music performed publicly has traditionally remained largely divorced from women’s issues. This has changed. In the post-2001 period, and women have used music to protest discrimination and sexism. This is partly due to an increase in activities focused on promoting gender equality in Afghanistan and partly due to a general increase in music and art production and the relative security since 2001 (Feminist Newswire 2014, Rahman 2012).
Nationally, the most popular song in support of women’s rights is Aryana Sayeed’s “Banooye Ataash Neshin,” which translates into “Lady of the Fire.” The video was first released in 2013 on Tolo TV and has received over thirty five thousand views online. This song, which discusses a wide range of women’s issues including street harassment, poverty, and gender-based violence, begins with the voice of a woman crying. It then follows with the stories of several women as they go about their daily lives – a female beggar is harassed in public, a female student faces the ridicule of men, and a woman attempts suicide. The video ends with the image of a number of women defiantly walking through the streets of Kabul and a shot of a woman brushing her hair as she prepares to leave her house. After this well-received song, Aryana produced another song called “Madar-e-Afghan” (Afghan mother). It has received nearly forty thousand views online and has been broadcasted by the major Afghan outlets.
Though they are the most popular, Aryana Sayeed’s songs are not the first to tackle gender-based inequality. In 2010, Elaha Sorur sang “Sangsaar (Stoning),” which explicitly protests patriarchy. The song was widely popular in Afghanistan and adamantly and unapologetically calls for resistance. It was well received because it goes beyond merely describing the problems that women face.
Other female singers have followed suit. In 2011 Shahla Zaland, who began singing before war hit Afghanistan, performed the famous Afghan poetess Nadia Anjuman’s poem, “Daughter of Afghanistan.” The song is about what it means to be a woman and ends with a reinstatement of the strength of Afghan women. One version of the song performed at an Afghan Star event shows scores of women clapping, crying, and cheering for Shahla Zaland as she sings:
“I am not that weak a willow to tremble with any wind
I am the daughter of Afghanistan and I will continue to raise my voice”
Women in Afghanistan are also employing a range of genres to sing about protest. Paradise Soururi and Susan Firoz are two women who have broken tradition by producing rap songs about the struggles of women. In her 2012 song, “Faryad e zan (Woman’s Scream),” Paradise Soururi calls for women’s solidarity.
“For as long as I am alone
For as long as you are you and I am me
We cannot be free
Come, let’s become ‘we.’”
Paradise, whose songs have received international and national attention, calls on women to break their silence and end their subservience. With unprecedented courage she sings:
“Come and stand on your feet
Take your rights from the world and do not be silent
For a man who burnt you
Do not become his honor, do not become his wife”
Paradise continues to voice her revolutionary spirit in a more recent video, “Naalestan,” where she asks her audience not to feel pity on Afghan women but “to tell their dreams to the entire world.” Like Paradise, Susan Firuz and Ramika also rap about the lives of women in Afghanistan in order to protest inequality.
In the past ten years, dozens of songs have been written and performed in support of women’s rights. So powerful are the voices of these women that even some male musicians, such as Wali Fateh Ali, are lending their voices to the struggle for gender equality.
What makes Afghan songs about women’s rights powerful is they reach a wide audience of Afghans and serve as a means for Afghan women to communicate in their own language to their own people. These songs, not only reach Afghans with Internet and television access, but through radios, CDs, and tape cassettes, amass a larger audience. They have the potential to nourish solidarity among the women of Afghanistan and a national movement for equality.
Despite threats, the women of Afghanistan continue to sing for freedom. As they work to create better opportunities for themselves and preserve their gains over the past decade, their songs can light their path. As Shahla Zaland tells me, "We, Afghan women, are no longer caged. We are free. And we will continue our fight to be successful and treated with dignity."
Noorjahan Akbar is a student activist and blogger from Afghanistan. She has taught English, computer skills and leadership to women; participated in and organized several protests for women's rights in Afghanistan; formed a creative writing program for children at orphanages; translated a book of six short stories for children; done research in many fields including women's folkloric music in North Afghanistan; and worked for several children and women's organizations in Afghanistan. In 2013, Ms. Akbar published a book of 50 poems and articles written by Afghan women. This book is now distributed throughout the country to empower women in rural areas. Ms. Akbar also has been published in The New York Times and Al-Jazeera English and she regularly writes for national and international media outlets. Akbar was listed as one of the 100 Most Powerful Women in the World by Forbes Magazine in 2012 and the grand prize winner of Glamour Magazine’s Top Ten College Women award in 2013. She is currently pursuing her masters in journalism and public affairs at American University. Photo Credit Rizwan Saffie.