Afghan girls brave Taliban threats and family pressure for music -- as they take part in Afghanistan's first female orchestra, which is getting ready for its international debut.
Like many teenagers, 19-year-old Negin Khpalwak from Kunar in eastern Afghanistan loves music, but few people of her age have battled as fiercely to pursue their passion in the face of family hostility and threats. Playing instruments was banned outright during the period of Taliban rule in Afghanistan, and even today many conservative Muslims frown on most forms of music. "Apart from my father, everybody in the family is against me playing music. They say 'how can a Pashtun girl play music?' especially in our tribe where even a man doesn't have the right to play music," says Khpalwak who is the only female orchestra conductor in the country. "Music is really important for me. Through music I have seen lots of changes in my life. Music changed my personality. I am no longer ordinary Negin, my life has changed," she said. Her orchestra is comprised of teenage girls who live, like her, in a home for girls in Kabul. Some of them are orphans, others are more like Khpalwak who have been sent there due to family reasons or with the hopes that the girls would be able to get a better education than in the village. "It's almost been four years since I started playing trumpet and through playing trumpet I have seen huge changes in my life. Music and trumpet are my best friends," says Mina Salarzai, 13, originally from Jalalabad. Khpalwak took her first steps in music learning the piano in secret in her home town in Kunar province. She eventually revealed the clandestine hobby to her father who encouraged her to continue, but the rest of her conservative Pashtun family were adamant she should stop. So she moved to Kabul 10 years ago, and for the last six months has been leading the Zohra orchestra, an ensemble of 35 girls and women who play both Western and Afghan musical instruments at the Afghanistan National Institute for Music. The unique group has caused a stir. When Khpalwak went home on a recent visit, her uncles and brothers threatened to beat her for performing on television and she had to return to Kabul the next day. But others hope her courage will inspire change in Afghanistan. "By educating people and by promoting arts and culture in the community I strongly believe that we will be even changing the attitude of the most radical forces of this country and by standing here and by standing for the cause for the human rights for the musical rights of Afghan children eventually and subsequently we will be showing this we doing nothing wrong. Everything that we do here is for the best benefit of the community and for the best benefit of the children and youths of this nation," said Ahmad Naser Sarmast, a musicologist who returned home from Australia after the fall of the Taliban to help found the National Institute for Music in 2010. The dangers awaiting performers in Afghanistan were brutally highlighted in 2014, when Sarmast was nearly killed by a suicide bomber who blew himself up during a show at a French-run school in Kabul.