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Afghanistan: Female Vocalists Coming Back Into Vogue

  • Azam Gorgin
  • Charles Recknagel

Hearing the voice of a female singer has been next to impossible over the past two decades in Afghanistan as strict Islamic groups -- from the mujahedin to the Taliban -- banned women from performing outside their homes. But women vocalists have survived in exile and their art now could be poised for a comeback.

Prague, 21 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Until the fall of the Taliban in late 2001, female vocalists in Afghanistan for the past two decades have had two choices: abandon their art or leave the country.

The mujahedin groups, which ruled in the early 1990s, placed strict Islamic restrictions on what kinds of music women could perform. And the Taliban, who held most of Afghanistan from the late 1990s until last year, forbid women to sing at all.

Still, Afghanistan's female singers have survived, either by performing at home before family members or fleeing abroad. Now, with the Taliban gone and music again permitted on Afghan streets, they have their first chance in years to recapture their former audiences.

One of those who fled abroad is Mahvash, formerly one of the country's leading female vocalists. She has lived in the United States since fleeing Afghanistan in the 1980s and often performed before other exiled Afghans in America.

In March, Mahvash joined other Afghan musicians in a fundraising performance for Afghan reconstruction at London's Royal Albert Hall. The concert in mid-March -- which also included non-Afghan performers -- drew hundreds of people eager to hear an art form banned for years in its homeland.

For many in the audience, the high point of the concert was Mahvash's song about the old musicians' quarter -- now destroyed -- of Kabul, known as Kharabat. The neighborhood was heavily damaged in fighting between different Mujaheddin factions after the end of the Soviet-Afghan war.

RFE/RL's Persian Service correspondent, Shahran Tabari, spoke with Mahvash while she was in London. Our correspondent asked Mahvash to describe some of the difficulties of being a female artist in Afghanistan.

The singer said her artistic career began with an enthusiastic following in Afghanistan some 35 years ago when she regularly appeared on Afghan state radio. She studied music in Kabul's Kharabat quarter -- a difficult position to obtain -- and, she says, was the first woman to gain the coveted honorific title of "Ustad," or "Maestro."

Mahvash said that prior to the mujahedin and Taliban, she faced no professional problems as a female musician. Her biggest difficulties were on religious days, when Afghan radio did not like to broadcast female singers for fear of offending the sensibilities of some listeners. Women artists in Afghanistan have long had to cope with strict Islamists who consider singing by women immoral and provocative.

Instead, Mahvash says, her early problems were mostly with members of her own extended family, some of whom opposed her choice of profession. She says one outraged relative even tried to poison her to make her stop performing. But she persevered, until finally Afghanistan's political turmoil made continuing impossible.

"Before the mujahedin's takeover and before the coups d'etat, the female population had other problems [than politics] and our problems were in the family. I never want to discuss politics and do not wish to get involved in that. Singing is something emotional and I wish to limit myself to music only. But [eventually] life was made very difficult for me and like many [others] I was forced to leave my country and go to Pakistan," she says.

The singer says that since fleeing Afghanistan and moving to America, she has kept up her skills through regular performances before Afghan expatriates and at charity functions and weddings. Now she -- like millions of other Afghans who left their country during the past 20 years of fighting -- must decide whether to uproot a second time and return home.

With the collapse of the Taliban, music in all its forms has enjoyed a resurgence in Kabul and other cities, where cassettes from exiled Afghan singers flood in from Iran and Pakistan as well Europe and America. Female vocalists are again commonly heard on the streets, where they have never lost their appeal despite the sustained efforts of governments to silence them.