PRAGUE, August 23, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Young Afghan women would have been executed a few years ago for performing music. Today -- nearly five years after the downfall of the Taliban regime -- Afghan women are finally getting a chance to enroll in a music school.
At the Nagashand Fine Arts Gallery in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif, women laugh and joke with their faces exposed as they play musical instruments and sing in the country's first all-women's music school. The project, funded by a $9,000 grant from the European Commission, is implemented by the United Nations Assistance Mission for Afghanistan.
"We are giving women in northern Afghanistan their voice in society again."
Masoma Mazari is a 25-year-old Afghan woman who heads the six-month-old project. She says the school's 18 students relish their newfound freedom.
"Music is needed by our souls," she said. "We can relax through music. We can express our views. We can bring peace. Finally, I can say that everybody has a certain need for music."
But even the youngest student in the school, 14-year-old Zohra Amiri, says she faces criticism in her neighborhood because of her love for music.
"At the moment, there are restrictions for women to play music," Amiri said. "People don't welcome women learning music. It is all due to insecurities and the lack of freedom in our country. But we are hopeful about the future. God willing, we will have a better future through this."
All of the students lived for years in Iran as refugees. Amiri and Mazari had never seen Afghanistan until they moved to Mazar-e Sharif from Iran two years ago. Like millions of other Afghan refugees, they have experiences that could help break down barriers for women and lead to cultural changes in the conservative religious society.
Pressure Not To Play
By contrast, women who stayed in Afghanistan during the last 20 years are reluctant to join such classes. Among them is Gul Sanam, a resident of Mazar-e Sharif who still covers herself with a burqa when she ventures outside of her home.
"Women should not learn music," she said. "We are Muslims and we know that music is an illegal phenomenon according to Islamic Shari'a law."
Indeed, the only student in the program who stayed in Afghanistan through its years of civil war and Taliban rule decided to quit the classes after just a few weeks. She made the decision after winning third place in a televised music competition in Kabul. She says she was harassed because of her performance when she returned to Mazar-e Sharif.
Conservative Islamic clerics in the city tell their followers that it is a crime against Islam for women to sing or perform music.
At Mazar-e Sharif's main mosque, Islamic cleric Mullah Abbas teaches the Koran to both girls and boys. That would have been unheard of under Taliban rule. Still, Mullah Abbas says he is unhappy about the new music school in his city.
Against Shari'a Law?
"According to Islamic Shari'a law, women's voices should not be heard by men," he said. "Therefore, I can say that a woman cannot be a musician. They should not try to learn it."
In Kabul, UN spokesman Aleem Siddique says the United Nations is not trying to fuel religious debates about music and women.
"The musical traditions of Afghanistan have been here for as long as Islam has been in Afghanistan," he said. "[But] the United Nations would never preach to people what is Islamic and what is not Islamic. It is not for us to dictate to anybody. That's a choice that people have to make for themselves."
Siddique told RFE/RL that the purpose of the music program is to strengthen the role of women in Afghan civil society.
"Culture within a society has a vital role in giving people a voice and confidence to express themselves," Siddique said. "The United Nations is playing a leading role in helping to strengthen civil society within Afghanistan. Our project in Mazar is a music school helping young women to learn how to play instruments that have been played for generations in Afghanistan, and also to revive the tradition of singing amongst minority communities in Mazar. We are giving women in northern Afghanistan their voice in society again."
Most students say their families are supportive. But even Mazari says she thinks it is too soon for boys and girls to study music together. She says the program aims to prepare some as teachers so they can open separate classes for both boys and girls -- and eventually charge fees to become self-supporting.
Both teachers at the music school are men. Khalil Bakhtari and Nadair Kharimi teach about 10 instruments, ranging from western instruments like the saxophone and electric keyboard to instruments that are used for Afghan classical music like the tabla, harmonium, and rabab -- a traditional Afghan lute.
The students study Persian, Arabic, and Hindustani traditions as well as classical Afghan music. But one of their favorite compositions is an Afghan song called "Let's Go To Mazar." It is a song about returning home.
BACK IN THE GROOVE Decades of war and the Taliban's five-year ban on music took their toll on Afghan classical music. Musicians have been trying to resuscitate the art since the end of Taliban rule. But they face serious economic and artistic challenges -- including the threat of possible attack by Taliban fighters if they perform in provincial areas...(more)
WATCH View slideshow of Afghan musicians. RealVideo