The New-Age Afghans
Beyond the immediate impact of contemporary music, something greater is afoot in Afghanistan – a battle to define what it means to be an Afghan is playing out across stages and music schools, via pop culture and entertainment.
Talented and self-assured female singers are all set to change the face of Afghanistan’s music industry.
Sporting an edgy haircut, wearing trendy clothes and belting out hard-hitting lyrics, Paradise Sorouri is a far cry from the archetypical, burqa-clad Afghan women depicted so often in the international media.
Talented, attractive and self- assured, Paradise is a woman who wears many hats. Her main claim to fame is that she is Afghanistan’s first female rapper. She is also a model, an actress and activist. Together, she and her husband Diverse – both members of 143Band – have taken the Afghan music scene by storm.
The duo seeks to produce a unique mix of Dari and Persian music with modern western music. The outcome, based on their videos, is a progressive sound and look. Their influences are rap, hip-hop, R&B, pop, house and
electro-pop. The content of some of their songs, such as ‘Faryad-e-Zan’ and
‘Nalestan’, is dark and defiant. “You breathed in an atmosphere of horror/you ran and ran but you never reached/You committed suicide/You self-immolated/They mistreated you and you continued to live/So why are you still sitting silent in this nightmare/ Get up and take what is yours from the world/Don't remain silent/Don't be a wife to a man who set you on fire/Don't be that man's honor/Be my saving grace, be yourself/ Be a woman” (Faryad-e-Zan)
“Being a woman in Afghanistan is already a crime,” Paradise says, “we are living in a patriarchal society where men have control over everything. So imagine a female singing about women's rights live on stage, in a style that opposes the existing Afghan style. This much is for sure – Afghan men hate to listen to and see such things.”
Success hasn’t come easy. Paradise says that men have sworn at her on the streets and called her a prostitute. Outraged at all that she stands for, some have even bitten and hit her.
“A TV channel has accused me of promoting prostitution,” she says. “Another magazine, which is based in Pakistan, also threatened me after my appearance in the Rumi Music Awards. We were the winners in the Best Rap Artiste category.”
Paradise was criticized bitterly for wearing a revealing outfit at the award ceremony that was held in Kabul. She is not interested in promoting promiscuity among Afghan women, she says. Her band’s underlying message is one of hope.
“I am not asking women what to wear and what not to. 143Band has always tried to prove to people that even in the worst situation you can be yourself and try to make your dreams come true.”
Paradise is not the only Afghan singer who is the subject of public ire. Twenty-nine years old Aryana Sayeed is a conservative Afghan’s worst nightmare. She is a singing sensation, judge of a popular singing show, The Voice of Afghanistan, and recently bagged the Best Female Artiste award at this year’s Rumi Awards. Aryana dons no chadar and makes little effort to be modest outwardly. She is decidedly glamorous. She is also proudly Afghan.
The sultry, voluptuous singer sways to the beat in her debut video ‘Mashallah’, crooning the lyrics in Dari, as she swings her hips seductively. She’s dressed in glitzy, fitted clothes and her long dark hair is loose and shiny. On Instagram, she pouts and strikes sexy poses.
She has a considerable social media fan following, but her critics on online forums, deeply offended by the sight of an Afghan woman dancing provocatively, are equally scathing in their denunciation.
Afghan lawmaker Abdul Sattar Khawasi says The Voice of Afghanistan does not represent the Afghan culture and customs.
But the Aryana we see in the video of her song ‘Banoy-e-Atashneshin’ is a vastly different one. Here she appears somber and intense. The video of this song depicts the slave-like condition of the ordinary woman in Afghanistan. Against the backdrop of the sufferings borne by Afghan women, Aryana sings: “I am the Lady of the Land of Fire/I am incurable wound of this earth/I am the subject of stoning by the nation/I am a dishonour to culture and tradition/I am a black mark on faith and religion.”
Making music is a risky business for women in Afghanistan – especially if it addresses sensitive issues such as social injustices and gender inequality.
“Female singers in Afghanistan as well as women activists are risking their lives to achieve equality for men and women,” says Paradise. “Yes, I say men, because they also have rights and when we achieve equality, they will also get their rights,” she says.
Achieving this goal is no easy task.
“In a war-ravaged country like Afghanistan, such activities are really dangerous,” Paradise says. “There are women who have been killed for asking for their rights. Fortunately, women are not staying silent anymore,” she adds.
Paradise believes that this attitude towards women stems from double standards on the part of men and society. The same individuals who lambast female artistes publicly have no qualms about enjoying their performances in private, she says, adding: “Of course not every man is the same. There are some who support us and understand our art.”
Dr. Ahmed Sarmast is one such man. Founder and director of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM), Dr. Sarmast says most Afghans support music and women’s participation in it.
Dr. Sarmast is of the view that it is the extremist groups who oppose women’s participation in music. He believes that these are the people with limited exposure to the world and a very narrow interpretation of religion. While they may be very vocal, they are clearly a minority. In contrast to them are the sophisticated urban Afghans, including a substantial youth population, who thrive on cable TV and social media. These are the people who enjoy and celebrate Afghan music.
Dr. Sarmast expresses deep admiration for his country’s musicians. “I salute all female singers from the bottom of my heart,” he says. “They are breaking the ice and can be wonderful role models for young girls. They are risking their lives, careers and families to break taboos,” Dr. Sarmast says.
Aside from mainstream music, the Afghan female singers are also involved in the country’s leading institute for music, the Afghanistan National Institute of Music. The ANIM’s first female ensemble is set to perform in February 2015. “Fifty-five of the 200 students currently enrolled at ANIM are female. They receive the same opportunities as the boys,” Dr. Sarmast asserts.
Beyond the immediate impact of contemporary music, something greater is afoot in Afghanistan. A battle to define what it means to be Afghan is playing out across stages and music schools, via pop culture and entertainment.
Women like Aryana and Paradise aren’t just singers and performers. They are laying claim to their right to define a modern Afghan identity. Based on their popularity and social media following, many would say that a sizeable segment of the educated Afghan youth is firmly behind them. That despite all the bad press that Afghanistan routinely gets, its youth culture is dynamic, vibrant and pushing for change.
At the forefront of this effort are men and women of courage and conviction. Fully cognizant of the threats against her life and reputation, Paradise vows to continue her work – as so do many other Afghan women.