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.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Maria Ka­mal

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.

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