Female Afghan orchestra tune out discrimination

Afghanistan's first all-female orchestra, led by Ms Khpalwak (left), rehearsing at the country's National Institute of Music in Kabul earlier this month. They have overcome death threats and discrimination to play together, and will be performing bef
Afghanistan's first all-female orchestra, led by Ms Khpalwak (left), rehearsing at the country's National Institute of Music in Kabul earlier this month. They have overcome death threats and discrimination to play together, and will be performing before 3,000 chief executives and heads of state at the World Economic Forum in Davos.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

KABUL • In the face of death threats and accusations that they are dishonouring their families by daring to perform, the women of Afghanistan's first all-female orchestra are charting a new destiny for themselves through music.

The group is set to be catapulted onto the world stage with a performance at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Zohra, an ensemble of 35 young musicians aged 13 to 20, some orphans or from poor families, will be performing before 3,000 chief executives and heads of state during a session today and at the closing concert tomorrow.

Led by Ms Negina Khpalwak, who will be celebrating her 20th birthday on the return flight from Europe, the girls have overcome death threats and discrimination in this deeply conservative war-torn country to play together.

With their hair hastily knotted and eyes focused on their instruments, the musicians performed in unison under Ms Khpalwak's baton earlier this month at one of their last rehearsals in Kabul before the concert.

"She is Afghanistan's first female conductor," Dr Ahmad Sarmast, the musicologist who founded Afghanistan's National Institute of Music and the Zohra orchestra, said of Ms Khpalwak. He understands the risk facing women in Afghanistan who pursue music, which was banned during the Taleban's repressive 1996-2001 rule and is still frowned upon in the tightly gender-segregated conservative society.

"It's so hard for Afghan girls. Some fathers do not even let their daughters go to school, not to speak about music school," Ms Khpalwak said. "For them, women are to stay at home and clean up."

Her parents, she said, stood against her entire family to allow her to attend music lessons.

"My grandmother told my dad, 'If you let Negina leave to music school, you won't be my son anymore.' "

Since then, her family has left its native Kunar province in eastern Afghanistan and moved to Kabul.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 19, 2017, with the headline 'Female Afghan orchestra tune out discrimination'. Print Edition | Subscribe