Afghan pop star stands up to religious leaders

Singer Aryana Saeed is no stranger to controversy. In May, conservative Afghans complained that her outfit at a sold-out concert in Paris (above) made her look nude.
Singer Aryana Saeed is no stranger to controversy. In May, conservative Afghans complained that her outfit at a sold-out concert in Paris (above) made her look nude.PHOTO: YOUTUBE

KABUL • Afghan pop star Aryana Saeed, famous for her curve-hugging costumes and feminist lyrics, can sell out any stadium in her homeland. But there are haters who want to silence her.

Her latest concert was to be held in Ghazi Stadium in Kabul last Friday. Despite heavy security and secrecy until just before the event, all 30,000 tickets sold quickly at hefty prices, said her manager.

The singer chose the date because it was the eve of Afghanistan's independence day and she wanted to highlight that local women are still not free 98 years later.

She chose the stadium because it hosted Taleban executions of women in the late 1990s.

But as soon as word about the concert got out, the mullahs denounced it and the authorities reportedly cancelled it.

Mullah Attaullah Faizani, chief of Kabul's Ulema Council, the highest local religious body, said it had demanded that the Kabul Garrison axe the concert.

"I'll perform in the street if I have to," Saeed said. "The mullahs are the enemy of the Afghan people, the enemy of happiness."

Afghan officials, perhaps wary of her popularity, insisted that they had not ordered the concert to be canned and had warned only that the crowd was bigger than expected, making security impossible to ensure.

"We told them it would be good if you held the concert somewhere else and that the police will always be at your service," said General Afzal Aman, acting commander of the Kabul Garrison, which oversees security for the capital.

In the end, Saeed held her concert last Saturday at the Intercontinental Hotel, announcing that the proceeds would benefit people from the village of Mirza Olang, which the Taleban overran this month.

Saeed, 32, has long been a sensation in Afghanistan.

She refuses to wear a headscarf, except when trying to protect her identity in a city where she is instantly recognisable. For security reasons, she lives in London with her mother and sisters, usually returning only to perform.

Her music is a combination of traditional and folk songs, rendered as Afghan pop, overlaid occasionally with a bit of hip-hop. She sings in both Dari and Pashto, the country's two main languages.

She is no stranger to controversy.

Appearing as a judge on popular television show Afghan Star, wearing a curve-clinging gown, she engaged in the forbidden acts of dancing onstage with a male singer and swaying her hips.

The television station never broadcast the performance, but posted it on YouTube, drawing widespread condemnation from conservative quarters.

That was in March.

In May, she appeared at a sold-out concert in Paris, wearing a fleshcoloured dress that conservative Afghans complained made her look nude.

She responded by burning the dress, also on YouTube, while complaining that Afghans worried more about what women wore than about how they were treated.

Women's issues feature prominently in many of her songs and she does not mince words.

In Lady On Fire, she laments: "Who says I am the mother of this world? I am nothing but a burden on the son's shoulders, I am a slave because I am a wife, I am a headache when I am a sister, this is who I am.

"I am the daughter of the Afghan land."

The alternate venue last Saturday had a much smaller capacity, but the attendees made up for it with noisy enthusiasm.

A young woman, Ms Bahar Sohaili, said she had come to make a statement. "Many women say that they fight for their rights, but after a time, they get tired and stop," she added.

"Aryana Saeed never gets tired. She came here to show the mullahs that we women aren't afraid of them anymore."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 21, 2017, with the headline 'Afghan pop star stands up to religious leaders'. Print Edition | Subscribe