Wed, Apr 24, 2019 - Page 9 News List

‘We will not be silenced,’ Afghan female musicians tell Taliban

By Eltaf Najafizada  /  Bloomberg

Fresh from a sold-out concert tour of the UK and Sweden, Afghanistan’s first female conductor is convinced that music can help deliver peace to her war-torn country. If only the Taliban would listen.

At just 22, Negin Khpelwak has already stared down threats and intimidation from her conservative relatives, who wished she would take on any career but music.

Now, like many of her fellow citizens, she is watching peace talks between the US and the Taliban with growing alarm.

“We can bring freedom, peace and honor to Afghanistan,” said Khpelwak, who leads the country’s first all-female Zohra Orchestra, which has played classical Western and Afghan music at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

“Women can’t go back to the dark days — they can break our instruments, they can ban the music, but they never take it from our hearts,” she said.

The Taliban, who control or contest half the country, banned all forms of music during their brutal regime that ran from 1996 to 2001.

Even now, when the orchestra played its last concert in Kabul in February, most of the 700 guests had to pass through as many as 10 security checkpoints protected by armed guards and dogs.

The US in January reached a draft peace agreement with the insurgent group that might eventually lead to a withdrawal of foreign troops and a Taliban pledge not to allow terrorists to use the country.

Talks aimed at bringing an end to 18 years of war were scheduled to begin again last weekend, but appear to have been stalled.

After being initially excluded from the US-led talks, the Afghan delegation was set to include 52 women, up from just a handful in earlier sessions.

The country’s key demands in the dialogue include preserving the current government system under “Islamic Republic of Afghanistan,” holding elections and retaining the current constitution.

US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad is leading the negotiations. He is hoping to finalize a deal this year before presidential elections slated for September.

Afghan women have repeatedly voiced concerns about the lack of female representation at the peace talks, particularly given what is at stake.

Women have won hard-fought gains in politics, business and education since 2001, pushing back against the country’s male-dominated society.

Last year, about 400 female candidates contested in 68 seats reserved for women in the parliament, while hundreds of women run small businesses and teach at schools, and more than 3.5 million girls are in education.

Zakia Wardak has been fighting for women’s rights in Afghanistan for eight years.

In October last year, she stood for a seat in the parliamentary elections in Kabul, the results of which have yet to be announced — sweeping aside concerns for her safety and about entering the hyper-masculine, deeply corrupt world of Afghan politics.

“I highly doubt peace will come at the cost of our rights, because the women today are not the women of 1996, neither are the Taliban,” said Wardak, whose late father and brother were Afghan generals, adding that she is sure Afghan women will be part of the wider negotiations.

There is much at stake for Afghan women after the “horrors” they experienced during the last period of Taliban rule, said Michael Kugelman, a senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.

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