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What would you do if you were told you weren’t allowed to play music (or something else you loved) because you were a woman?
I first discovered “Zohra” back in 2017. Afghanistan’s first all female orchestra, formed by musicologist Ahmad Naser Sarmast in 2010 at the National Institute of Music. This was and is still a huge deal because during the Taliban rule of Afghanistan- playing instruments was literally BANNED. Even today, performing music is still frowned upon by many conservative Muslims.
That’s what makes this group so exciting and inspiring. Not only are they an all female musical group formed in an extremely male supremacist society where many things are STILL restricted for women, but the orchestra is also led by a woman. And beginning at only 19 years old, the conductor Negin Khpalwak, is an inspiration in herself.
The National Institute of Music in Kabul, enrolls about 300 students between the ages of 14-20, most of which are female and many of whom come from underprivileged families. The institute is dedicated to promoting women’s rights and ensuring gender equality in the sector of music, as well as offering quality arts education in an area of the world that often tells their people that they can’t even play music. Giving the students outlets for self expression, creativity, and independence they wouldn’t have elsewhere in the country during a previous time.
Then in 2021, when the United States withdrew and the Taliban reasserted control, the school needed to be evacuated. The students were relocated to Portugal where they made shelter in a hospital and feared the day the Taliban would come find them and kill them.
But these young musicians were determined to continue playing music and prevail in the mist of struggle, violence and starvation.
"One can't be without dreams because dreams give us hope..." wrote Zohra Ahmadi, one of the top students. "If you have a dream, follow it..."
- contributed by Tiffany Grand
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