Afghanistan: Famed exiled singer returned after 18 years

23 October 2007
 One of “Afghanistan’s living treasures”, singer Farida Mahwash stepped foot in Afghanistan for the first time in almost two decades to give a series of benefit concerts in Kabul, Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif in October 2007, reported San Francisco Chronicle

“I’ll have programs there and collect money, and give this money to charity and people who don’t have houses and who are in need. … I will try to be safe and visit places that I feel safe,” Farida Mahwash told the Chronicle journalist Jonathan Curiel before her departure from the US.

One of Afghanistan’s most popular female singers in the 1960s and 1970s, Farida Mahwash was termed as “one of Afghanistan’s living treasures” by John Baily – a music professor at the University of London and an expert on Afghan music who wrote the Freemuse report about Afghanistan, ‘Can you stop the birds singing’. John Baily has studied Mahwash’s music and visited her in her home in exile in Fremont, USA.

Jonathan Curiel described Mahwash as ‘Afghanistan’s equivalent of Barbra Streisand or Ella Fitzgerald’.

Threatened by the mujahedeen
Farida Mahwash fled Afghanistan’s civil war and became a refugee in 1989, but she remained an exalted figure in her homeland, particularly among older Afghans who remembered her songs that were constantly played on the radio.
In music shops around the capital, and in Afghan communities in the United States and Europe, her CDs are still popular sellers, and her voice is sampled by young Afghan singers on dance-oriented recordings.

Farida Mahwash left Afghanistan because the mujahedeen, the loosely-aligned Afghan opposition groups, were threatening the government of then. Mohammad Najibullah seemed on the verge of taking over the capital Kabul, where the famous 38-year-old singer lived.

“The mujahedeen targeted Mahwash because she was a prominent female singer and because she was associated with the government-controlled Radio Afghanistan,” explained John Baily in the Chronicle article.

Kabul’s government also targeted Mahwash’s family. In the days before she fled, Afghan authorities arrested her husband, Farouk, after he refused to “join them,” and kept him jailed for two days.

“After she fled to Pakistan, Najibullah’s regime said she had abandoned her country and that the country’s secret police would hunt her down and harm her. Her life was definitely in danger,” Baily said.

Hurrying to leave the country, she sold the family’s five-story house in the center of Kabul for the equivalent of 5,000 US dollars. When she was in Pakistan, a UN official discovered her amid the hundreds of thousands of other Afghan refugees and helped arranged asylum for her in the United States.


See video interview (in Farsi) with Ustada Mahwash See video interview (in Farsi) with Ustada Mahwash
 – recorded by Freemuse’s director Marie Korpe in Stockholm in 2004. (Duration: 3:28. Format: Real Audio.)



Farida Mahwash

She is the first and the only woman to have been conferred the honorary title of “Ustada”, meaning ‘Master’ or ‘Maestra’ in Persian (Male gender: ‘Ustad’)

Click to read the report
John Baily’s Freemuse report on Afghanistan from 2001



Video interview with Ustada Farida Mahwash
Translated from Dari to English

Ustada: As an artist, as a woman I am deeply disappointed of how music is being censored in Afghanistan. Music is the food for soul. Just as an optometrist can treat eyes, a musician can heal many souls. Therefore, I strongly and firmly oppose those who are supporting censorship of music.

Q: Why are you not able to visit Afghanistan and perform there?

Ustada: It is being claimed that Afghanistan is more peaceful and liberated now, however the men in the highest positions are from the Taliban school of thought who will not allow people to make nor play music. Especially not women.
If it is claimed that Taliban do not exist in Afghanistan anymore. I claim the opposite. They still exist! Because I, as an artist, am still not allowed performing my music or pursuing my career.
I have several times initiated to come and perform for my people in Afghanistan, especially in order to fundraise for those who have lost their homes during the war times. However, I have not been allowed to do so.
It is obvious that the ideals of Taliban still exist, just in another form, through those in the highest positions.
The situation, for not only female musicians, but females in general, is still as it was during the Taliban regime. Perhaps ten percent of their situation has improved since; the other ninety percent is still restricted and deprived of basic human rights. They are still not allowed to work. They wear burqas and they are prisoners in their own homes. The situation is therefore still the same.

Q: Do you have anything to say or recommend to other musicians with other nationalities who are also undergoing censorship of their music?

Ustada: I feel deeply sorry for them, just the way that I feel sorry for the Afghan musicians. I pray for all the musicians in the world who are going through the same struggles as Afghan musicians are. May God help improve the situation for all of us.




San Fransisco Chronicle, – 4 October 2007:
‘A famed Afghan singer to visit her homeland after 20 years’

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