Afghanistan: Female musicians put their lives in danger

15 January 2008

A report from a music school in Kabul, published in San Francisco Chronicle, is a story about the kind of difficulties and dangers female musicians face in present day Afghanistan. They must practice music under cover, work in secret, and be careful to protect their names and never show their face in public.

In an article in San Francisco Chronicle, Fariba Nawa reports from a music school which has no name or sign. The music school’s 55 male students come and go through the front door while their 12 female counterparts must enter through a dark hallway with fear of death threats and having acid thrown in the face.

The music school is run by a noted Afghan pop singer, Nazir Khara, whose songs have hit the top of the charts on Afghan radio and television, with many listeners saying the secrets of his success are duets with unidentified female vocalists.

According to the article, Nazir Khara is well aware that teaching women music could mean a death sentence for them or himself, since “many Afghan men believe a woman’s voice should not be heard by men, and some conservative clerics believe it is a crime against Islam for women to sing or perform music.”

Click to see the film about the Afghan Music Project

From the film about ‘The Afghan Music Project’


“If they are going to put their lives in danger I’m going to make sure that I do my best to protect them,” Nazir Khara told San Francisco Chronicle’s reporter.

“Although there are female entertainers in Afghanistan, their families often face intense criticism from neighbors and relatives. Some women eventually stop their music careers, while others perform only on radio to avoid being seen or lie to parents when attending music classes,” writes Fariba Nawa.

The article mentions two specific cases:

– studied guitar with Khara and often sang in public, but quit after several neighbours threatened to throw acid in her face if she continued.

Farida Tarana
– was driven out of the western city of Herat after singing on national television as one of a handful of female contestants on ‘Afghan Star’, the nation’s version of ‘American Idol’. Her performing in public turned out to be a dangerous undertaking. After appearing on tv, she received a death threat by telephone. Then, former mujahedeen fighters stopped by her home to implore her to stop singing in public. Even her uncle, a court judge, received a death threat.
Forced to wear the head-to-toe burqa and frightened for her life, she moved to Kabul, the nation’s most liberal city, to live with a younger sister and work as a financial administrator for a bank. Although Tarana says she feels safer, she is glad that an armed guard paid by the bank is stationed outside her home. Tarana, 24, is one of the music school’s few female students who is willing to be named and photographed. For the past seven months, she has been taking voice and guitar lessons three times a week.

Click to see the film about the Afghan Music Project

American support to the music school
Nazir Khara’s music school is partly funded by the ‘Afghan Music Project’, which was developed by to students as a the brainchild as their final master’s of business administration assignment.

Chris Becherer, 31, of San Francisco and Adam Gouttierre, 36, of Seattle were studying business at UC Berkeley in 2005 when they developed a “social entrepreneurship” project for Afghanistan. The idea was simple: record an album of traditional music featuring a female vocalist, and sell it and an accompanying video on the Internet to pay for musical instruction for young Afghans yearning to play their own music.

The independent Ioda label agreed to distribute the album online, and after its launch in 2005, the album and its digital recordings were selling on over 50 online music stores, including iTunes where it reached No. 12 iTunes’ World Music Chart.

Becherer told San Francisco Chronicle that the venture has netted more than 3,000 US dollars for Afghan music teachers such as Nazir Khara to teach young Afghans – and especially women – how to play their traditional music. 600 song downloads or 60 album sales fund one teacher’s salary for an entire year.

Gouttierre, who now works in digital media for Microsoft, said he and Becherer are planning to return to Kabul and create more opportunities for female musicians.

Click to see the film about the Afghan Music Project

A 20-minutes documentary film has been produced about the project in which music examples are mixed with interviews with female Afghan musicians, singers and a music teachers, and the producers Chris Becherer and Adam Gouttierre explain about their ideas with their project. The photos on this page are from this film.

Taliban’s return in the capital
The seriousness of the situation in Kabul was underlined on 14 January 2008 when three bearded Taliban suicide bombers and gunmen walked in firing an AK-47 in the lobby of Afghanistan’s only five-star hotel, Serena Hotel, right in the centre of the city. An American, a Norwegian journalist and a Filipina were among the eight who were killed in the attack which possibly signals Taliban’s return in the capital, and shows that religious militants could be refining their strategy to undermine the Western-backed campaign to stabilise the country.

The attack was allegedly masterminded by Mullah Abdullah. He is a close ally of Pakistani militant leader Siraj Haqqani who is thought to be based in Miran Shah, the main town in Pakistan’s lawless tribal region of North Waziristan.

A spokesman for the Taliban group said the day after the Serena attack that its fighters would step up attacks on other places popular with foreigners:

“We will target all these restaurants in Kabul where foreigners are eating,” Zabiullah Mujahid told the Associated Press by telephone. “We have jihadists in Kabul right now, and soon we will carry out more attacks against military personnel and foreigners.”

Call for censorship
According to Agence France-Presse, mullahs called on President Hamid Karzai in December 2007 to ban certain music programmes on television that they said were “immoral” and “against Islam”.

The Afghan culture ministry has recently banned films such as ‘Kabul Express’ and ‘The Kite Runner’. The four child stars of the kite runner film, which is based on a best-selling 2003 book by US-based Afghan writer Khaled Hosseini, had to leave Afghanistan in December 2007 to settle in the United States after concern about reprisals because of a violent scene that could inflame ethnic tensions.



Click to see the film about the Afghan Music Project
Afghan singer.

Photo from ‘The Afghan Music Project’

Click to listen to samples from the album
CD cover


Adam and Chris interviewed on MSNBC on 30 April 2006:


See the documentary film

20 minutes short film documenting the struggles of Afghan musicians and the making of The Afghan Music Project:
Large screen (for fast internet connection)
Small screen (for slower connection)


San Francisco Chronicle – 14 January 2008:
‘With aid of S.F. man’s project, Afghan women risk lives for a song’

‘The Afghan Music Project’ – includes a CD and a 20-minute documentary film:

Agence France-Presse (AFP) – 15 January 2008:
”Kite Runner’ film banned in Afghanistan: ministry’


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