Afghanistan: Wajiha Rastagar

30 May 2005

The two wings against music censorship

Wajiha Rastagar is one of the most famous Afghan female singers. Dr Samay Hamed talks with Wajiha Rastagar about her first steps towards music, how she became a singer, and how she sees the present situation in Afghanistan today


An obvious symbol of freedom and change? If we search for such a symbol in Afghanistan it would be the life of musicians and singers. In Afghanistan, music has been the main target of censorship and the frontline of an open confrontation and combat between fanaticism and freedom.
There is an apparent paradox in the way Afghans perceive music and musicians: Most of Afghans love music but hate musicians. In each street there is at least one music shop, and city streets are like rivers of nice vocals coming out from windows, shop doors, transistor radios, and cars. Generally Afghans are buying radios for two purposes only: BBC News, and music. They enjoy listening to the music in public. But the performance of music – singing, playing and dancing – only takes place in private. A huge number of musicians have had an underground period in their music career under pseudonyms to hide their musical identity from their family and relatives.
Under Taliban rule in Afghanistan music has faced most dangerous period of censorship and it mad situation more problematic for musicians: Most of them escaped from Afghanistan. Music bands than had been formed since long years struggle and hardship were dismantled. Young generation had no accessible sources to get help.

A musician is a “sazenda”
The Afghan paradox of music – appreciating music but not the musicians – makes the way clear for distribution of music while life for the musician remains difficult. Actually, to begin singing and playing is like committing a kind of suicide. The day you begin to sing or play will also be the beginning of trouble for you. Choosing the path of music opens a door towards a winding way covered by walking walls. First of all you will be facing a family fight. 95 percent of all Afghan families are against singing and playing within their own family. They consider a musician an undignified personality. Afghans have a name which they use for musicians: “Sazenda”. It means “a person with a music instrument”, but it has an underlying degrading meaning to it.

Present-day challenges
During the recent three decades, though, Afghanistan has seen a change of meta-narratives. In big cities people don’t consider being a singer or player as a shameful work anymore. But still most of them would never allow their sons or daughters to become an outdoor singer or player.
Political censorship always begins with censorship on music: Each regime allows only the kind of lyrics to be broadcast which are in their own interest, and forces musicians to sing in praise of them. A political co-operation of governments with religious and traditional interests is common in Afghanistan, and music suffers from it. For example, nobody allows adding music as a subject for schools, or even using it as an educational method.
Imagine what the situation is like for a woman to become a singer in Afghanistan. Women have to face twice the number of challenges.

A closed society
Female Afghanistan singer Wajiha Rastagar puts it like this:
“Our family is a family of intellectuals but I have faced the same problems as so many other female singers in Afghanistan when I started to sing. It has to do with that Afghanistan is a very closed society which forces even intellectuals to be very careful in regard to this issue. When you start your career as a singer in Afghanistan you chose a difficult and dangerous path to go, and you go alone. Even if your family is supporting you it just means that some more victims are accompanying you. They will have to hold up against a closed society, and struggle every day. Personally, I have had a long series of challenges and problems. Some of my relatives asked me to not use our family name as a singer,” explains Wajiha Rastagar who has released five albums and has had several concerts inside the country as well as abroad. Since 1992, she has been living permanently in Germany, but even so, many of her songs are extremely popular in Afghanistan today. Her husband, Farid Rastagar, is a well-known musician as well. Their seven-year-old daughter sings on Afghanistan’s first ever produced album of children’s songs.

I ask Wajiha Rastagar about what she thinks could be the reasons for this strong opposition against musicians. She replies:

“I think it is a characteristic of a closed society. In a society where a woman is considered as a “Thing” or the “Belonging of Men”, how can she raise her voice? I think when you sing it means you have something to share with others: a sorrow, happiness. You want to move the silence and when you move the silence you hear other voices. When music breaks the silence it is bound to create problems. Because a closed society is in fact a realm of silence. Music can bring changes!”

Lack of tolerance
“How is the reaction from the audience when you have live concerts?”

“Mostly our audience encourage us with respect and love. When a person is coming to a concert it means he or she likes music. So they have no problem with music but each of them do have their own interests and favourites. It is normal to have individual interests but when a person wants to force a singer or other listeners to sing and listen music of his or her choice it creates many problems, both for the singer and the audience. In several concerts there have been physical and verbal conflicts. It has to do with lack of tolerance.”

The seriousness of this issue was tragically illustrated with the recent incident of Afghan singer Nasrat Parsa who was killed in post-concert attack in Canada in the beginning of May 2005. The attack followed trouble at Parsa’s concert where some young men in the audience had called for faster, livelier songs which Nasrat Parsa had denied them. (More info)

Knowledge and courage
“As a singer, and in particular as a female singer, what is your advice to Afghan women in respect to bringing changes?”

“I think Afghan women should promote and refresh their knowledge and use this knowledge to change their lives. Knowledge is one wing of development. The second wing is courage.”

“What is your suggestion when it comes to how to deal with music censorship in Afghanistan?”

“I think nowadays in Afghanistan the most dangerous kind of censorship is self-censorship. First of all we should change ourselves. As a woman singer I think some of our problems with censorship have to do with women’s situation in Afghanistan generally. Therefore I think if we work on changing the woman’s situation in Afghanistan, a big part of female singers’ problems would be solved as well. To bring about this change we should support civil society in Afghanistan, and this is possible with the two wings: knowledge and courage!”

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Wajiha Rastagar: “Music can bring changes!”

About the author
Dr. Samay Hamed is an independent writer, journalist, publisher, political cartoonist, lyricist and poet. He has emerged as one of the most important voices for press freedom in Afghanistan today.
He is based in Denmark, and travels to Afghanistan often.
Dr Hamed was awarded the International Press Freedom Award in 2003. His biography and an interview can be found at: (Committee to Protect Journalists)


38-year-old Dr Samay Hamed

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