An Effort to Silence Female Voices is Defeated, but Afghan Women Brace for More

Through their online protest of singing and speaking, Afghan women and girls showed that they want to continue to sing, and that their human rights must not be taken from them to appease a few.

An Effort to Silence Female Voices is Defeated, but Afghan Women Brace for More
In response to a ban on singing in Afghanistan, ordinary people and celebrities alike took to Twitter, recording themselves singing in videos posted to social media with the hashtag #IAmMySong. (@meghamohan / Twitter)

Earlier this month, brought a modest victory for Afghan women and girls who want a voice in their society—literally and figuratively.

A Ministry of Education memo banning school girls aged 12 and over from singing, except in front of other females, was sent to public schools and began circulating in Afghan media. Infuriated pushback from Afghans led the Ministry to backtrack. Many called out what they saw as an attempt at the “Talibanization” of education—a reference to the Taliban’s official banning of all music during its rule, which ended in 2001.

While widespread public outrage was effective in provoking the Ministry of Education to reconsider the new directive, the incident is emblematic of tensions bubbling to the surface during the fragile peace talks officially underway—though currently moving very slowly.

Revealing a society incongruous with one possible outcome of the talks—to be governed by the Taliban—the episode simultaneously exposed some of the fault lines in a society awash in suspicion and anxiety about what lies in store for them from the sacrifices expected to be made to reach a political settlement. The clues, like this one, that these sacrifices are expected to be carried on the backs of women and girls are hard to ignore.

The memo, penned by an official in Kabul city, also said male music teachers should not teach female students. When first asked about the veracity of the memo, a spokesperson for the Ministry confirmed its authenticity and added that the ban applied to the entire country, but gave a confusing explanation for the reason behind the ban: “The decision was made following complaints by families over the high burden of studies on the shoulders of the students in high school and middle school.”

A day later, a somewhat different explanation was given: that the purpose of the directive was to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Though it was not directly mentioned, such edicts are often justified through reference to conservative interpretations of Islam, in an effort to appeal to extremist forces, such as the Taliban.

The backlash was swift, as Afghans took to social media and other forums to express their outrage. A petition drive within Afghanistan was underway, with 100,000 reportedly by the week’s end. Ahmad Sarmast, the celebrated founder of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM) where boys and girls study music in Kabul, started a campaign on Twitter with the hashtag #IAmMySong, and ordinary people and celebrities alike took up the challenge, recording themselves singing in videos posted to social media.

The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission released a statement arguing the ban was a discriminatory violation of girls’ human rights. A chorus of activists, journalists, politicians and others decried the ban, echoing the outraged response to a move last year by the Ministry of Education to have children complete grades 1-3 in mosques instead of public schools. (That, too, was eventually rescinded.)

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Both of these policies were practiced under the rule of the Taliban until 2001, a distinction that has many Afghans suspicious, especially as talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban are poised to enter a new phase. On the agenda for these talks is what a future Afghan state might look like and whether a political settlement includes regime change where power is shared with the Taliban in whole or in part. This prospect has many people rightfully nervous, and some speculate the singing ban was a sign that the leadership of the Ministry of Education was attempting to get an early start on easing in changes aimed at appeasing the Taliban.

Bolstering these suspicions are an array of rumors, in circulation for some time—such as reports that education NGOs in one part of the country are being encouraged to dismiss female staff, or that one of the Taliban’s demands will be for girls’ education to be curtailed, such as ending after the primary level or being restricted to religious education only.

These worries, whether founded or not, expose the lack of transparency in the peace talk process, as ordinary Afghans make clear the sense that their rights are vulnerable to being traded away behind their backs in hushed negotiations 2,500 miles away in Doha. While the Afghan government provides public assurances “the future will be determined by the people of Afghanistan,” it is hard to reconcile this with the actions of the Ministry of Education, which have the appearance of at least setting the stage for a public education sector more palatable to the Taliban.

Besides the anxiety and wariness of Afghans worried about what a political settlement will mean for their futures, the singing ban controversy reveals another tension increasingly visible in this period of intra-Afghan talks. The incident demonstrates a society that has moved some distance from the draconian existence that characterized life when the Taliban governed.

In the 20 years that have passed since the Taliban were removed from power, Afghanistan is still a place where life as a female too often means enduring violence, rights violations, poverty and a lack of power. But it has also become a place where tens of thousands of women have managed to enter the work force, hundreds of thousands have received a university education, and trailing close behind them, several million girls attend school and look ahead to a future that they expect to include options for them other than a life sequestered away strictly to the private sphere.

“Our definition of peace is to continue our life as we do now,” said peace negotiator Fawzia Koofi, paraphrasing the words of a woman she had encountered in Nimruz, in an event hosted by the Canadian Association of International Development Professionals (CAIDP) with Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan.

“Women of Afghanistan do not have a luxury life. What should we give up? We are being targeted with killings and assassinations, deprived of practicing our rights in society, economic access is low, and there is domestic violence. We are not living a luxury life. But at least we can speak about our problems. During the Taliban era, we were not even allowed to speak about our problems. The people of Afghanistan want to continue to have the liberty to speak, and to exercise equality.”

Evidently, they also want to continue to have the liberty to sing. It was not the first time (and it may not be the last) that a government institution wielding enormous power over the future of its country will seek to curb liberties among children, who wait in precarious balance for whatever kind of state will emerge out of a possible political settlement reached in Doha, or in Turkey.

Whether the Ministry of Education is incrementally introducing conservative measures in order to accommodate future shared rule with the Taliban, or these were merely policy blunders by a few conservatives in the ministry, or for some other reason, is unclear. What is clear is that a sizable and vocal segment of Afghan society is unprepared to accept such measures.

Through their online protest of singing and speaking, Afghan women and girls showed that they want to continue to sing, and that their human rights must not be taken from them to appease a few.

Join a virtual event on March 31 hosted by WLUML that will discuss the complexities of the peace talks with the Taliban through a gendered lens, and with emphasis on competing formulations of jihad.

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Mona Tajali, Ph.D., is an executive board member of Women Living Under Muslim Laws.