Threats Won’t Stop This Teen Girl From Leading Afghanistan’s 1st All-Female Orchestra

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What do you do when you are a teen girl with a dream and a passion, but social constraints forbid it? Do it any, obviously! It’s what teens all over the world to everyday – defy authority, and while in some cases it can lead to bad or destructive consequences, there are situations where defying the standards is a GOOD thing!

Take for instance 19 year old Negin Khpalwak from Afghanistan. She is a prime example of how you can change society, despite the odds, by remaining defiant in the face of opposition. In a country where we only seem to get negative and depressing news in the mainstream media, this is an inspirational story of courage, strength, and heart.

Negin comes from Kunar, in the east of Afghanistan, and like many other teens, has a fierce passion for music. During the rule of the Taliban across the country, which ended in 2001, playing music of any kind was banned. And while the Taliban are no longer in power, there are still many conservative Muslim leaders who try to enforce the customs that were present 15 years ago.

Initially playing music in secret, Negin eventually told her father about her passion. He was fine with it, but the rest of her conservative Pashtun family were not.

Apart from my father, everybody in the family is against it. They say, ‘How can a Pashtun girl play music?’ Especially in our tribe, where even a man doesn’t have the right to do it,” she told Reuters.

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Today Negin is based in Kabul, living in an orphanage, where she leads a group of 35 women and girls in what is said to be the the country’s first all-female orchestra. It should also be said she is the country’s first female orchestra leader.

The Zohra Orchestra is part of the Afghanistan National Institute for Music, which has 141 students, of whom 41 are girls, and half the placements go to children who are street kids or orphans. Officials believe there are 70,000 street kids in Kabul and as many as 600,000 across the country.

Being part of it has put Negin’s life at risk. After an appearance on television, during a visit back home to her family, a group of male family members threatened to beat her if she did not stop. Instead of heeding their words, she returned to Kabul and continued to work with the orchestra.

Compared to women outside Afghanistan, we feel we are in a cage,” she said.

Girls have faced threats, intimidation and pressure to stay away from the arts, but that has not deterred them.

The founder of the ANIM, Ahmad Naser Sarmast, is a huge supporter of what Negin is doing and he himself understands the risks of playing music in conservative culture which tries to forbid it. He was based in Australia but decided to return to his home country in 2010 and open the Institute. Ahmad was nearly killed in 2014 when a suicide bomber blew himself up outside a French-run school in Kabul during a show.

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Today he is championing Negin and the women and girls in the Zorah Orchestra, as he knows the risk they are willingly taking in order to promote the arts.

The bravery of the girls sitting in the orchestra and the leadership of a young female conductor is an achievement for Afghanistan,” he said.

Because of the opposition faced by her family, the Institute is now helping Negin finish school, because Ahmad believes the all-female orchestra is the best response to the extremists trying to control every aspect of their lives. Negin says she is a changed person because of the opportunity she has today.

I am not that Negin anymore. I have been leading this orchestra for six months now, and leadership takes a lot of effort,” she says on how it has affected her identity. 

The impact is already evident, because people are starting to recognize who she is, and now with more international media attention her story is inspiring people further afield.

I will never accept defeat. I will continue to play music. I do not feel safe, but when people see me and say, ‘That is Negin Khpalwak’, that gives me energy,” she said.

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In 2012 CNN published a feature about the school and how it is transforming the lives of kids in Kabul as well as their community. Negin was interviewed and spoke about her desire to empower other girls like her.

“Music is very important to me because it’s my future. It saved me. I want to teach other students, especially young girls. I know my country has a lot of problems but I hope for peace so girls in Afghanistan can do what they dream of doing,” she said.

After building the Institute, founder Ahmad hired 9 international music teachers to train local Afghan teachers in the arts. He too is most proud of how girls’ lives are changing, in a country where many of them don’t even have access to education still to this day.

“When the people of the world see there are Afghan girls and boys performing side by side that means to a certain extent that we’ve won, and that Afghanistan has won, because music is a historical and inalienable part of Afghan culture, and its return is tremendously exciting,” he said.

“This is a revolution for this country. These girls are serving as a mother for the entire nation. I’m very pleased our institute is a mother for the country,” he added.

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  1. Pingback: Negin Khpalwak: Afghanistan's Only Female Orchestra Conductor

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