Zohra is Afghanistan’s first all-female orchestra featuring 30 musicians ages 14-20. Named after a Persian literature goddess of music, the orchestra’s founder, Ahmed Naser Sarmast, hopes they can help revive Afghanistan’s rich musical tradition that has been muted after decades of war.

The orchestra members play European instruments including the piano, violin and oboe, as well as traditional South Asian instruments such as the sitar, the rubab and the tabla. They perform an eclectic mix of numbers ranging from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to traditional Afghan folk songs.

The orchestra is conducted by two young women, one of whom is Negin Khpolwak, a member of the conservative Pashtun ethnic group. When she was a child, her father brought her from their school-less village in the eastern province of Kunar to live in an orphanage in Kabul, where she was recruited to attend the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM).

Many of the orchestra members are students at ANIM in Kabul, where half of the slots are allotted to girls and homeless or orphaned students. As of now, the school is operated largely by Western educators off foreign donations, but Sarmast, the first Aghan to earn a doctorate in music, is slowly attempting to accumulate more Afghan faculty.

This year, the girls won the 2017 Freemuse Award, which declared, “With exceptional courage and dedication these young women are breaking new ground and have become important role models for any Afghan welcoming the return of music and the rights to exercise and take part in cultural life.”

Security for the girls and the school is a major concern. Under Taliban rule, music was banned, musicians were exiled and girls’ education in music was forbidden. Even though the ban is lifted, some girls still face death threats from their own families. Sarmast says, “We are working in an environment where we have millions of supporters, but we also have some very vocal enemies who are very much pro-Taliban minded.”

2016 saw the highest recorded rate of conflict related civilian casualties since 2009, largely due to attacks by the Taliban and ISIS. The conflict has severely impacted Afghan children, with 923 deaths and 2,589 injuries, the highest child casualty rate ever recorded.

Despite the persistent terrorist attacks, Afghanistan is a nation that continues to make considerable progress. The most encouraging advancements are the falling infant, child and maternal mortality rates, and the increase in access to trained midwives. Additionally, women are being encouraged to participate and are actively taking roles in STEM work, and some 80 percent of Afghan women now have regular or occasional access to mobile phones. There are now distance learning literacy programs sponsored by USAID and mobile health apps for use during pregnancy and other health conditions.

And now, the first female orchestra.

Media Resources: NPR 1/31/17; Freemuse 1/22/17; Express 1/18/17; Feminist Majority Foundation 2/13/17

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