Fresh from a sold-out concert tour of the U.K. and Sweden, Afghanistan’s first female conductor is convinced music can help deliver peace to her war-torn country.
At just 22, Negin Khpelwak has already stared down threats and intimidation from her conservative relatives, who wished she would take on any career but music. Now, like many of her fellow citizens, she is watching peace talks between the U.S. and the Taliban with growing alarm.
“We can bring freedom, peace and honor to Afghanistan,” said Khpelwak, who leads the country’s first all-female Zohra Orchestra, which played classical Western and Afghan music at the World Economic Forum in Davos. “Women can’t go back to the dark days — they can break our instruments, they can ban the music, but they never take it from our hearts.”
The Taliban, who control or contest half the country, banned all forms of music during their brutal regime that ran from 1996 to 2001. Even now, when the orchestra played its last concert in Kabul in February, most of the 700 guests had to pass through as many as 10 security checkpoints protected by armed guards and dogs.
The U.S. reached a draft peace agreement with the insurgent group in January that may eventually lead to a withdrawal of foreign troops and a Taliban pledge not to allow terrorists to use the country. Talks aimed at bringing an end to 18 years of war were scheduled to begin again over the weekend but appear to have been stalled. After being initially excluded from the U.S.-led talks, the Afghan delegation was set to include 52 women, up from just a handful in earlier sessions.
There’s much at stake for Afghan women after the “horrors” they experienced during the last period of Taliban rule, said Michael Kugelman, a senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.
Women have won hard-fought gains in politics, business and education since 2001, pushing back against the country’s male-dominated society. Last year about 400 female candidates ran for 68 seats reserved for women in the parliament, while hundreds of women run small businesses and teach at schools, and more than 3.5 million girls are now in school.
Yet with President Donald Trump last month calling the war “ridiculous,” many analysts believe Washington is ultimately unconcerned with protecting the relative gains for women in Afghanistan as it tries to extract itself from the seemingly unending conflict. Some also doubt the Taliban’s lip-service toward women’s rights.
“The Taliban claims to be a more moderate outfit than it was in previous years,” said Kugelman. “If it truly does represent a new and more conciliatory Taliban 2.0, then one would expect it to welcome Afghan women in negotiations. Unfortunately to this point there’s no indication this is happening.”
For now, the group still condemns and punishes anyone playing music but said it would review its position and make a decision based on “the verdict of Islam” if it returns to the country after a peace deal, their spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahed, said.
Khpelwak was just a baby when the Taliban took over the country in 1996 and immediately banned women from attending schools or leaving home without a partner. Now she is at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, and that world is alien to her.
“Music is part of our life and music is our passion,” she said.