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. If only the Taliban would listen.
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 the first all-female Zohra Orchestra who’ve 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 check points 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.
The country’s key demands in the dialogue include preserving the current government system under “Islamic Republic of Afghanistan,” holding elections and retaining the current constitution. U.S. Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad is leading the negotiations. He’s hoping to finalize a deal this year before presidential elections slated for September.
Afghan women have repeatedly voiced concerns about the lack of female representation at the peace talks, particularly given what is at stake.
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 contested in 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 education.
Zakia Wardak has been fighting for women’s rights in Afghanistan for eight years. Last October she stood for a seat in the parliamentary elections in Kabul, the results of which have yet to be announced — sweeping aside concerns for her safety and about entering the hyper-masculine, deeply corrupt world of Afghan politics.
“I highly doubt peace will come at the cost of our rights because the women today are not the women of 1996, neither are the Taliban,” said Wardak, whose late father and brother were Afghan generals, noting she is sure Afghan women will be part of the wider negotiations.
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.
Yet with U.S. President Donald Trump last month calling the war “ridiculous,” many analysts believe the 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 towards 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 in a message, without providing more detail. The group’s current position banning all forms of music is also based on the verdict of Islam.
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, that world is alien to her.
“Music is part of our life and music is our passion,” she said at the school, urging both Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government and the U.S. to convince the Taliban not to harm musicians.
The founder and director of the school music — who himself survived a Taliban bombing in 2014 at a concert in Kabul — said the days of the militant group ruling the country as a dictatorship have now gone.
“The youth of Afghanistan today are a totally different force than the youths of 1996,” Ahmad Naser Sarmast, 56, said at his office adorned with musicians’ portraits and trophies lining the shelves. He said the new generation won’t allow the Taliban “to come and turn the wheel of history backward.”
Music has flourished in Afghanistan since 2001, and now hundreds of students — male and female — are learning the craft in Sarmast’s school, which has represented Afghanistan’s music in more than 35 countries since its inauguration in 2010.
Still, some female musicians worry the Taliban will forcibly push them to quit and stay at home.
“If the Taliban comes back, it might be a great danger for us,” said violinist Gul Mina, who is in grade 11 at the school and hopes to become a violin teacher in order to change other girls’ lives. “Their return could be a huge disaster to our lives and musical works.”