April 21, 2019
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Afghan singer fears Taliban comeback will erode women’s rights (Feature)

Baber Khan Sahel

Kabul, Apr 6 (efe-epa).- Zahra Elham, 18, is the first female winner of the popular Afghan singing show ‘Afghan Star’ and a prominent symbol of how women have managed to rebuild their lives and identities following the brutal Taliban rule between 1996 and 2001.

But Elham, who won the contest in March, worries that if the Taliban makes a comeback in Afghanistan, against a backdrop of ongoing peace talks, it will compromise the hard-won freedom of the women in the country, who were oppressed and stripped of their basic rights under the Taliban regime.

She says that they should stand united against any assaults on their freedom.

“I am definitely worried of a Taliban come back. They never accepted shows like the Afghan Star, particularly the participation of women and girls,” Elham says.

The Taliban completely banned music during their rule and forbade the participation of women in all social activities.

“I stood against all odds and broke all social and cultural barriers to show people that girls can win if they decide to. I am sure we (women) can also overcome the problem of a Taliban comeback,” Elham says.

The 18-year-old who won the contest a few months back, competed in the show, that started airing in 2005, a few years after the end of the Taliban rule in the country, and is the first female contestant in 14 years to win the title of the most popular televised singing competition in the country.

She says she went through some of the most difficult days of her life to win the title and continues to receive threats to stop her singing.

Elham, however, is not kowtowing to these threats and is determined to make it as a professional singer, despite the persisting difficulties of life as a woman in the war-torn country.

According to her, nobody expected her to win, when she announced her decision to take part and traveled to Kabul from Quetta in Pakistan, where she has been living with her family for the past 16 years as a refugee.

The family fled their village in Malistan, in the war-torn southern Ghazni province, when she was only two.

Among hundreds of contestants, only a few of them female, she made it to the top 12 and finally won the title in March.

“I can’t express the feeling I had that day: I was about to fly. But my win was not just mine; it was for all Afghan girls, who have not been allowed to show their talent and skills due to social and cultural restrictions and threats from the conservative part of the society,” she says.

Conservative Afghans have always condemned the Afghan Star show as un-Islamic and an effort to mislead the young generation of the country.

Which is why, while the title brought Elham fame and recognition, it also exposed her to threats to her safety and security, both online and offline.

“A mullah (cleric) has already in a video speech issued my death warrant. He threatened I should be stoned to death,” Elham says.

Another man urged her to stop singing and “go and become a housewife, polish shoes, cook potatoes.”

During the competition, the police foiled an attempt by a taxi driver to kidnap her.

“I was totally shocked. I shouted, cried and was about to jump out of the car,” she says.

“It was one of the most terrible days of my life as the incident happened when the competition was underway,” she adds.

But her life is not just threats and hatred. There are some moments she cherishes, too.

“There are my fans, who congratulate me and take selfies with me when they spot me in the city. That gives me hope that our society is changing, that there is some tolerance and respect for women among our people,” she says.

Elham says she inherited her love for music from her father when she was a child.

“My first inspiration was my father, who plays the flute. He learnt it when he was a shepherd back in our home village in Ghazni years back,” she says.

She is now hoping to record three songs, one of them about her mother, but paucity of money is holding her back.

“The other day I visited a composer. He asked for $2,000 only for composing, so a whole song will cost me up to $7,000, an amount completely unaffordable for me,” she says, adding that unlike previous seasons of the Afghan Star this year there was no cash prize for the winner.

The young singer is now hoping to eke out a career in professional singing.

“She is brave and talented. She improved her singing skills in a short time but she will need some time to polish her voice to be a professional singer, Dawood Yakawlangi, a classical singer from the Hazara minority community, and singing teacher of Elham, with whom she daily practices, tells EFE.

Elham who has been living alone in Kabul away from her family for the past several months says she has to return to Quetta where there were no opportunities for her to pursue a career in music.

“My parents don’t want to come back to Afghanistan because of the blasts and suicide attacks… but after visiting them I have to come back to Kabul, even if they don’t,” she says. EFE-epa

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