Photo Essay: The Afghan Mother Singing Her Way Back to School

Humaira Sabawoon was already breaking the rules of Afghan society when she decided to enrol at university as a mature student. But by studying music, Humaira Sabawoon also took on a taboo left behind by the Taliban.

Written by Tahmina Saleem Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
In a country where many women can't access higher education and some are forbidden from listening to – let alone playing – music, Humaira Sabawoon defied the odds and faced down prejudice to study singing.Tahmina Saleem

More than 30 years of conflict have taken their toll on Afghanistan’s education system, making it difficult for children – and girls in particular – to attend school. Prior to the fall of the Taliban in 2001, it’s estimated that fewer than 1 million students attended school, and less than 40 percent were girls.

There has been substantial progress since, and today it is common for women living in the cities to pursue higher education. It is more difficult for women in the remote provinces – especially where there is still a Taliban presence, or where the group’s influence remains strong.

Statistics from the U.S. Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) show the total number of women enrolling in higher education in Afghanistan grew to more than 45,000 in 2016, comprising 22.8 percent of the total student population. The education ministry is aiming to bring that up to 25 percent by 2020.

Sabawoon is one of only two mature students enrolled in Kabul University’s arts department. The other is a man studying painting. (Tahmina Saleem)

But while women in Afghanistan are enjoying more opportunities to receive an education, when it comes to women studying the arts, the concept often still carries stigma. Most families don’t let their daughters attend music classes; in some families, they are forbidden from listening to music at all.

So when Humaira Sabawoon, 47, decided two years ago to go back to school and join her daughter in an Eastern music course at Kabul University, she knew she was breaking several barriers – not just as a woman studying music, but also as one of only two mature students in the fine arts department.

When asked how she feels about music, Sabawoon quotes an old Pashto poem: “While my suffered heart was always sad /on the time of being sad/ a bouquet of smiles was the reward for those sad times.” (Tahmina Saleem)

After she graduated high school in 1990, Sabawoon’s education was first interrupted by war, after which the mujahedeen took control of the government, and almost all women were forced to stay in their homes. Then the Taliban took over and banned women from being educated.

Alongside her studies, Sabawoon works as an editor in TV. Here, she’s pictured dubbing a show. (Tahmina Saleem)

After the Taliban was ousted from power, Sabawoon focused on her job as an editor at a private TV network and on raising her four children. Then she began to pursue music, singing at home and teaching herself to play the harmonica. She started taking lessons at a local NGO, the Aga Khan Foundation.

In 2015, Sabawoon joined in on the music lessons her youngest daughter, Najiba, was taking. After spending time with university students at the Aga Khan Foundation, Sabawoon was inspired to enrol in higher education, so she sat a pre-university exam. As a result, she was accepted into Kabul University’s fine arts department to study music and singing.

“My success is the result of my self-dependency and lots of perseverance,” Sabawoon says. “I have to study alongside my day job, which means I have to practice during the night.”

She hasn’t performed in public yet, but sometimes sings for friends. Najiba, meanwhile, is studying drumming and plays in two orchestras: one is at the university and the other is Afghanistan’s first all-female symphony.

Sabawoon graduated high school in 1990, but war, mujahedeen rule and the Taliban regime pushed her education to the sidelines. She finally went back to school 25 years later. (Tahmina Saleem)

Most of Sabawoon’s family are supportive of her studies. But her oldest son doesn’t think society is ready to accept women as singers. He says his friends make fun of him because his mother and sister practice music.

The family also faces judgement from neighbors. “Since our neighbors do not like what we do and talk badly about us, we have been forced to move houses many times,” Sabawoon says.

Sabawoon, pictured here with her grandchild and her youngest daughter Najiba, says the mother and daughter enjoy being classmates because they can practice together at home. (Tahmina Saleem)

But that won’t deter her from getting the education she had been denied for 25 years. “I won’t allow anyone to make decisions about my life,” she says. “No matter who that person is.”

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