Afghanistan’s First Female Conductor Braves Death Threats to Make Music

Negin Khpalwak has had to risk her life to become Afghanistan’s first female orchestra conductor. But she says it’s worth it – not only for the music, but also because she’s inspiring other Afghan women to assert their rights.

Written by Alexandra Bradford Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Negin Khpalwak rehearses with the Zohra orchestra, Afghanistan’s first all-female symphony, in Kabul. Khpalwak and the women she performs with are trying to change attitudes in the conservative country, where many see music as immoral. AP/Rahmat Gul

Negin Khpalwak, 20, is in love with music. Her passion becomes immediately clear when she starts talking about how she felt the first time she played the sarod, a string instrument from India, or when she describes the excitement of conducting her orchestra in front of world leaders, like she did this past February at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. “We played in front of a lot of people [in Davos] and it was amazing, we were so happy,” says Khpalwak, who lives in Kabul.

But her love for music is a dangerous one: She has received death threats from close family members and from Islamist militants for refusing to put down her conductor’s baton.

At 13, Khpalwak was recruited for the Afghanistan National Institute for Music by Ahmad Naser Sarmast, a musicologist and the founder of the institute. At the time, Khpalwak was living and studying at the Afghan Child Education and Care Organization (AFCECO), an orphanage in Kabul where her father sent her to live at the age of nine because it was the only place she could get an education.

Khpalwak says she decided to apply to the music school because she had never seen a girl play music in Afghanistan before. She took the entrance exam without informing her parents, for fear they would try to stop her. When she was accepted, she told her parents she wanted to attend music school. Khpalwak’s mother was against the idea, but her father told her: “If you want to play music, you should go to music school.”

Khpalwak went on to become the first female conductor in Afghanistan, where music was prohibited by the Taliban during the militant group’s rule from 1996 to 2001. Even now, in conservative Afghan towns like Khpalwak’s hometown of Kunar, Taliban loyalists continue to silence music. But Khpalwak is working hard to bring music back to her country, and in doing so, she has also become an advocate for female empowerment.

Khpalwak spoke with Women & Girls about her role as the conductor of the Zohra orchestra, playing both Afghan folk tunes and Western classics with the first female orchestra in Afghanistan, and why she risks her life to play music.

Women & Girls: You have received death threats from members of your own family and from the Taliban. How has this impacted you?

Negin Khpalwak: When my uncles learned that I was going to study music, they told me that I had shamed our family, because girls in my family are not allowed to go to school – they are supposed to stay in the house. One time, when my father was away working, I came back home to visit my family, but my uncles would not let me leave the house to return to school. They kept me at home for six months, until my father came back home and took me back to school.

After that, my uncles told me that if they saw me again, they would kill me.

I stayed away from my town for four years, and I missed my family so much. But now my parents and siblings have moved to Kabul … and I am happy.

There are a lot of Taliban in our province, and the Taliban from my town have said: “We will attack Negin because she plays music.”

Women & Girls: Are you scared of the Taliban and of your uncles?

Khpalwak: When [my uncles first said they would kill me] I was worried they would come [to Kabul] and do that, but now I am not scared.

This happens a lot in Afghanistan – a lot of women are killed. But we have to fight for our own freedom. One day we will have more freedom, and that will come from watching the brave girls who are changing things. I always say that they can try and stop me, but I will never stop my music.

Women & Girls: What do you think about your role as an icon of female empowerment in Afghanistan?

Khpalwak: We can’t stay home and listen to those who want to keep us there – like my uncles. Other girls see me, and they say, “Negin is fighting for our rights, and she is famous for going to music school, and we must fight too.” I know other girls are watching me, and so I am telling them to stand up and take their freedom. One girl said to me: “I have learned from you that I have rights.”

Women & Girls: Your mother was not supportive when you first started playing. Is she supportive now?

Khpalwak: After we performed in the United States for the first time … my mother said to me, “I saw you in the news.” I told her that I had done a lot of interviews and my mother responded by saying, “You aren’t doing bad things – you are playing music and it makes people happy.” Now, when I go on trips to perform, my mother says: “Good luck, my daughter.”

Women & Girls: What dreams do you have for your future?

Khpalwak: I want to be a musician until I die, and I want to work for music in Afghanistan. My big wish is to study music outside of Afghanistan, in Italy, because I want to learn how to be the best conductor. I will go and study and come back to Afghanistan to make two big orchestras – one just for women, and the other for women and men. People in Afghanistan believe that women can’t do anything so I want to show them that both men and women are [equal] and women can do anything they want.

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