Afghanistan Withdraws Ban on Schoolgirls Singing in Public After Online Uproar
Afghanistan’s Education Ministry last week proposed a nationwide singing ban on female students over the age of 12, saying these students will be allowed to sing only at all-female gatherings and can only be taught by female teachers. But outrage from citizens, activists, and human rights groups, which swiftly gathered steam online, has pushed the government to walk back the ban.
“Education, freedom of speech and access to artistic skills are the basic rights of all children, regardless of age or gender,” Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) condemned the ban in a statement on Twitter. “Children, girls and boys can exercise their rights equally and freely within the framework of the law.”
While announcing the proposal last week, a Ministry official said the ban responds to the “growing burden” on schoolchildren and will allow students to focus on their studies. But the Ministry did not offer any explanation about why the ban applied only to girls or why all-female events were exempt from it. Critics decried the ban as an erosion of women’s rights and individual liberty and a move that promotes gender discrimination and violates the Afghan Constitution.
Women from across the country and the world, along with national leaders and activists, registered their protest online. Many posted videos of themselves singing on social media, fuelling a campaign coupled with the hashtag #IAmMySong, to underscore the vitalizing influence music and culture have on their lives.
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“The decree not only violates the musical rights of Afghan girls and deprives them of the healing power of music, it also violates the Afghan constitution, child protection laws and the international convention of children’s rights,” says Ahmad Sarmast, founder of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, who also started the campaign.
“Women singing is part of our culture. …Women have always sung and played instruments at weddings, for example. I remember going to the village as a child, seeing women dance,” Shaharzad Akbar, chairperson of Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission, told The Guardian.
The proposed ban and its withdrawal carry significant political baggage. The Afghan government is in the middle of negotiating a peace and power-sharing agreement with the Taliban, the armed faction which controls almost 54% of regions across the country. For two decades now, it has fought the government and foreign forces; prior, during the Taliban regime between 1996 and 2001, singing and listening to music or poems were banned for everyone. Under the Taliban, Afghanistan recorded a staggering breakdown of human rights, with restrictions on free speech and individual liberty; but the Taliban rule was, and still remains, one of the most oppressive regimes for women to live under in the world.
The U.S.-led forces’ overthrowing of the Taliban eventually allowed Afghan women to exercise more rights and operate more freely in society. But as the U.S. government maneuvers a complete withdrawal of forces, the Afghan government and Taliban are now walking a fine line in deciding a social order that balances the armed group’s conservative ideas with a nation’s evolving democratic identity. Last year, the Education Ministry had decreed that schooling in the first three years should happen in mosques to help inject an “Islamic spirit” into the students. Facing backlash, it withdrew the decision.
Many worry that the government’s power-sharing agreement with the Taliban might impose renewed curbs on freedom, such as bans on singing, and undo the progress women have made. Afghan women live not only in a society riven with conflict, but one that is deeply misogynistic and denies them dignity; regardless, they seem to be getting the shorter end of the stick in both, war and peace.