The posters on the doors of the Centre des arts announced “Sold Out” as crowds of spectators from across Geneva flocked in to see ‘Zohra’, the first ever all-female ensemble in the history of Afghanistan. To the delight of our students, schoolchildren from across Geneva, and the general public, the Afghan Women’s Orchestra, over 30 young Afghan women aged between 14 and 20, shared their love for music. Accompanied by a group of players from the Orchestre du Collège de Genève, and resplendent in their exquisite national costumes, the young women presented their instruments and played a repertoire of both traditional Afghan music and Western classical pieces.
“For us in Geneva, this may seem quite commonplace, but for these girls, the simple act of learning an instrument is a remarkable feat,” explains Isabelle Muller, co-ordinator of the Centre des arts. This is no exaggeration. Music is rarely heard in Afghanistan, having been banned for almost 30 years until the fall of the Taliban government in 2001. Even attending rehearsals at the Afghan National Institute of Music (ANIM) where Zohra is based is a challenge for the girls, who sometimes have to smuggle their instruments to and from school to avoid threats of violence.
Thirty years of silence
When the Taliban gained power in 1996, women were forbidden from working, forced to stay at home, and obliged to cover themselves entirely when they did go out. With heavy sanctions placed on the country by the United States, and a refusal by the United Nations to recognise the Taliban regime, Afghan citizens suffered years of extreme hardship, and formal education disappeared almost entirely, especially for women and girls.
Despite small improvements over the last decade, literacy rates remain low, hovering around a mere 24% for women (according to a 2015 estimate). Access to education is even more difficult in rural areas, where many children, and especially girls, have to work in order to help their families survive. According to a 2007 UNICEF survey, nearly one quarter of Afghan children between the ages of 7 and 14 are working. Violence against schools, absence of infrastructure and a lack of qualified teachers compound the problem all around.
Since the fall of the Taliban government, the situation is starting to improve slowly. “One of the beacons of hope and light for women and music in Afghanistan was, and still is, Ahmad Sarmast, the founder and director of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music,” says Isabelle Muller. An Afghan-Australian ethnomusicologist, Dr. Sarmast returned to Afghanistan after years of exile with a plan to revive music and give access to musical education to all children, including girls, underprivileged children, orphans and street children. Despite ongoing threats and surviving a suicide attack against him, Sarmast perseveres in his goal, hoping to build a concert hall and girl’s dormitory at the current institute, and open other music schools across Afghanistan.
Celebrating hope and dialogue across cultures
“The Centre des arts is so privileged to have been chosen to host this extraordinary group of women,” continues Isabelle Muller. “Our students discovered an amazingly rich culture: one that was endangered for so long, not only because of the ban on music, but because of the very essence of Afghan music, which is mostly an oral tradition”. Standing at the crossroads of education and culture, surrounded by the international environment of Ecolint and its dedication to inclusiveness, respect and inter-cultural understanding, the Centre des arts reaffirms its position as a window to the world’s diverse culture.
The Afghan Women’s Orchestra ‘Zohra’ tour performed at the Centre des arts on 23, 24 and 25 January 2017, as part of their first international tour, which included a performance at the closing ceremony of the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Davos conference, and dates in Zürich and Germany. At the initiative of the WEF in collaboration with the Service cantonal de la culture de Genève and thanks to the support of the Orchestre du Collège de Genève, Zohra was able to perform in Switzerland and Germany. At their last performance at the Centre des arts on 25 January, the Afghan Women’s Orchestra received the Freemuse Award, hand-delivered by the co-founder of the organisation, which defends freedom of expression for musicians and composers around the world.