Singing is much more than a playful activity. For the regent honeysuckle, an endemic bird to Australia, it means the difference between survival and extinction. As their population shrinks, males lose their models to learn the trills with which to attract females and secure the species. Among humans it may not be so dramatic, but singing helps to express joy and to ward off sorrows, to scare away loneliness or to strengthen the group. Hence, Afghan women have raised their voices in the attempt to ban them from singing in public from the age of 12. The attempt to silence women is an old aspiration of religious extremists that spills over into the music and borders of Afghanistan.
In early March, Kabul’s Director-General for Education instructed the faculty of both public and private schools to stop girls over 12 years old from singing at school events, except for all-female audiences. His letter also specified that, from that age, female students could not have a male music teacher. The general indignation with which many Afghans reacted, but especially many Afghans, has forced the Ministry of Education, led by a woman, to overrule the person in charge.
Writers, social activists and anonymous girls denounced the measure posting videos on social networks in which they sing traditional songs as a vindication of their right. For many Afghans, including former vice president and human rights activist Sima Samar, the controversial decision has reminded them of the Taliban regime (which was ousted from power by the US intervention in 2001). Under his rule, music and girls were banned from going to school. The matter is especially sensitive given the possibility that the Taliban will enter the government as a result of the current peace negotiations. But the obsession with women’s voices is not exclusive to these Sunni extremists.
In neighboring Iran, which declares itself an Islamic republic and has Shiite Islam as its state religion, women have been banned from singing or performing alone in public since the 1979 revolution, which brought Islamists to power. Iranian singers had no choice but to exile or silence. Although since the beginning of this century the restriction has been relaxed allowing soloists to perform in female-only roles, they still cannot do so to mixed audiences or on television. Most conservative clergymen argue that the female voice is tempting and can lead men to sin.
Despite their doctrinal and political differences, neighboring (and mostly Sunni) Saudi Arabia maintained a similar ban until recent social reforms introduced by Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman. “Do not open the door to the devil,” warned the great mufti of the kingdom in 2017 before the first concerts organized in the country under the aegis of the powerful son of the king and that singers such as Mariah Carey or Nancy Ajram have taken the stage.
The experts consulted agree that there is no explicit prohibition for women to sing in the Koran or in the Hadiths (sayings attributed to Muhammad). What happens is that those who interpret Islamic law (until now almost exclusively men) see women as a source of moral danger to society, be it through their voice or their body. Hence, they have traditionally chosen to restrict their freedom. Other theologians, and more and more women theologians, however, argue that, as human beings, women can make their own decisions.
The taboo on the female voice is not exclusive to the more conservative interpretations of Islam. The ultra-Orthodox Jews also judge it sinful, only they choose to prohibit men from listening to women, which in practice has the same consequences. Nor is it the only restriction on your public visibility. Participation in sport is another common battlefield, often linked to the requirement that they dress modestly (and not just in Islamic societies, but also in countries like India where Hindu nationalists these days criticize girls wearing jeans. cracked that reveal their knees).
As with music, obstacles to sport are not only the result of obsolete norms, but of deeply ingrained customs that until now have been justified in culture and religion. Without the need for legislation in this regard, the weight of traditions and the patriarchal system have separated women from physical exercise and, therefore, international competitions in many countries with a Muslim majority.
Saudi Arabia did not even teach gymnastics classes in girls’ schools until five years ago, and even playing basketball was an underground activity. In the case of Iran, where exercise is possible in a segregated way, runners, soccer players and other players have to wear long pants, knee-length gowns and a scarf, something that is not allowed by the regulations. Its swimmers and gymnasts can only compete before the public and female judges. These obstacles reduce both their ability to measure themselves with other athletes and their consideration on sports circuits.
Muslim feminists insist that religion is used as an alibi. “Extremism is not about religion but about political power,” says Sussan Tahmasebi, co-founder and director of FEMENA, an organization that supports feminists in the Middle East. During a recent virtual debate, Tahmasebi lamented that the progressive women’s movement in the region has been marginalized by the international community’s support for religious groups that advocate for peace, rather than rights.
For Afghan women, being able to sing is an indicator of their freedom and their rights as citizens. Their videos defending that power are also a call for help to protect them from the social extinction with which the fundamentalists threaten them. The absence of their voices would be even sadder than the silence of the Australian Regent Honeyman’s trills.