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Aryana Sayeed - singing to empower Afghan women

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Aryana Sayeed sings for her fans in Afghanistan
Aryana Sayeed sings for her fans in Afghanistan Sherzaad

Aryana Sayeed is a superstar in her native Afghanistan. Singing in Pashto and Dari, her sensual and provocative music videos have been viewed by millions of fans at home and abroad. But they've also drawn the wrath of hardliners.  At her first ever concert in Paris she talks to RFI about giving a voice to disempowered Afghan women and living under a fatwa.

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Aryana Sayeed began as a pop singer, and still is, but her songs are more than traditional pop fare.

"I usually try to sing songs that have strong messages behind them," she tells RFI before performing to a full house at Theatre du Gymnase on May 13. "I sing for women’s rights in Afghanistan, I sing for love, for peace, which is really needed back home in my country."

Sayeed was born in Kabul, and left for Pakistan aged eight. After being educated in Switzerland and then settling in the UK, she returned to Kabul five years ago and now spends most of her time there. It changed both her music and the way she sees life.

"The impact was crazy. I started as a pop music singer, I didn’t care much about the world around me and when I went to Afghanistan what I saw there - the lives of these poor people, poor women of Afghanistan, how they get treated by violent men, poor kids on the roads and everything, it really affected me. I changed a lot, even my music changed. Now I have a purpose behind my music, I want to bring a positive change, I want to bring a smile into people’s faces and I want to give them happiness."

Championing women

The song Qaramaan (meaning champion in Farsi) invites Afghan women to believe in themselves.

"Even if the sting of your tongue brings tears to my eyes" she sings. "Or if the blade of your gaze tries to slit my soul and cause my demise,  bring forth no matter what you can, I won’t bow to you no matter what your plan, because I know a day will finally come when to my sky high thoughts you will finally succumb."

"Women in Afghanistan feel really weak, they are weak," Sayeed explains. "They feel like they have to put up with the challenges and everything that comes their way. But in this song I wanted them to feel a bit empowered, to feel that they have to stand up on their feet and defend themselves, and ask for their rights."

Another song of female-empowerment is 'The Lady of the Land of Fire'.  It opens with provocative scenes of the violence and oppression some Afghan women experience and evokes the issue of self-immolation.

"Who says I am a mother to this world?" Sayeed sings. "I am nothing but a burden on the son's shoulders, I am a slave because I am a wife, I am a headache when I am a sister." 

Sayeed says self-immolation continues, particuarly in rural areas where women feel isolated.

"Things are getting better in a way, it’s getting worse in the other. You all have heard about Farkhunda [a 27-year-old Afghan woman who was publicly beaten and slain by a mob in Kabul on March 19, 2015], it’s still like that, still happening in every corner. So many cases are happening in the villages and nobody hears or knows about it. They don’t talk about it on TV, so it’s getting really bad."

Living with death threats

The video for 'The Lady of the Land of Fire' was shot on the streets of Kabul, and released during the time when Islamist hardliners had called for a fatwa against her.

Sayeed says the hatred stems partly from refusing to wear the veil, even when she sits as a member of the jury on the Afghan Star talent show. But given there are "other female singers in Afghanistan that don’t wear a headscarf and they don’t face as much trouble", she feels the real reason must lay elsewhere.

"I’ve realised that the main thing is that I have impact in Afghanistan: impact on women, influence on people and they are scared of that. If I say to the women 'you don’t need to put up with your husband beating you up', she will listen to me and they don’t want that to happen. That’s why they’re after me more than anybody else."

She's become accustomed to going to work in a flack jacket, having body guards, living like a prisoner in her hotel room. But takes heart from the support she gets from her fans.

"A lot of people in Afghanistan support me, it’s their love, their support that keeps me going, it gives me the positive energy to think what I’m doing is right so I don’t need to be scared of anybody. I have to fight on and carry on my path."

Sherzaad Entertainment/Tolo TV

Afghan Star

As one of two female jury members on the TV talent show Afghan Star, Sayeed takes pride in encouraging female artists to find their voice. Recently 18-year old Zulala Hashemi became the first girl to reach the final of the popular television music talent show.

"For a woman to make it through to the final, this was a first in Afghan music history, so it was a wonderful thing to happen. And then for me it was great news because I felt whatever effort I’m putting in this county, it’s giving me results. So for me it was a double thing to party on."

Sayeed says it was also highly unusual for a woman from a small village in Jalalabad to take part, and to go so far.

"If a girl is in the finals it means people have voted for her, in the past people never supported a woman to sing."

Sherzaad Entertainment

The Paris concert marked the end of a world tour, but Sayeed cites one of her fondest memories as performing to fans in Afghanistan, not least in Bamiyan where the Taliban destroyed sacred Buddha statues in March 2001.

"I was in Bamiyan twice, and I have like 20,000 audience there, and they were like going crazy, jumping around, happy. That happiness I see in people’s faces, that is everything to me."

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