Afghanistan’s singing sisters defying the Taliban from under a burka

By Kawoon Khamoosh

BBC World News

9 March 2024, 01:31 GMT

As the world was watching the Taliban’s return to power in August 2021, two sisters in Kabul were among millions of women in Afghanistan who could directly feel the new regime tightening its grip on them.

They decided they couldn’t just stand back and watch women’s freedoms being restricted, and started secretly using the power of their voices to resist.

Putting themselves in great danger in a country where musicians can be arrested, they started a singing movement on social media known as the Last Torch.

“We’re going to sing this but it could cost us our lives,” one of them said in a recorded video, before they started the tune.

It was released in August 2021, just days after the Taliban takeover, and quickly went viral on Facebook and WhatsApp.

Without any background in music, the sisters – who wear burkas to conceal their identity – became a musical phenomenon.

“Our fight started from right under the flag of the Taliban and against the Taliban,” says Shaqayeq (not her real name), the younger member of the duo.

“Before the Taliban came to power, we had never written a single poem. This is what the Taliban did to us.”

After returning to power, it took the Taliban less than 20 days to implement its unique vision for Afghanistan.

Imposing Sharia (Islamic religious law) on everyday life and restricting women’s access to education were among their priorities. Women took to the streets of Kabul and other major cities to resist, but faced a harsh crackdown.

“Women were the last light of hope we could see,” says Shaqayeq.

“That’s why we decided to call ourselves the Last Torch. Thinking that we wouldn’t be able to go anywhere, we decided to start a secret protest from home.”

The pair soon released other songs, sung from under blue burkas, just as the first song was.

One was a famous poem by the late Nadia Anjuman, who wrote it in protest against the first Taliban takeover in 1996.

How can I speak of honey when my mouth is filled with poison?

Alas my mouth is smashed by a cruel fist…

Oh for the day that I break the cage,

Break free from this isolation and sing in joy.

As the Taliban banned women’s education, Nadia Anjuman and her friends used to meet at an underground school, The Golden Needle, where they would pretend to be sewing but would instead read books. They too wore the blue burka, known as chadari in Afghanistan.

The older of the two singing sisters, Mashal (also a pseudonym), compares the burka to “‘a mobile cage”.

“It’s like a graveyard where the dreams of thousands of women and girls are buried,” she says.

“This burka is like a stone that the Taliban threw on women 25 years ago,” Shaqayeq adds. “And they did it again when they returned to power.

“We wanted to use the weapon they used against us, to fight back against their restrictions.”

The sisters have only released seven songs so far, but each has resonated strongly with women across the country. To begin with they used other writers’ lyrics, but they reached a point “where no poem could explain how we felt,” Shaqayeq says, so they started writing their own.

Their themes are the suffocating limitations placed on women’s everyday lives, the imprisonment of activists and violations of human rights.

Fans have responded by posting their own performances of the songs on social media. In some cases they have also worn burkas as a disguise, while one group of Afghan school students living outside the country recorded a version on stage in the school auditorium.

This is the opposite of what the Taliban wanted to achieve.

One of its first measures after taking power was to replace the Ministry of Women’s Affairs with the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. The new ministry has not only enforced wearing of the burka, but also condemned music for supposedly destroying the roots of Islam.

“Singing and listening to music is very harmful,” said Sawabgul, an official who appeared in one of the ministry’s propaganda videos. “It distracts people from God’s prayers… Everyone should stay away from it.”

Soon there were videos of Taliban foot soldiers on social media, burning musical instruments and parading arrested musicians.

Shaqayeq says she has had many sleepless nights thinking the Taliban might identify them.

“We have seen their threats on social media: ‘Once we find you, we know how to remove your tongue from your throat,'” says Mashal.

“Our parents get scared whenever they read these comments. They say maybe it’s enough and we should stop… But we tell them we can’t, we cannot just continue with our normal lives.”

For their security, the sisters left the country last year but they hope to return soon.

Sonita Alizada, a professional rapper from Afghanistan now living in Canada, is one of those who has admired the Last Torch’s videos from abroad.

“When I saw two women under a burka singing, honestly I was crying,” she says.

She was born in 1996, the year the Taliban first took power, and her family fled to Iran when she was just a child. There her mother tried to sell her into a forced marriage, but she found her way out through music. Like the two sisters of the Last Torch, she sees the women who have protested against the Taliban as a sign of hope.

One of the sisters’ songs refers to the protesters directly.

Your fight is beautiful. Your female scream.

You are my broken picture in the window.

“The situation is very disappointing in Afghanistan right now because we have lost decades of progress,” Sonita says. “But in this darkness there’s a light still burning. We see individuals fighting with their own talent.”

The BBC also showed one of the sisters’ most recent songs to Farida Mahwash, one of Afghanistan’s most celebrated female singers, with a career of over half a century until her recent retirement.

“These two singers will turn four and then become 10, and then 1,000,” she said. “If one day they go on stage, I’ll walk with them even if I have to use a walking stick.”

In Kabul, the crackdown on activism has further intensified in the past year, with authorities banning women from holding rallies and arresting those who defy the ban.

One of the sisters’ latest songs is about female activists who were imprisoned by the Taliban and kept in what Human Rights Watch described as “abusive conditions”.

The waves of female voices

break locks and chains of prison.

This pen filled with our blood

breaks your swords and arrows.

“These poems are just a small part of the grief and pain we have in our hearts,” Shaqayeq says.

“The pain and struggle of the people of Afghanistan, and the grief they have endured under the Taliban in the last years, can’t fit in any poem.”

The UN says the Taliban could be responsible for gender apartheid if it continues with its current policies. The Taliban has responded that it is implementing Sharia and won’t accept outside interference in the country’s internal affairs.

Shaqayeq and Mashal are working on their next songs. They are hoping to echo the voice of women in Afghanistan in their fight for freedom.

“Our voice won’t be silenced. We are not tired. It’s just the beginning of our fight.”

The sisters’ names have been changed for their safety.


Afghanistan’s singing sisters defying the Taliban from under a burka