Afghan orchestra puts women's rights center stage at Davos

DAVOS, Switzerland (Reuters) - Global leaders who attend the annual World Economic Forum in Davos are used to discussing women’s rights on panels. On Thursday they got a chance to hear an all-female Afghan orchestra that has overcome Islamist death threats on its way to its first international performance in the elite ski resort.

Thirty young women, each wearing a matching bright red hijab, took the stage and some played traditional Afghan instruments, like the rabab, similar to the Indian sitar.

Many of the musicians, including conductors Zarifa Adiba, 18, and Negin Khpolwak, 19, said they had been forced to hide their music from members of their community who they feared might react violently if they had known.

“When I go home, somebody could come and kill me,” said Khpolwak. “I am so worried about my security. I’m scared.”

She said only her father supported her participation in the orchestra back in her home province, Kunar, 230 km (140 miles) west of Kabul, where Islamist Taliban militants have resurfaced, claiming responsibility for suicide bombings and attacks.

Zohra was founded in 2014 with five original members as part of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music and has since faced death threats and intimidation.

Adiba, who lives in Ghazni in east-central Afghanistan, said that with music and the arts banned for a extended period under the Taliban’s 1996-2001 rule, her relatives couldn’t shake their conservative views on women performing in an orchestra.

“But I am confident that music is nothing bad that I should feel shy of,” she said proudly. “Music is my profession. Music is something beautiful. I should be proud to be a musician.”

Adiba and Khpolwak each took turns in the conductor role during Thursday’s performance, which had a Swiss orchestra join with Zohra to perform Afghan songs.

Khpolwak said she hopes more international performances are on the horizon for the orchestra. “We wish to have another trip to another country, because we want to show the people that Afghan women have power and we can do anything.”

Reporting by Cassandra Garrison; editing by Leela de Kretser/Mark Heinrich