Mazar-I-Sharif, Afghanistan (Reuters): The lilt of a girl singing of homecoming blends pleasantly with a cacophony of different melodies from keyboard, guitar and drums in a music school in northern Afghanistan. The female students, wearing burqas with their faces uncovered, chuckle and joke as they practice in Afghanistan's first women-only music school, relishing in their new found freedom. Just a few years ago, music was banned by the hardline Taliban government. Musicians fled the country and women were barred from schools or leaving home without a male relative. Now, this six-month project at the Nagashand Fine Art Gallery in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, near the border with Uzbekistan, is teaching 18 girls and women to become music teachers. The women are taught singing and how to play a range of modern and traditional musical instruments.
''As a child, I liked music, I wanted to prove women can play music,'' said 14-year-old Zahra Amiri, the youngest student at the school. ''I want to be a musician some day.'' Her sister, 25-year-old Masoma Mazari, heads the project and like Amiri is learning the electric keyboard, or what they simply call ''the Casio''. But the 9,200 million project, backed by the United Nations and local aid groups, still battles to overcome old fears. ''Music has had a very bad history in Afghanistan, so many people are against it,'' Amiri said, white platform shoes peeking out under the robes of her black burqa. ''Some families are afraid their girls will turn bad,'' she said. ''But music is necessary for our soul. It calms our soul.'' All the students, ranging in age from 14 to 30, lived for years in Iran as refugees after their families fled war torn Afghanistan. Afghan women who stayed during the civil war and the Taliban time are still reluctant to join.
''All the girls here are from Iran -- they have grown up in a free environment,'' Mazari said. The only student who remained in Afghanistan during the Taliban's rule quit after just a few weeks due to social pressures in a conservative, Islamic society. She had appeared on television in a song contest in Kabul, coming third, but was harassed in Mazar when she returned. ''People here made fun of her. Now she is afraid to come to lessons anymore,'' said Amiri. The influence of returning refugees, especially from the West and countries such as Iran, has helped break down barriers and bring about some change. Women are making gains. They sit in parliament, head government ministries and some are finding jobs outside traditional occupations for women such as teaching and nursing. But even in major cities, many still wear the burqa in public and in rural areas are subject to strict tradition.
Amiri and Mazari had never seen Afghanistan until they returned two years ago to Mazar-i-Sharif, a dusty city on the hot northern plains known for its hashish, carpets and Hazrat Ali mosque. Their family, including Mazari's husband, is supportive of their musical endeavours. But she still thinks it is too soon to allow boys to join the music school. ''It would create problems if boys and girls study together,'' Mazari said. ''Some women have been separate for so long during the fighting it is very difficult for them to come study with males,'' she added. But the two teachers at the school are men. One, Khalil Bakhtari, 45, fled to the United Arab Emirates after the Taliban took power in 1996. ''I was very depressed when the Taliban came, because we could not teach music,'' he said, fiddling with his harmonium. ''If the Taliban knew I was a musician, they would have punished me. ''We wanted the Taliban defeated so that we could teach music again,'' he said.
Bakhtari and his colleague, Nadair Kharimi, 33, teach about 10 instruments, ranging from the saxophone and electric keyboard to tabla drums and the ancient Afghani robab guitar. A teacher for 15 years, Bakhtari said he was frequently asked by local women to set up a music school after his return. But he never had the resources -- his harmoniums, for example, cost 300 dollars each in a country where the average annual income is about 200 dollars. Then the United Nations and local charities stepped in to bring music back to Afghani women after years of repressive Taliban rule. ''We are free. We can do anything. We can play music again,'' he said.