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Outrage as Afghan capital bans schoolgirls from singing in public

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN: Afghan school children sing during a ceremony to mark the start of the new school year in Kabul, 21 March 2004. Karzai rang the bell after handing out awards to top students from across the country. In excess of 5.5 million children are expected to attend Afghanistan's school this year, up about 1.5 million on last year. with the number of girls attending school, something which was banned under the repressive Taliban regime which fell in 2001, has risen by more than 30 per cent since 2002. AFP PHOTO/ SHAH Marai (Photo credit should read SHAH MARAI/AFP via Getty Images)

Afghanistan’s ministry of education says it is investigating an order by the Kabul directorate of education banning schoolgirls over the age of 12 from singing in public.

The order has sparked outrage, including an online protest campaign by Afghan activists who have posted videos of themselves singing their favourite songs on social media.

In a letter to school boards last week, which was leaked to the media, Kabul’s education department said girls aged 12 and above would no longer be able to sing at public events unless the events were attended solely by women. The letter also stipulated that girls couldn’t be trained by a male music teacher.

The reason given for the decision was to allow students to focus on their studies. But the announcement caused widespread outrage, with many accusing the government of sympathising with the Taliban, and of promoting gender discrimination.

In protest, women from across the country, including many prominent Afghan leaders, recorded videos of themselves singing and posted these on social media using the hashtag #IAmMySong.

This week the ministry appeared to be rolling back on the decision, saying it is investigating the ban, announced by the director of education in the capital, Kabul. A statement from the ministry said the letter did not reflect its position and that it would assess the issue.

Ahmad Sarmast, the founder of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, who started the #IAmMySong campaign, urged the ministry to repeal the previous order officially.

“The decree not only violates the musical rights of Afghan girls and deprives them of the healing power of music, but it also violates the Afghan constitution, child protection laws and the international convention of children’s rights,” he said.

Women across Afghanistan express themselves through music, with many using it as a coping mechanism in times of violence and war. Prominent singers, musicians and dancers practise their art nationwide.

The Afghan government had introduced some “incredibly misogynistic” policies, said Heather Barr, interim co-director of the women’s rights Human Rights Watch.

“I don’t even think they are trying to meet the Taliban in the middle, the negotiation process has maybe opened up space for people in government who oppose women’s rights to use the opportunity and push for policies against women. There are natural allies of the Taliban’s worldview in the government,” she said.

Under the Taliban regime ousted by the U.S.-led military operation in 2001, girls were not allowed to go to school, and nobody was permitted to sing.

Those basic rights are now among the terms being negotiated as the government talks peace with the Taliban in Qatar, and many fear that Afghan women and girls, in particular, could lose some of the hard-won freedoms they’ve gained over the last 20 years.

Most Afghan schoolchildren take part in choirs, and they’re often included in official ceremonies to welcome high-profile government officials and visiting dignitaries. That participation exposes the kids to security threats and harassment.

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