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The Afghan Mother Singing Her Way Back to School


Humaira Sabawoon was already breaking the rules of Afghan society when she decided to enroll at the university as a mature student. But by studying music, Humaira Sabawoon also took on a taboo left behind by the Taliban.

RE THAN 30 years of conflict have taken their toll on Afghanistan’s education system, making it difficult for children – and girls in particular – to attend school. Prior to the fall of the Taliban in 2001, it’s estimated that fewer than 1 million students attended school, and less than 40 percent were girls.

There has been substantial progress since, and today it is common for women living in the cities to pursue higher education. It is more difficult for women in the remote provinces – especially where there is still a Taliban presence, or where the group’s influence remains strong.

Statistics from the U.S. Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) show the total number of women enrolling in higher education in Afghanistan grew to more than 45,000 in 2016, comprising 22.8 percent of the total student population. The education ministry is aiming to bring that up to 25 percent by 2020.

But while women in Afghanistan are enjoying more opportunities to receive an education, when it comes to women studying the arts, the concept often still carries stigma. Most families don’t let their daughters attend music classes; in some families, they are forbidden from listening to music at all.

So when Humaira Sabawoon, 47, decided two years ago to go back to school and join her daughter in an Eastern music course at Kabul University, she knew she was breaking several barriers – not just as a woman studying music, but also as one of only two mature students in the fine arts department.

After she graduated high school in 1990, Sabawoon’s education was first interrupted by war, after which the mujahedeen took control of the government, and almost all women were forced to stay in their homes. Then the Taliban took over and banned women from being educated.

After the Taliban was ousted from power, Sabawoon focused on her job as an editor at a private TV network and on raising her four children. Then she began to pursue music, singing at home and teaching herself to play the harmonica. She started taking lessons at a local NGO, the Aga Khan Foundation.

In 2015, Sabawoon joined in on the music lessons her youngest daughter, Najiba, was taking. After spending time with university students at the Aga Khan Foundation, Sabawoon was inspired to enroll in higher education, so she sat a pre-university exam. As a result, she was accepted into Kabul University’s fine arts department to study music and singing.

“My success is the result of my self-dependency and lots of perseverance,” Sabawoon says. “I have to study alongside my day job, which means I have to practice during the night.”

She hasn’t performed in public yet but sometimes sings for friends. Najiba, meanwhile, is studying drumming and plays in two orchestras: one is at the university and the other is Afghanistan’s first all-female symphony.

Most of Sabawoon’s family are supportive of her studies. But her oldest son doesn’t think society is ready to accept women as singers. He says his friends make fun of him because of his mother and sister practice music.

The family also faces judgment from neighbors. “Since our neighbors do not like what we do and talk badly about us, we have been forced to move houses many times,” Sabawoon says.

But that won’t deter her from getting the education she had been denied for 25 years. “I won’t allow anyone to make decisions about my life,” she says. “No matter who that person is.”