The World’s Bravest Singers

Two Afghan sisters have been threatened with death—for singing. Ron Moreau and Sami Yousafzai report.

Asma’s and Humira’s parents were shocked one evening last year when they tuned into their favorite variety program on a Kabul television station—and saw two of their daughters singing as featured performers on the show. The parents knew that their two daughters had always had a passion for singing ever since they were kids, and the girls were constantly singing around their modest home in Kabul. But they didn’t have a clue that they were sneaking off daily to a musical director’s studio to polish their material and performances, and were also visiting the Zowondon television studio to record songs that would be shown to the viewing public across Afghanistan.

The sisters’ four brothers, uncles, and male cousins were more than surprised: they were horrified and felt deeply humiliated. To them the public performances of Asma Kabuli, 18, and Humira Aayar, 22, had brought unbearable dishonor on the family and on their native village in nearby Kapisa province. To the family and the village, such a violation of its honor simply couldn’t stand. They decided that the two young women had to be stopped by any means possible, even, as a last resort, with violence. To make matters worse, the Taliban have threatened to kill them. As a result, the sisters are now in hiding.

Almost before the family could react to the initial performance, the two slim and attractive young women appeared several more times on the broadcast—modestly yet colorfully dressed in traditional shalwar kameez outfits and with their hair covered demurely by flowing scarves. According to Ismael Yoon, the director of the Pashtun-language station, the two singers were becoming increasingly popular. The sisters, who are ethnic Tajiks but sing mostly in Pashtu and Dari, do not perform together but sing their slow, romantic songs separately. In one of Humira’s most popular ballads, she sings of love and loyalty with a well-known male singer, Din Mohammad.

Humira, the more animated of the two sisters and who uses the stage name Khoshi Mahtab (meaning “happiness of the moon” in Dari), says she and Asma have no regrets despite the furor they’ve caused in the family and the potential dangers they are now facing. They are determined to continue following their dream. “I’m inspired by Pashtu, Persian, and Indian singers, and that inspiration pushed me and my sister to break out of family traditions and obligations and to sing in public without informing my parents in advance,” she tells The Daily Beast while sitting in a Kabul restaurant. “If I had told them, they would have stopped us.” Her sister, Asma, says their parents were less rigid and more understanding than their brothers and other relatives. “My mother and father were upset, but they did not kick us out of the house as some of our relatives had demanded,” says Asma. “After our relatives had seen us on the TV screen, they came to our home telling my father that what we were doing was unacceptable and ordering him ‘to stop your kids,’” she recalls.

To suppress the sisters’ ambitions, the family and village elders formed a jirga, a council of male elders, which visited the Ministry of Culture, warning the officials that unless the two women were banned from television the group would commit suicide by self-immolation as a protest. That may have been a hollow threat. But villagers and the Taliban have vowed to burn the sisters alive if they don’t stop performing in public. “We have received several messages from our village and from militants there that they will burn us alive if we sing on TV again,” says Humira. The family, villagers, and the Taliban were even incensed by a shampoo commercial, featuring Humira, which played on television. “Even that advertisement was justification for our death,” Humira says. The Taliban were also angered when Humira sang the praises of the Afghan National Police in one song. “The Taliban control our village,” Humira says, “so I can’t ever return there. If my sister and I did, they’d catch us and kill us.” Humira has tried to reason with the family, villagers, the authorities, and the militants in person and in phone calls but without success. “Everyone has a Taliban soul, even if they are clean-shaved,” she says.

The family’s pressure proved to be successful. The Ministry placed a ban on the sisters appearing on any television show late last year. Feeling that the threats and the pressure were too much to bear, the sisters decided to escape to neighboring Pakistan. But before they did, they persuaded the Zowondon’s musical director to record two more performances for broadcast. They waited to see if their new songs would be aired. When they weren’t, the two frightened and disappointed sisters crossed the border late last winter.

They stayed at their sister’s house in Peshawar. But the Taliban eventually tracked them down and threatened them again. “My brother-in-law received a call from the Taliban ordering him to remove us from his home,” says Humira. “He forced us to leave.” Reluctantly they returned to their parents’ house in Kabul in June. Soon the police arrived, arrested the sisters, and held them at the police station for 15 hours for investigation, Humira says. After they were released their father started to drive them home, but the two women were now too frightened to go back. “We feared our brothers, relatives, villagers, or the Taliban may kill us, so we refused to go home,” Humira says. “We decided to disappear.” “This is the punishment for being a woman and a singer 13 years after the Taliban,” she adds. “So little seems to have changed.”

Knowing what happened to other high-profile female performers on television, the sisters had good reason to be prudent. In 2004, television personality Shaima Rezaee was murdered. Sanga Aman, a Pashtun TV news anchor, was killed by her parents in 2007. And in 2008 TV newscaster and producer Parween Rahmati narrowly escaped an assassination attempt—allegedly by her family—when she refused to marry the brother of her late husband. She fled to Pakistan and is now living in the U.S. with her children.

The sisters now live in a shabby one-room house in a low-income area of Kabul. In an attempt to remain anonymous, they hide their faces behind veils when they leave the house, they say. But they learned they can’t go home again, at least for now. Around the beginning of July they returned home briefly to visit their parents. As soon as they arrived, their brothers and an uncle showed up. “We were sitting at home when my uncle began beating me up and our brother attacked my sister, Asma, with a knife, cutting her several times on the thigh,” Humira says. “We remain insecure,” she adds. “We still receive calls from people saying they will kill us if we continue singing.”

They have no plans to stop singing, but know that no one seems willing or able to protect them. The day they were attacked by their uncle and brother, they visited Kabul’s police headquarters to lodge a complaint. “The police immediately kicked us out of the station,” Humira says. “They told us ‘you defied your mother and father so there is no place for kids like you in our society.’” Despite the threats and the orders from the Ministry banning their performances on TV, they are still working with their musical director in his underground studio, and just a few days ago went to the Zowondon TV station to record some new songs. According to the sisters, the station would like to show the performance in an Eid special at the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. But the station’s musical director frankly told them that he is still unsure if the station will be given permission to air their songs.

The sisters are facing an uncertain future. If the Ministry’s ban is not lifted, their show-business dreams could be put on hold indefinitely. If it is, the death threats will resume and probably intensify.