Aryana Sayeed is to Afghanistan what Beyoncé is to the US. zenith talked to the singer about folklore, selfies and the Taliban.
Born in Kabul and raised in Switzerland, Aryana Sayeed returned to Afghanistan seven years ago to sing songs in Pashto and Farsi to raise awareness for social issues and women’s rights. Despite heavy criticism from conservatives and religious hardliners, nowadays Sayeed is a celebrated pop star and social media influencer inside Afghanistan, as well as among the Afghan diaspora worldwide. In June, her advocacy for women’s rights was honored with the Atlantic Council's 2018 Freedom Award.
zenith: Your family left Kabul for Europe when you were eight years old. How do the different generations of women in your family remember Afghanistan before 1979, when the streets of Kabul were no stranger to mini-skirts?
Sayeed: Afghanistan back then was absolutely wonderful. The older generation like my mom, my aunties and my grandmother talk all the time about the drastic changes that came to our country. The culture and mentality has been completely destroyed by the war and the lack of education. My generation is the one of sacrifice. From the time I was born until now there has only been war.
Growing up in the diaspora, you followed the news about the American ‘War on Terror’ from afar. How did you experience those years?
When the Americans entered Afghanistan we were hoping that this would mean the end of the war for us and that things would change. But I was not very connected with the country at that time. I only started travelling to Afghanistan in 2011. Obviously, the situation inside the country was very different from what we were hearing. There are so many bad things happening there which are not even shown on TV.
You live in Kabul eight months of the year while you spend the remaining time between London and Istanbul. Were you ever blamed for being »just one of the diaspora« who does not really know what life is like back home?
Just because I was raised in Europe, some people say that I have lost my Afghan roots and that I have become European. This is not true. When I first came to Afghanistan, a lot of people did not even wear Afghan clothes anymore. The markets were filled with Indian patterns. I started wearing traditional Afghan dresses during my concerts and shows. Most of the styles were designed by myself. Then local tailors in Kabul made them. Right now, the merchants are making a lot of money with these dresses that I brought back to fashion. In Kabul, you will find them in every shop.
In Western media, you shed some positive light on a country that mostly makes the news for all the wrong reasons. In Afghanistan, you are a critical voice that rubs salt into the society’s wounds. Do these two roles conflict each other or are they complementary?
When I am inside Afghanistan I am always criticized and I get death threats. But those people are a small percentage. They do not represent our culture and who we are. The majority supports me and has accepted me as their representative, especially the Afghan women all over the world. They look up to me and are happy with what I am doing. This is what makes me present Afghanistan in a positive manner as much as I can when I am in Europe. When I am inside Afghanistan I try to stay positive.
It is true that through my songs I try to raise awareness about the problems that exist in our society. But I also perform those songs which try to empower people mentally to stand on their own feet. When you visit there right now, so many people want to leave. But through my music, through my art and my appearances in shows and TV stations, I try to give them hope to stay there and not to give up completely.
In May 2017, you wore a dress at a concert in Paris that some conservatives and religious hardliners found too revealing. You then burned the dress publically on social media. Looking back now one year later, do you still think this was the right decision?
The kind of reaction this dress caused is something that I still do not understand. There are female Afghan artists who dress a lot more revealing than me. But they are never criticized because they do not have the same impact on the society. I do not regret what I did. On the contrary, I raised a question to those critics which they could not answer. The way they kept talking about it made it seem as if I and my dress are the only problems Afghanistan has. So I said: I just burned it, now what? Is this going to solve anything? Obviously not. In the end, I won. None of them can stop me from what I am doing.
Apart from your lyrics, your appearance is what gets you a lot of attention. On your Instagram profile, you always pose wearing lots of make-up and being perfectly dressed. Is this trend of self-representation on social media a form of self-love and empowerment? Or does it pressure girls and women even more to look a certain way?
I grew up with six sisters and they always used to put make-up on. My mom did so as well and so do I. When I just go to the store, I prefer not to wear make-up. But for me as an artist, I constantly need to look presentable in front of the crowd. However, I see how these photos on social media represent certain beauty standards which have a big impact on young people’s minds. I try to tell them just to accept who they are and to be happy about it.
Recently, you posted a selfie of a young woman with two Taliban fighters, smiling in the camera on the occasion of the three-day truce on Eid Al-Fitr. What would they need to do for you to accept them as part of the government?
I am ok with them, they need to be ok with me. That is the issue. They need to start accepting people the way they are and they need to stop imposing their way of thinking onto others. In some areas under Taliban rule, they are not letting kids over the age of 10 go to school; women are not allowed to leave the house. If they want people to accept them they are the ones who need to change. I hope they'll do. The people of Afghanistan are tied of war. I wish for Afghans - and Afghan women in particular - to finally have the right to choose. They can do so if they are united, strong and don' give up.