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Afghan capital's ban on schoolgirls singing in public sparks outrage and an investigation

Afghan school children sing during a cer
Afghan schoolgirls sing during a ceremony to mark the start of the new school year in Kabul, in a March 21, 2004 file photo.  SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty

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 signing their favorite songs on social media.

Kabul's education department issued the order last week to school boards across the capital instructing them not to allow girls over 12 to attend choir classes or sing at public events. It noted that "ceremonies with 100% female participants are an exception."  

"This is a violation of the United Nation's Convention on the Rights of Child signed by the Afghan government in 1994," wrote Freshta Karim, an education activist and director of Charmaqhz, a non-profit organization that runs a mobile library for students in the Afghan capital. The convention, she said, "obliges government to not discriminate between children based on their gender, age, color [or] race."

Campaigners, mostly female activists, flooded social media platforms with the hashtag #IAmMySong, and uploaded clips of themselves singing, and videos of their favorite songs in protest over the ban.

"We raise our voices in protest against the extremist and discriminatory order of the Ministry of Education," journalist Farahnaz Forotan posted in a tweet, along with a recorded song.  

The national Ministry of Education released a statement on Saturday saying it was investigating the Kabul authority's order, which did not reflect the Ministry's official position.

"The Ministry not only supports the participation of students in social activities such as choirs... but also encourages voluntary participation in all kinds of activities," the statement said.

For Dr. Ahmad Sarmat, the founder of Afghanistan's National Institute of Music and the initiator of the #IAmMySong campaign, the Ministry's statement wasn't enough. He wants the Kabul Directorate of Education to unambiguously reverse its order with a new decree, and he urged people to continue with the online protests until that happens.

"We should not rest until the needed decree is issued" he said on Twitter. "Back to the action in full force."

Kids as political props?

Most Afghan school children 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.

Often children are brought to take part in such ceremonies without their parents' consent, and there have been concerns raised over students being used for political reasons when they should be in classrooms learning.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai (TOPR) and
Then-Afghan President Hamid Karzai (top, center) and former King Mohammed Zahir Shah watch as school children in traditional costumes sing during the opening ceremony of the Afghan grand assembly (Loya Jirga) in Kabul, in a December 2003 file photo. SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty

"My kids always attend signing ceremonies, but their school never asked for my permission," Kabul resident Jamil told CBS News.

Shaharzad Akbar, the chairperson of Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission, who joined the online #IAmMySong campaign, said she was all for preventing "political abuse of children," but against any bans based on a "distinction of age or gender."

Karim, who runs the Charmaqhz organization, said she would support reforms to the current system and she urged the Ministry of Education to provide a safe environment for children to enjoy their basic rights and freedoms.

"The solution is to make those spaces safe for children, to have anti-harassment policies, and to build awareness for children to protect themselves, rather than banning children from singing," she said.

Context of the Taliban talks

The ban came to light as the Afghan government and the Taliban continue negotiating to craft a peace deal to end the war that has raged for two decades — the most prolonged military conflict ever to embroil the United States.

Two landmark conference are scheduled for the coming weeks, one in Moscow and one in Istanbul, at which the Biden administration is expected to push for a power-sharing arrangement between the Taliban and the Afghan government, with an interim president chosen to lead the new administration by May 1.

Under an agreement signed last year by the Trump administration and the Taliban in Qatar, all U.S. troops must leave Afghanistan by May 1, provided the insurgency meets a number of conditions, including reducing its violence. That timetable looks unlikely given the Taliban's continued attacks against civilians and Afghan forces, and the fact that about 2,500 U.S. troops remain in the country.

A U.S. military spokesman said Wednesday that coalition forces had carried out airstrikes this week targeting Taliban militants who were "actively attacking & maneuvering" against Afghan government forces.

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.

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