IMPACT JOURNALISM DAY: Afghanistan’s first all-female orchestra offers ‘hope in the dark’

Following years of civil unrest, the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM) was opened in 2010 to offer kids of all social backgrounds an opportunity to learn music. Today, the Zohra Orchestra at the ANIM is the first all-female group of its kind to launch in Afghanistan.

In one of the many practice rooms of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM), Zarifa Adeeb is playing the violin with admirable dexterity and concentration amid a group of students. While this young Afghan girl has long dreamed of becoming a pop singer, her passion for classical music emerged much more recently.

When she was only 1 year old, Zarifa fled with her family to Pakistan where she stayed until she was 15, before deciding to return to her own country. “I came here at the end of 2014. When I was looking for a music teacher I found this music institute, where you can come and learn music in a professional way.”

Currently in her final year, Zarifa has been studying the violin for two years. She is ambitious and hopeful. And yet, only 10 years ago, these music lessons would have been completely banned.

ANIM was first opened in 2010 by Ahmad Naser Sarmast, the current director, although its history goes back even further. The institute is rekindling a musical teaching tradition that was severely weakened over the course of recent political upheavals.

With the original creation of the music school in 1974, music became a part of the national curriculum in Afghanistan. The school held classes until 1988 when it closed due to the war, and it then stayed shut throughout the rule of the Taliban, since music was made illegal.

The school reopened its classrooms when Hamid Karzai, the former president of Afghanistan, came to power. In 2008, Sarmast began a project called the “Reconstruction of Afghan Music,” which was funded by the World Bank. Two years later, the music school became ANIM and began teaching courses in both classical Western and Eastern music. These include lessons in the violin, viola, guitar, piano, trumpet and flute, as well as more traditional instruments like the robab, ghickak, tambour drum, qashqarcha, the three-stringed sarod, and the delroba.


Currently, ANIM has around 250 students, including 75 girls. From these ranks, these young women have pooled together their respective talents to form the Zohra Orchestra: the first Afghan orchestra made up exclusively of girls.

Established in 2014, this musical group held its first event at the Canadian Embassy in Kabul: not exactly a small-town crowd.

Zarifa talks about these first days: “When I first joined the school there were only five girls in total. We wanted to organize a group for women since, that same year at the institute, the boys were allowed to create both rock and pop groups.

“It was like a competition. So we created a choir. As time went on, other girls came to join the group. That’s when, only three weeks later, we changed from a singing group into an orchestra.”

“The original idea for the Zohra Orchestra came from a young girl called Mina who was a student here. The idea was taken up by Sarmast and, today, we’re witnessing the orchestra’s success,” explains Mohammad Murad Sharkhush, who teaches the qashqarcha, an ancient Afghan instrument, at the institute.

Unfortunately, like many people, the young girl experienced some family problems. She had to go back to her home province, and then her family refused to let her return to Kabul.

Sharkhush explains that the musicians in the orchestra range from 12 to 21 years of age. Recently, the Zohra Orchestra has had the opportunity to participate in various international programs, like the Davos Forum in Switzerland. “One of our main successes so far was being able to show to the world a positive image of Afghanistan and its culture,” he adds.

“This orchestra has been supported by several countries and is also known as the Angels of Music.”


Every year, between 300 and 400 applicants take the institute’s entrance exam and only 50 of them are offered places. Around 50 percent of the candidates are homeless or orphaned children and are put forward by NGOs working on children’s rights in Afghanistan. As well as the Zohra Orchestra, the institute has 11 other music groups.

Sharkhush continues: “When a change occurs in a country, it’s better not to worry: you should be positive, and I am optimistic. Afghanistan is a country where art occupies a prominent place in people’s lives.”

At the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, both rich students and orphans attend music classes under the same roof. They express their emotions--whether that means pain, hope, joy or grief--through music, so that one day they will be able to fulfill their childhood dreams.

As Sarmast says, “The Afghanistan National Institute of Music is like an island of hope in the dark. This institute is the symbol of the Afghanistan of tomorrow.”



Editor's note: The fifth anniversary of Impact Journalism Day, an international reporting campaign, was marked on June 24.

The campaign was begun through an appeal from the Paris-based nonprofit media organization Sparknews, with the aim of allowing readers to continue to hold hope for tomorrow by presenting possible courses for resolving some of the most difficult problems facing the world today, such as refugees, poverty and climate change.

This year, a total of 50 newspapers and news sites, including The Asahi Shimbun, from 40 nations around the world, have contributed articles and shared them. AJW introduces some of those stories.