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Why is singer Aryana Sayeed seen as a threat to Afghan conservatism?

A concert by female singer Aryana Sayeed commemorating Afghanistan's Independence Day stirred a controversy in the war-torn country. The event was eventually cancelled allegedly due to pressure from religious clerics.

As Afghanistan celebrates its Independence Day on Saturday, August 19, the national flags and huge banners adorning pictures of former Afghan King Amanullah Khan and President Ashraf Ghani can be seen on the streets of all big cities. Although Afghanistan was never formally part of the British Empire, it gained independence after the 1919 Anglo-Afghan Treaty that paved the way for the country's separate identity.

But in the midst of these celebrations, a bitter debate has divided Afghan society.

Popular Afghan singer Aryana Sayeed was due to hold a concert to mark the country's Independence Day on Saturday at Kabul's biggest stadium that used to be a site for Taliban executions in the late 1990s. But the Kabul-based Ulama Council, a body of religious scholars, opposed the concert plan, calling it "unbeneficial." On Friday, the concert was cancelled due to "security" issues, a source close to the singer told DW. Sayeed is now preparing to hold the event at a different venue.

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The Afghan Women's Orchestra

Local media say the security concerns cited by Afghan authorities to cancel Sayeed's concert at the Ghazi sports stadium were merely an excuse. The main reason, they reckon, was the opposition from the religious groups to a polarizing figure like Sayeed. Mawlavi Ataullah Faizani, the head of the Ulama Council and a member of the Kabul provincial council, was not in favor of Sayeed performing in front of a large crowd.

"There are killings, bombings and violence everyday in Afghanistan," Faizani told DW. "Everyone in Afghanistan, regardless of their age, should feel the grief over the situation instead of dancing and celebrating," he added.

Faizani said music could have a negative impact on youth and Afghan culture.

The controversy

Sayeed slammed the move to cancel her concert.

"This is not the first time Afghan clerics opposed a concert," Aryana Sayeed told DW. "Whenever there is music involved, be it the Nawroz [Persian New Year] festival or some concert, the clerics oppose it," the popular singer said.

Kim Kardashian West und die afghanische Sängerin Aryana Sayeed (Getty Images/R. Diamond)

Afghan singer Aryana Sayeed with Kim Kardashian

"In their interpretation of Islam, music is not 'halal,' it is forbidden," she added.

Sayeed, who is based in the UK, is a controversial figure in Afghanistan. The lyrics of her songs highlight the rights of Afghan women and their plight. She also appears as a judge in a popular but controversial TV show, Afghan Star, which is aired in Afghanistan. She refuses to cover her hair, dances on stage and dons Western clothes, something spurned as un-Islamic by a large part of Afghan society. At the same time, Sayeed is admired by many liberal Afghans for her courage, dedication and love for the country.

Not giving up

Planning a large concert in the Afghan capital always involves security perils. Sayeed was also undertaking a huge risk as it is a taboo for female singers to perform publicly in the Islamic nation. Afghanistan is officially democratic, but conservative views and misogyny run deep in society.

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Sayeed, for her part, believes that Afghans need a relief from violence and conservatism, and that is what she wanted to give them through her concert.

"I think Afghans need reasons to smile," she said. "Afghans have suffered a lot and it has taken a toll on their psychological health as well. They have lost hope. The youngsters are fleeing the country because they don't see any future prospects."

Even though her concert was cancelled by authorities, Sayeed is not ready to give up.

"No one can stop us from holding concerts. We are not doing anything wrong. All we want is to make people happy," Sayeed asserted.

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