Aryana Sayeed entered the European Parliament in Brussels dressed in light pink, her hair tied back in a bun, accompanied by the recorded voice of a woman crying, desperately crying.
Then Sayeed started singing The Lady of the Land of Fire, a song about Afghan women.
"They have been suffering all those years, they get blamed for everything. They get beaten up, they get assaulted," she later told DW.
It's a song that could well be the theme for the Afghan Women Days, a conference organized by the EU Parliament, bringing together EU leaders and important female activists from Afghanistan.
Aryana Sayeed is one of them. The Afghan singer, song writer and activist is used to bigger stages as she is among the country's most famous artists.
Born in 1985, the singer left Afghanistan with her family as an 8-year-old and then lived in Pakistan, Switzerland and London. In 2011, she decided to return to her home country where she became a star, presenting her own music show, acting as a juror for The Voice of Afghanistan and earning a huge fan base on social media (1.5 million followers on Instagram).
Yet using her voice to raise awareness for women in Afghanistan also put Sayeed in danger.
Breaking three taboos
Roberta Metsola, the President of the European Parliament, introduced Sayeed's performance by recounting one of these occasions. "In 2015, she sang at a stadium breaking three taboos. Singing as a woman. Not wearing a hijab. And entering a stadium as a woman which was forbidden under the Taliban."
Ten years after returning to Afghanistan, Aryana Sayeed had to flee again. She left in August 2021 when the Taliban regained power. The singer now lives in Istanbul and she brought one central message to Brussels: Do not recognize the Taliban, especially not until they "provide Afghan women and girls with their full rights."
Sayeed told DW she thought events like the Afghan Women Days were very important because they helped to amplify the voices of women and girls in Afghanistan.
Besides Sayeed, many more influential Afghan women also took the stage at the EU Parliament, including Sima Samar, Afghanistan's former minister of Women's Affairs, Habiba Sarabi, a reformer during the years the Taliban were out of power, and Zarifa Ghafari, the former mayor of Maidan Shar, a town in central Afghanistan.
They all agreed that dialogue with EU leaders and events like the Brussels conference helped to honor women in Afghanistan. Yet they also made it clear that Europe was in part responsible for the current situation in their country.
"We had warned the international community that if they were to abandon Afghanistan again as they did after the Soviet withdrawal, history would repeat itself. And it has," said women's rights activist Sima Samar. Afghanistan was a collective failure of the Afghan government, the Afghan people and the international community, she argues.
'Afghan women are brave and strong'
Yet despite the current unfolding catastrophe in Afghanistan , women in her home country were still brave and strong, Sima Samar maintained. "Even if we witnessed the killing of our loved ones, the destruction of our properties and our social fabric, and forced displacement."
The question all of them asked was how the European Union and other international players could make sure the same mistakes would not be repeated over and over again, for example when it comes to humanitarian aid.
"We can ensure you no aid will go to the Taliban," Janez Lenarcic, EU Commissioner for crisis management, told the Afghan activists.
It's a promise the Afghan activists hope will be kept. But at the same time some of them made clear they didn't want the west to normalize ties with the new rulers in Kabul, pointing to talks between Western officials and a Taliban delegation which got undeway in January in Oslo, Norway.
"They are the killers of my dad," said Zarifa Ghafari, the former mayor of Maidan Shar. “How can anyone give them a platform?” She explained she didn't want EU leaders to completely abandon her country but urged them to not recognize or support the Taliban in any way.
Ghafari now lives in exile in Germany, raising her voice relentlessly to support women in Afghanistan.
Like many Afghan women who managed to flee the country, singer Aryana Sayeed stressed how much she missed her home. "I don’t want to accept the Taliban to stay there forever," she told DW. She said she was praying that things would change for the better and that they all would be able to go back one day.