Interview Conducted By Susanne Koelbl
Aryana Sayeed, 33, is the only internationally known pop act in Afghanistan. She is adored by youth — and hunted by the Taliban.
DER SPIEGEL: You’re beautiful, successful and independent — and, as a result, religious leaders would like to see you dead. How do you live with the fear?
Sayeed: During my time as a juror on the “Afghan Star” and “Voice of Afghanistan” talent shows, the death threats were the worst. Five mullahs issued a fatwa against me on TV, on a religious talk show, saying, “Whoever brings this woman’s head will ascend to heaven immediately.” While we were shooting, extremists killed eight colleagues in an attack on Tolo TV, which produces these programs. I’m still getting goose bumps.
DER SPIEGEL: Where does the hatred come from?
Sayeed: Radical mullahs say, “This woman comes from Europe and wants to put ideas into your women’s heads.” I teach women their right to be strong, to become independent, to stand up against injustice. But many men want to keep them as cleaners and baby machines, so they promise young men 72 virgins in paradise to blow themselves up to prevent the women from freeing themselves. It’s brainwashing.
DER SPIEGEL: Who wants 72 virgins?
Sayeed: The extremists play with the sexual frustration of young men. On the streets of Afghanistan, 99 percent of the passersby are men. When a woman in burka walks down the street, men stare at her bare hands and feet because the only women they usually deal with are their mothers and sisters. The young people are so hungry, so thirsty to catch even a glimpse of a woman.
DER SPIEGEL: Two years ago, tens of thousands of young men from Afghanistan came to Germany as refugees. How worried should parents be when their daughter becomes friends with a young Afghan?
Sayeed: The absolute majority of Afghans are innocent, decent people who would never harm anyone.
DER SPIEGEL: There have been isolated acts of severe violence against girls by refugees. This has significantly reduced the willingness of the German population to support them.
Sayeed: Maybe now that they have access to women, some cannot control themselves. But you should not condemn an entire people because of the mistakes of individuals. The biggest problem for these men is their lack of education.
DER SPIEGEL: Has nothing changed in the 17 years since the Taliban were driven out of Afghanistan, even after countless billions of euros of investment in the country?
Sayeed: Progress is happening very, very slowly. When I returned to Afghanistan eight years ago, there were hardly any women on TV stations or elsewhere, and now there are a few more.
DER SPIEGEL: You are the only international pop star to regularly give concerts there. Your videos show you in tight costumes and high heels, and your enemies accuse you of offending the culture and being shameless.
Sayeed: At first it hit me very hard, as if I was naked, until I told myself I wasn’t doing anything wrong, that my clothes are in order and that I support the majority who want to live differently. Now I focus on this majority, and, look, at first, when I posted a photo on social media, out of 2,000 comments, 1,000 were negative. Today out of 1,000 comments, only 100 are negative. Something’s moving.
DER SPIEGEL: How are women’s lives in Afghanistan today?
Sayeed: So many young ladies come to me and tell me about women who are tortured, killed, beaten by their husbands, young girls who are forced to get married. All this happens there all the time, every day. Even the girls who go out and earn their own money are not really independent. They, too, obey men, have to obey orders. Out of a hundred women in Afghanistan, maybe two are really free.
DER SPIEGEL: In your lyrics and videos, you encourage women to fight. What does that mean in this context?
Sayeed: I encourage them to look for possibilities, no matter how small — like in my song “Champion,” which doesn’t show women as poor and weak. Women should get together, help each other. They must stand up for their rights. Education is the key out of this prison. Of course, all this is so difficult there, which is also very sad.
DER SPIEGEL: Why do Afghan men treat their women and girls this way?
Sayeed: I would like to know that myself, and of course not all men are like that. My manager, for example. He’s not ashamed to support a woman. He protects me, he’s proud of what I do.
DER SPIEGEL: In 1994, at the age of six, you fled with your family from the Taliban to Pakistan, later to Switzerland and then to England. How was your life as a refugee?
Sayeed: Very hard. We lived in refugee camps At times I was alone, separated from my family. Learning the new languages was difficult, but I did it. The most important thing is to never give up, to remain optimistic, to take advantage of the opportunities offered and to make new friends. Today, I am very happy and grateful that our father got us out of there.
DER SPIEGEL: You have hundreds of thousands of fans in the Afghan exile community, but you prefer to perform in Afghanistan. Why?
Sayeed: Last year, I gave three concerts in Bamyan Province. My opponents fought for me not to perform. I was the only woman among several musicians. In the end, they said, when she performs, at least it should be without music. I sang “Lady of the Land of Fire,” a capella, a really significant song. I think I made an important point there.
DER SPIEGEL: Is it worth the risk?
Sayeed: I am very aware of the danger. Nobody can really protect me there. But if I give up hope to millions of people who feel lost because everyone else has left, then it is worth it.