Nobody ever said show business was easy, but for a female Afghan performer rapping about violence against women and equal rights, threats and intimidation are part of the routine in culturally conservative Afghanistan.
Paradise Sorouri and her fiancé Diverse are both ethnic Afghans who were born in Iran but now live in Herat, in western Afghanistan. Together, they are the two-member group called 143 Band. They spend their time touring in larger Afghan cities and Tajikistan, and their recent hits have taken on controversial issues like education for girls and child marriage.
Mustafa Sarwar, a journalist with RFE/RL’s Afghanistan Service, known locally as Radio Azadi, hosts the broadcast series “Women Leaders,” in which he interviews Afghan women across professions who are bravely breaking down barriers. In this interview, which initially aired in Dari for Afghan audiences in October 2014, he spoke with Sorouri about her work.
Radio Azadi: What hurdles have you had to overcome to be successful performer in traditional Afghan society?
Paradise Sorouri: Unfortunately, I cannot say that it was easy. It was incredibly hard for me at first. It was hard to live in Afghanistan, a country with many conflicts, but also as a woman in entertainment. In the beginning, I was not only working a full-time job but also held concerts in Kabul at the same time. Let me tell you, the hardest thing is to hear so much criticism and from every corner. For instance, one of my biggest problems is that Diverse and I have been engaged for a long time but are not yet married. Another issue is that my clothing style is very different from that of other women in the country. I wear whatever I want, and the public does not like it. Whenever I was on stage singing about my struggles or the struggles of other women, people would criticize me, accusing me of only promoting negativity and singing against Islam. In these people’s minds, if you talk about the hardships that women experience in their daily lives you are a kafir [ed--an Arabic term used in Islamic doctrine to denote one who rejects Islam].
Radio Azadi: When did you start your career in music and what was your inspiration?
Sorouri: In 2008 I met my fiancé Diverse and we created 143 Band. The numbers in the name come from the number of letters in the words ‘I love you.’ Sometimes we like to sing and sometimes we like to rap. It depends on the composition of the song and most importantly the mood.
Radio Azadi: You do get positive responses to your music. What do your fans say?
Sorouri: I have to admit that sometimes chances are 50/50 when it comes to these types of situations. Some days we get up to 60 percent positive responses. Those people are very supportive; they love our music and mission. They bring positive energy. These days the responses are more positive than negative.
WATCH: 143 Band's gritty song "Woman's Voice."
Radio Azadi: Could you describe the specific threats you have received?
Sorouri: Well, on our official website we get warnings not to perform or create new music. So right now we are very careful about who we add as fans on our official page. Another issue that I experienced was that there was a controversy regarding the dress I wore to the Music Awards in Kabul [sponsored by a group of Afghans in the United States and held for the first time in October, 2014]. It got to the point where people would call me on my phone with threats and nasty words. I got a new SIM card and phone number, but those nasty words still managed to reach me. In the televised version of the awards ceremony they actually censored my remarks and refused to air them. It’s because of things like this that I don’t usually go out even to go shopping or for fun. I’m also very careful about the locations of our concerts. It’s truly dangerous for me out there.
Radio Azadi: Are you not afraid for your life?
Sorouri: I have to admit that I feel like a prisoner. My life right now is spent mostly in the house because it is too dangerous to go out. The war in Afghanistan is getting worse. For instance, two blocks down from my house I actually saw fighting going on. It was hard for me to witness the war first hand. I would always read about these things or see them on TV but it is completely different if you see it with your own eyes. Sometimes I do fear and sometimes I don’t. It is true that our lives are in the hands of God. One day we are here and the next we are gone. But truly, the fear of the unknown is the scariest part. I do not know what awaits me in the future--one day I might be killed by the Taliban or I might be here for a long time. But one thing I know is that I try to be a good person, to inspire, and help others who need it.
Radio Azadi: To what extent to you think your music has changed views towards women in Afghanistan?
Sorouri: I think we have had an influence, especially with the song Faryad-e Zan [Woman’s Voice], which received a lot of positive feedback from supporters. I was inspired by a girl who committed suicide by burning herself alive. She and her sister were intended to marry two much older men, one 45 and one 65 years old. After hearing her story, I knew I had to write something about it and rap in her honor. Another story that shocked me was of a woman who was so desperate she had to sell her 4 year-old child. Whenever I would hear these types of stories, I would always ask God why these things happen to Afghan women. One of my favorite pieces of feedback was from this little girl who wrote to me that her father changed his mind about the role of women in his household after hearing my song. He even let her go to school to continue her education. When I was reading it I had tears in my eyes, I was that happy. Another girl from California in the United States who hasn’t been in Afghanistan in seven years wrote to me that she is very proud of my work and she is inspired by my music. She even encouraged her cousin in Afghanistan to take up music. This kind of feedback always motivates me to create more music.
(English translation provided by Furugh Nahib).