Meet Afghanistan’s First Female Music Conductor


For many years, the Taliban banned music and the education of girls in Afghanistan—and although many women still find themselves restricted, one 17-year-old has become the country’s first female conductor. (BBC)

Use our resources to learn more about Afghanistan’s rich musical history.

Teachers, scroll down for a quick list of key resources in our Teachers’ Toolkit.

Watch and listen to the Afghan Youth Orchestra perform at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., in 2013. What instruments do you recognize? What instruments are new to you? Learn more about traditional Afghan instruments here.

Discussion Ideas

  • According to the BBC, 17-year-old Negin Khpolwak, a student at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, is Afghanistan’s first female conductor. What is a conductor? Read through this great Q&A for some help.
    • A conductor is the leader of an orchestra or chorus. Conducting includes:
      • timekeeping. “The whole duty of a conductor is comprised in his ability always to indicate the right tempo,” said Richard Wagner.
      • interpretation. “The conductor is there to bring a musical score to life, communicating their own highly refined sense of the work through an individual language of gestures, which might sculpt the musical line, tease out nuances, emphasized certain musical elements while controlling others, and essentially re-imagine an old piece anew. These usually fall to the left hand.”
      • listening. Conductors “become a lightning rod of listening; a focus so that the players and the conductor can become something bigger than all of them—than all of us—at the same time as feeling fully realized as individuals.”
      • leading. “[Y]ou have to be able to convince people of your point of view,” says conductor Pierre Boulez.
      • focus the audience’s attention. “Concertgoers may have their ears trained on the orchestra, but our eyes are invariably drawn to the podium.”
      • practice, practice, practice. “[C]onducting is more difficult than playing a single instrument,” claims Boulez. “You have to know the culture, to know the score, and to project what you want to hear.”
      • accepting the applause. “We still want to identify these single names with performances, even though they are about collectives.”
      • being a figurehead. “A music director or chief conductor (that is, a conductor on a permanent, long-term contract with an orchestra) can be responsible” for the orchestra’s reputation and legacy.
      • immotalizing a performance. “There is a reason why certain otherwise ephemeral performances live on in the memory, decade after decade, and it is invariably down to that figure on the podium—the eternal giver of rhythm, doing so much more than just waving their hands in the air.”



  • Why is it unusual for a girl to be a conductor in Afghanistan? Read through our article “Music in Afghanistan” for some help.
    • Well, orchestral conducting is still a male-dominated profession anywhere in the world. Marin Alsop, a native New Yorker (and violinist!) is probably the most well-known female conductor. She is the music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the São Paulo State Symphony Orchestra.
    • In Afghanistan, women faced years of harsh oppression under the Taliban, the Islamic fundamentalist movement that ruled Afghanistan from 1996 until 2001. Under the Taliban, women and girls were forbidden from attending school or taking leadership roles in their community. They were unable to leave their homes without being accompanied by a male relative. The most familiar symbol of Afghan women during this period is probably the sky-blue burqa women were required to wear.
    • The Taliban banned music they considered “un-Islamic and immoral, including all instrumental music or songs with instrumental accompaniments. The Taliban confiscated and destroyed music cassettes, videotapes, and musical instruments; harassed and arrested musicians, listeners, and hosts of events where music was performed; allowed no public performances (live or recorded); and even raided private events, such as weddings, where music was a part of the celebrations.”


  • The Taliban was overthrown in December 2001. Do young musicians still face obstacles?
    • Yes. According to the BBC, many Afghan families retain attitudes that discourage a musical career. And “[i]t’s not just tradition and conservatism that the institute has to contend with—there’s also violence. There are many here who believe most music is sinful. Last year, one of the student concerts organized outside the campus was targeted by a young suicide bomber—one person in the audience was killed while [the institute’s founder’s] hearing was damaged and eleven pieces of shrapnel lodged in his head.” Musicians “are part of this struggle. We are standing against violence and terror with our arts and culture, particularly with music. That’s one of the ways we can educate our people about the importance of living in peace and harmony, rather than killing each other.”



BBC: Afghanistan’s first female conductor

Nat Geo: Music in Afghanistan

Afghanistan National Institute of Music

BBC: What does a conductor actually do? 11 of today’s top women conductors

Nat Geo: The Taliban, Women, and Human Rights

4 thoughts on “Meet Afghanistan’s First Female Music Conductor

  1. It’s really very difficult to achieve our goal when everyone is against us.. It’s need a lot of courage to reach to your destination.. Salute to Negin who showed this courage.. Education and music are very important part of our lives I don’t understand why people are against to these!!! God bless all those girls who are living in such a violent atmosphere….

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