In the face of death threats and accusations they are dishonouring their families by daring to perform, the women of Afghanistan’s first all-female orchestra are charting a new destiny for themselves through music. The group is set to be catapulted onto the world stage with a performance at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Zohra, an ensemble of 35 young musicians aged 13 to 20, some orphans or from poor families, will be performing before 3,000 CEOs and heads of state during a session on Thursday and at the closing concert on Friday.

Led by Negina Khpalwak, who will be celebrating her 20th birthday on the return flight from Europe, the girls have overcome death threats and discrimination in this deeply conservative war-torn country to play together. With their hair hastily knotted, eyes focused on their instruments, the musicians performed in unison under Khpalwak’s baton earlier this month at one of their last rehearsals in Kabul before the concert.

“She is Afghanistan’s first female conductor,” Dr Ahmad Sarmast, the musicologist who founded Afghanistan’s National Institute of Music (Anim) and the Zohra orchestra, said proudly of Khpalwak. Sarmast understands the risk facing women in Afghanistan who pursue music — which was banned during the Taliban’s repressive 1996-2001 rule and is still frowned upon in the tightly gender-segregated conservative society. Zohra, he says, is “very symbolic” for Afghanistan.

At 18, violinist Zarifa Adiba has already performed at Carnegie Hall in New York. In Davos, she will also conduct four pieces as the second conductor of the orchestra, where the young Shia Hazara girl with high cheekbones knows how to obtain focus and silence among the excited young troops.

For Dr Sarmast, who wants to promote “a better side of the country than the Kalashnikov, rockets and suicide attacks”, these girls are Afghanistan’s best ambassadors. “We hope to change the perception of Afghanistan abroad,” he said.

Originally published in Dawn January 19th, 2017