Playing For Freedom

The Journey of a Young Afghan Violist

Zarifa Adiba

Current Affairs, Memoir

“An incredibly daring and courageous testimony. A remarkable destiny recounted with the help of journalist Anne Chaon.” -Livres Hebdo

“As it was forbidden to play music, I began teaching myself in silence, by drawing notes on a sheet of paper. To get to school, I would walk for 2 hours through the streets of Kabul, always in fear of a suicide bomb attack or a car explosion.”

Even before the Taliban’s return to power, the UN declared Afghanistan the worst place on earth to be born a woman. But Zarifa Adiba had big dreams.

As a young girl, Zarifa taught herself English from YouTube videos. To this day, she can recite speeches given by her absolute hero and role model, Michelle Obama. When she learned of a music school in Kabul that accepted both girls and boys on full scholarship – the only one of its kind in the region – it became her dream to become a concert musician.

It seemed an unfathomable dream – she is a Hazara, part of a long oppressed Shiite minority, her family poor and uneducated. Growing up, all decisions – whether big or small – were subject to the approval of her male relatives. Music was largely considered haram, sinful and proscribed by Islamic law. Not to mention the fact that she had no background in music. Against all odds, she prepared herself tirelessly for the audition, and was accepted. But the challenges didn’t stop there. In spite of the day-to-day violence, dogmatism and threats she faced in pursuit of her goals, Zarifa persevered, armed with her viola and her unrelenting determination.

And thus began an incredible story of emancipation. When she was just 18, Zarifa became the lead violist, conductor, and spokesperson for Zohra, the first all-female orchestra in her country and the Muslim world – a triumph that eventually took her all the way to perform at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

This is the story of Zarifa’s extraordinary journey, and what hope remains for girls like her in today’s Afghanistan.


Reuters (24 August 2021): As Taliban return, Afghanistan’s female orchestra fears the future

BuzzFeed News (11 September 2019): 18 Stunning Portraits Of Women In Kabul 

Serenade Magazine (4 June 2017): Zarifa Adiba: Orchestra Is My Joy 

VOA News (30 March 2017): First Afghan Women’s Orchestra Tries to Change Attitude 

Washington Post (30 March 2017): Afghan girls orchestra aims to change the country’s ideas about music

USA Today (7 February 2017): Young Afghan women risk their lives to play music

NPR (31 January 2017): All-Female Orchestra From Afghanistan Is A Force For Change

Watch the trailer

Zarifa Adiba on CNN — Christiane Amanpour

“Spreading my wings through music” — Zarifa Adiba at TedxAUCA