If she beats the odds, Paradise Soururi could become one of the first female rappers in Afghanistan. That is her goal, at least. But life hasn't been easy for her since she returned to her ultra-conservative country four months ago.
The 28-year-old hip-hop singer came back to Afghanistan after living in neighboring Iran and Tajikistan. When she was a teenager, her parents fled the violence in Afghanistan and moved to Iran. But it was not until she moved to Tajikistan that her music career began.
Soururi saved money from working part-time in cafes and restaurants to produce music videos for her show reel. But her heart was always set on returning to her home country, and when she heard that the situation was improving in Afghanistan and that there was money to be made in new careers for young women, she finally returned to her roots.
During the Taliban regime, women could not sing and dance, and Western-style music and clothing were deemed immoral. But for Soururi, the situation has not changed enough, and she now thinks the Afghan dream is still far from the reality she landed in.
"It's dangerous because you are a singer, you dance, you are so free and open-minded, the men can't understand it," she says.
In Herat , a city near the Iranian border, Soururi was attacked by five men one night when she was walking home with her boyfriend. Even in Kabul she is constantly harassed when she walks in the street or takes the bus.
"It is so hard," she says. "The mind of Afghan people is not ready for girls or women performing in public; people insult me and say I'm a bad girl."
I first met Soururi in a cafe in one of Kabul's bunker-style shopping malls, where customers are screened and their bags are checked for explosives. She wore bright pink lipstick, jeans and a long black coat. In her temporary digs, a large house on the edge of the slums, a suitcase lay unpacked. Her rent is paid by an NGO based in New York, and in return she writes blogs and records videos about her life.
It was nighttime, and we stepped outside the balcony to film an interview with the camera light on. Barely five minutes into the piece, there was screaming and commotion in the house. A man who we were told was one of the tenants of the three-story building asked us to leave immediately. He said neighbors had knocked on the door in panic saying the cleric from the nearby mosque would not approve of a young woman being filmed for television. We left.
I spent a week following Soururi but only filmed inside cars or indoors. I accompanied her to the passport office as she tried to get her Afghan identity card and followed her as she took cabs (she stopped taking the bus after the harassment episodes). We taped one of her presentations at an Afghan youth event organized by the United Nations in the French cultural center.
On stage, Soururi came alive. The singer beamed and appeared to be more experienced than other artists. She performed onstage, lip-syncing her hip-hop songs recorded abroad. She sang her favorite song, inspired by the aggression she has been subjected to. The chorus says : "My song this time is the story of a woman, an Afghan woman in her homeland. How long should I be a slave to tyranny? Why do they want me to be less than men?"
Soururi wore what she described as a rapper outfit — pink stretch jeans, a hoodie and a baseball cap tilted sideways. The audience was small, as it was a private event, and people on the guest list were vetted for security reasons. Only a handful of Afghans stood up and clapped; the others just stared. Warris Fakhri, a young Afghan man, said, "She definitely has star potential."
Soururi looks to the West for her artistic role models — Rihanna , Nicky Minage and Jennifer Lopez. For now, she has no one in her own country to idolize and must make her own path. In fact, because of her rarity, she has become the poster child for the hopes of an international community willing a better future for Afghanistan. Still, after the withdrawal of U.S. forces in 2014, many other foreigners will also be gone.
Her contingency plan? Soururi says she will flee her country, just as her parents did.
Monica Villamizar is a freelance journalist based in London.