In 1951, the brave voice of a woman made waves on Radio Kabul. She was the first woman in Afghanistan to sing on public radio and she came to be known as Merman Parween. Born at the heart of Kabul City, near Zarnegar Park, Merman Parween’s real name was Khadija. When she was six or seven years old, she became interested in pursuing music. Her father, a masterful poet and music enthusiast, supported Khadija’s musical inclinations, but at the time there were no public venues for women to learn about music or perform. Although women sung in private parties, often only in the company of other women, traditions and strict gender roles made it difficult, if not impossible, for a woman to break through at the national level.
Perhaps due to these social constraints, Khadija studied nursing. She was among the first class of Kabul Nursing School’s graduates and served as a midwife in Kabul Civilian Hospital. Despite her day job, the love for music continued to brew in Merman Parween’s heart. In 1951, Ustad Abdul Rashid Latifi, who worked at Radio Television of Afghanistan and is among the founders of theater in the country, came to Merman Parween’s home and recorded a few of her songs. When the songs were played on the Radio, the impact was palpable. In addition to the historic significance of a woman singing on the radio for the first time, the songs were immensely popular. Soon, public affection encouraged Merman Parween to don a blue burqa and visit Kabul Radio’s studio to record a song one morning. “Gulforosh,” written by Ustad Mohammad Ebrahim Khalil and composed by Ustad Ghulam Hussain, aired that evening. It remained the most popular song on the radio for the rest of the year.
With more than 315 songs recorded and aired on the radio and 12 songs aired on television, Merman Parween become a prolific performer. She also opened the door for other women to get involved in media, whether it was as singers and performers, or as newscasters and presenters. In 1971, Merman Parween was honored with a Gold Medal for Art bestowed by the Ministry of Information and Culture. After decades of service to Afghan music, Merman Parween passed away in her beloved hometown in December 2004.