PESHAWAR, PAKISTAN - Twenty-year-old Sana Tajik managed to convince her parents to allow her to follow her childhood dreams and become a singer, but she realizes the dangers of being a woman, let alone a woman entertainer, in tribal northwest Pakistan.
The Pashtun singer grew up in Lower Dir, once a Taliban stronghold of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, where performing arts were widely considered to be un-Islamic. She realized early on that violence against female artists was common.
In 2018, five female singers were killed in the northwest and in March this year, a popular Pashtun stage singer and actress was shot and killed near Peshawar, allegedly by her husband.
But two years ago, Tajik's family moved from their ancestral village to the state capital Peshawar where she managed to convince her parents to allow her to sing.
"At first, there were a lot of objections, from family, as well as people in our village. But now, with the passing of time, and after seeing my videos and songs, things have become normal again," Tajik told Reuters at her home.
She has released her songs over social media and said she already had a fan following in Pashto-speaking areas of Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan. Her second song, "Halaka Charta Ye," which means "Oh boy, where are you?," was a great hit.
"I was extremely happy because so many people were listening to my songs and liked them. My passion for music increased further, and I decided to make more and more songs and videos," she said.
Despite her success, Tajik says she often feels nervous about security because the Taliban's influence in the region can still be felt. During the 1996-2001 Taliban regime in Afghanistan, music was considered the handiwork of the devil, particularly if the artist was a woman.
Pakistan's port city of Karachi is home to an estimated 7 million Pashtuns, the largest urban Pashtun population in the world, including 50,000 registered Afghan refugees. Even though it's the other end of the country, Sana Tajik's music is known, though not accepted by all.
"If this lady sang hymns and devotional songs, that would have been better. It would have sent a good message to the Pashtun people," said resident Iqbal Swati.
"Instead, she is wearing half-sleeved clothes while singing; this is not at all nice. This is not our culture."
Tajik's music teacher, Safdar Ali Qalandri, said he often warns her of the dangers ahead.
"One, she is a female. And secondly, this is Peshawar, where, as you know, extreme 'purdah' (covering of women) is observed. Taking up singing while living in this society is extremely tough."