Atlantic Council
2018 Freedom Awards

Frederick Kempe,
President and CEO,
Atlantic Council
Stephen Hadley,
Executive Vice Chair,
Atlantic Council
Horst Teltschik,
National Security Advisor to German Chancellor Helmut Kohl 
Damon Wilson,
Executive Vice President,
Atlantic Council

2018 Freedom Awardee:
Aryana Sayeed,
Afghan Singer, Songwriter, and TV Personality

Introduced by: Lydia Polgreen, Editor-in-Chief, The Huffington Post

Location: Schlüterhof, Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin, Germany

Time: 7:30 p.m. Local
Date: Saturday, June 23, 2018

(A video presentation is shown.)


ANNOUNCER: Please welcome HuffPost editor-in-chief Lydia Polgreen. (Applause.)

LYDIA POLGREEN: Last August, a talented and globally renowned artist had an idea. She would play a concert in her hometown, Kabul, to celebrate the independence day of her beloved country, Afghanistan.

As you can imagine, concerts are a pretty rare occasion in Kabul and this particular artist, with her sensuous dance moves and proudly feminist lyrics, was already living under the shadow of a fatwa from the Taliban.

The authorities in Kabul urged her to cancel. They could not guarantee her safety, nor that of her fans. But to the surprise of precisely no one, Aryana Sayeed was not afraid. She refused to be intimidated. And that night, she treated more than 3,000 delirious fans to an unforgettable show.

There is no greater expression of human dignity and freedom than making art, especially under the duress of war. Aryana Sayeed has been making art and celebrating beauty her whole life. She was born in Kabul to a Pashto-speaking father and a Dari-speaking mother, leaving before her ‒ leaving her country at the age of eight and settling in the U.K. Her subsequent return several years ago convinced her of the need for change after seeing the treatment of women and children in her beloved country.

Hearing Aryana’s story for the first time, I felt a parallel to my own career. In my work as a journalist, I have witnessed firsthand the oppression of women’s rights, I’ve seen people ostracized for their sexual orientation and I have watched people be persecuted for their political beliefs. But I have also seen the powerful transformation that can take place when someone speaks out.

I know it takes immense courage to be the first. To take a stand against any form of inequality means opening oneself up to criticism, threats, both physical and abstract threats. Aryana has been subjected to all of this.

Her dedication to her cause at times meant that she had to trade dresses for flak jackets and fan clubs for bodyguards, yet she’s chosen to persevere, dedicating her music career to gender equality in Afghanistan. Her songs, sung in both Dari and Pashto, which is unusual for Afghan artists, are accessible to everyone, regardless of their ethnic identity. And her music videos, including “I Am a Woman,” and “Champion,” have racked up millions of views all with a core message of women’s empowerment.

Even as she gains international fame, Aryana has never forgotten her roots and her commitment to the country of her birth. Acting as a mentor to girls who look to her for inspiration, she’s supported dozens of young, aspiring artists.

For these reasons and many more, please join me in a round of applause for Ms. Aryana Sayeed, the 2018 Atlantic Council freedom awardee. (Applause.)

(The Freedom Award is presented.)

ARYANA SAYEED: Thank you, dear Lydia.

Before everything else, I just want to say to the little, beautiful girl there, Bana, with your speech tonight, you truly touched my heart and I was actually crying. My makeup artist tonight, funny enough, she actually told me to put fake lashes on my eyes. And I was crying and I was scared that I hope my lashes don’t come out. (Laughter.)

You actually reminded me of my own story when I was in Afghanistan when I was about eight years old when a rocket actually landed on our house. It hit our house while we were sleeping in the middle of the night. And the rockets luckily landed on a big, gigantic tree which was in our garden. And that tree actually saved our lives. But I still live with that trauma from my childhood and it’s never forgotten.

But anyhow, now I will start with my speech.

Respected guests of honor, dear colleagues at Atlantic Council, my dear friends and family, ladies and gentlemen. As a woman from Afghanistan, and that too being a female artist from a country where not so long ago music was completely banned, I feel extremely honored and blessed to be standing here right now. When my manager notified me of the fact that we were contacted by a prestigious organization, such as the Atlantic Council, and I was being considered as a nominee for Freedom Award, and that too in the company of such respected and honorable international leaders such as Madeleine Albright and my other fellow nominees, it was a bit of a shock to me – and, of course, a good type of shock that was.

I will make a small confession here tonight. Shortly after hearing the news, I had tears in my eyes. Of course, they were tears of joy, but in addition they were tears of triumph as the voice of an Afghan woman was finally heard and heard in a manner that was beyond my imagination. I hear this quite often, about how brave I am, how daring and so courageous. But I want you and the rest of the world to know tonight that my courage does not come from me, but actually from the champion women of Afghanistan who despite hardship and despair still continue to struggle and fight on. (Applause.)

Back in 2011, while I was on the plane returning to Afghanistan for the first time after leaving as a child, I’ll be honest and admit that I was scared and very, very nervous. I was leaving the comfort of a peaceful life, and not having the fear of potentially getting killed, only so through my art and music I could bring a smile to the beautiful faces of my people and some joy to their hearts. I was actually flying into a war zone, a place where even if you’re not a target you could still accidentally get killed by being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Many of you may find this funny and interesting, but I actually accepted to perform a concert in Afghanistan for the first time without even getting paid. And that continues to be the case for me till this day for all my concert performances there.

My first-ever trip from the airport to my hotel in Kabul was extremely emotional and heartbreaking. All I could see through the windows of my car was a broken land, dust, destruction, sadness, and misery. I could barely see a smile on anyone’s face. And the sight of many children both boys and girls and women begging on the street while holding their babies brought tears to my eyes. For a moment, even I almost became hopeless. But then I experienced something that I did not expect myself. During my concerts in Kabul, when I stepped out on the stage, the joyful screams, the big smiles, and the mere energy, it literally was the most amazing experience as much – for me as much as it was for them.

What gave me more hope was the presence of some women in the audience as well. Yes, not so many of them, but a few brave and strong ones were there to show their love and support to me. That was only the beginning of a long-term relationship with the land I was born in for many years to come. The fact that the TV station received a warning letter after the concert was broadcasted is another story I will not discuss tonight.

Since then, I have been threatened to death, protested against, had fatwas or religious decrees passed against me – one of them even asking for my head to be cut off – faced much resistance and opposition. Yet, I have experienced much more love and support from the normal people for every step I have taken.

While Afghanistan continues to be the land where radicalism and extremism have survived, the path taken by most of the new generation towards education and prosperity definitely provides a ray of hope for a brighter future. Trust me, if I did not have the support of a majority of my people, I would not have survived and thrived for my current position today.

While taking this opportunity, I would like to communicate to the world out there that there is still hope for Afghanistan. The fact that I, as an Afghan female artist and as a human and women’s rights activist, can step in the middle of a football field in Kabul and perform in front of thousands in the city where not so long ago women were viciously executed by being shot in the head on the very same field is a clear indication that progress is being made, slowly but surely.

Today thousands of girls are able to pursue education in Afghanistan, where not so long ago girls were completely banned from schools. I hope, together, we can empower the rest of the country so in not-so-distant future everyone can pursue education, which is the basic human right and requirement.

To my people, to the Afghan population around the world, I urge you to remain united so as one we can help rebuild our motherland.

And, lastly, I want to dedicate this award to two beautiful young women – Farhounda (ph), who was beaten by a vicious crowd, burned, and murdered because she spoke against superstitions and dark-minded; and Okshana (ph) the beautiful young lady who was stoned to death only because she had fallen in love; and to all the Farhoundas (ph) and Okshanas (ph) in Afghanistan whose voice we do not hear and whose stories we do not see on the news.

I would like to thank the Atlantic Council for this outstanding recognition. Also, I would like to congratulate my fellow nominees, in whose mighty company I feel extremely honored.

Thanks to my family and my friends, over there; and those involved in my artistic life, especially my amazing songwriter, Sueiman Deda (ph); and my amazing band, on whose behalf my drummer, Eldam (ph), is here.

And also to the one person that – without whose support I could never reach to where I am today, my partner in crime, my manager, Hasib Sayed. (Cheers, applause.) Honestly, you’ve taught me so much about life, and you have helped me grow as a person and find a purpose in life. Thank you for putting up with me all these years.

I would like to thank the Afghan population worldwide, especially the champion women of Afghanistan, without whose constant love and support I would not be standing here today. While accepting this award, I hereby take an oath and make a promise that as long as there’s life in me I’ll fight for you and I will raise your voice to my last breath. (Applause.)


(Cheers, applause.)

Thank you so much. Thank you. (Applause.)

For those of you who, obviously, don’t speak and understand Farsi, these were the few lines that I just sang in Farsi for you guys and I would like to translate that so you can get a bit of an idea what this was about.

So it says: If I didn’t exist, where would your unique existence be? Where would be the existence of your rare men? If it wasn’t for Rodahba (ph) and Amina (ph), where would be your Mohammed, Drissam (ph), and Sahrab (ph)? I am the one who gave birth to your heroes and prophets. Yes, I’m a woman. I’m a woman. I am a woman.

Thank you very much. (Applause.)

MR. KEMPE: Thank you for that amazing gift to all of us, which we hadn’t expected. And so what a – what a wonderful voice. What a wonderful story. What an inspirational evening.

If I could ask all the awardees and the introducers and speakers to please come to the stage for a family photo, and if you could applaud them all as they come up there, and please join us for the next Freedom Awards.

Thank you so much for coming. (Applause.)