With change not expected to come from a ballot box, female graffiti artists in Afghanistan take a stand with cans of spraypaint.
With women making up 34 percent of voters in the Afghanistan presidential election held earlier this month, the celebration of a new era for Afghan women has been dominating the headlines of European and American media. But the fight for women’s rights is far from over in Afghanistan, local street artists Shamsia Hassani and Malina Suliman tell MintPress News.
The murals of the country’s most prominent female graffiti writers are — quite literally — drawing attention to struggles and social change in their surroundings and contesting a warped image of Afghan women both locally and internationally.
Silent shouts of political revolt
“Some people who face injustice and the lack of rights take the bomb to kill us or narcotics to kill themselves. Graffiti is a peaceful way of fighting against the government, against all wrong things,” Kandahar-born street artist Malina Suliman told MintPress.
In her 24 years, Suliman has been subjected to injustice as a woman, as a refugee and as an artist.
Born in the Taliban’s hometown, she was among the first to experience the oppression of the notorious political regime. Aiming to transform Afghanistan according to their perverted interpretation of an Islamic state, the Taliban imposed various sanctions for women’s presence in both physical and symbolical public spaces — sanctions that had a major impact on Suliman’s childhood. Her family eventually immigrated to neighboring Pakistan and stayed there until the Taliban was ousted from power in 2001.
More than two decades on, Afghanistan remains one of world’s worst places for women. The occupation by the United States and its allies has not brought the changes Afghan women were yearning for. The alleged quest to “liberate Afghan women” that was so vocally promoted by Western pro-war propaganda remained the mere domain of gluttonous nationalism and a convenient ploy for concealing the fact that the rise of the Taliban had been initially facilitated by the U.S. as an operation against the Soviet Union.
“Ever since the Taliban took over, my life continues to be full of unexpected changes. Changes that I never want,” Suliman said.
Disappointed by continuous political games and manipulation, she is determined to fight for changes she does want to see. While both local and international authorities ignore her voice and those of fellow Afghan women, the artist has found an alternative avenue for channelling her concerns and aspirations: street art.
“I get really frustrated and can’t stay in my room. I need to go out, I need to get my frustration out. I need to draw,” she explained.
Street art enables Suliman to exhibit her work despite institutional constraints and limited financial resources. As an illegal artistic intervention, graffiti’s very essence represents an act of revolt, thus posing as an effective medium for rendering graffiti artists’ striking messages of resistance.
Her visual landscapes feature burqa-clad skeletons, prison bars, blood and disabled bodies. For these images, she uses gloomy colors and sharp sketch lines that radiate the notion of hardship and metaphorical claustrophobia felt by Afghan women.
“I meet and talk to people from the community. I listen to them and their problems and then make them into graffiti art,” she said.
By expressing the challenges of the oppressed and the marginalized, she contests unilinear narratives about Afghan women that have been carved out by local authorities and global superpowers. She writes her own uncensored version of history, revealing the aftermath of a three-decade struggle and mourning lives lost.
Although Suliman’s art is appreciated by many — even, surprisingly, Afghan President Hamid Karzai — her revolutionary agenda comes at a high price. Working in an area still controlled by the Taliban and other insurgent groups, she has been exposed to numerous threats. Threatening telephone calls and brutal physical attacks on members of her family forced Suliman to seek temporary refuge in India before she eventually moved to Kabul, the country’s more liberal capital.
“I just wish to go back home,” she said with desperation in her voice.
Spraying female solidarity
Apart from being a form of grassroots resistance, graffiti art by young Afghans contributes to reinforcing solidarity and facilitating social change within local communities.
“Many Afghan people have no opportunity to visit exhibitions. If I do art that is there for a longer time and does not require paying for a ticket, people will slowly recognize it and it will become part of their lives,” Shamsia Hassani, a Kabul-based graffiti artist born to refugee parents in Iran, said.
On display and accessible to a wide audience, Hassani’s street paintings are filling the gap created by the lack of art and color in people’s lives. Her murals are imbued with motivating messages aimed at passersby, especially women. In a country where female literacy is estimated to be a little under 13 percent, visual messages are significant for reaching people, particularly those on the social margins.
The artist’s work shows Afghan women’s potential for claiming their rights and encourages the audience to unite in the fight for the needed social shift. The stone canvases commonly feature over-sized women with explicit female figures in striking turquoise burqas.
“My women are big, strong and modern. I capture them in movement and draw them bigger than in real life. I want people to perceive these women differently,” Hassani explained.
In contrast to stereotypical media representations, the artist does not perceive burqas as necessarily oppressive, nor does she see their removal as an act of liberation. She finds the Western equalization of Islamic veils with female oppression patronizing.
“You can develop your talents when wearing the burqa. You can work when wearing the burqa,” she said. “Freedom is not to remove the burqa.”
While the burqa was undeniably one of the modes of repression deployed by the Taliban, with any violation sanctioned by punitive measures, it is important to note that forced veiling presented only a small part of female oppression supported by the Taliban. Less visible, but considerably more alarming, is how Afghan women were given limited access to schools, politics, the job market and health care services.
Hassani is devoted to refocusing media attention to the real problems of Afghan women — problems anchored in their lack of opportunities and lost dreams.
Her graffiti decorating the ruins of a destroyed industrial building in the suburbs of Kabul puts a visual image to this struggle. Capturing a woman sitting amid the debris, the futuristic image is accompanied by a poem Hassani wrote: “If a stream shall become a river again but the fish have all died. There is no return for the departed.”
Breaking the walls
Contrary to popular belief, Western occupation did not deliver the women’s empowerment movement to Afghanistan. As one of the most powerful Islamic feminists and Muslim female rulers, Queen Soraya advocated for women’s rights in the early 20th century and materialized her revolutionary claims in a number of pro-women policies under the rule of her husband, King Amanullah Khan. As a result, women in Afghanistan were eligible to vote even before American women. Until recent decades quashed their rights and dignity, Afghan women were active participants in the public sphere.
The art of Malina Suliman and Shamsia Hassani are reminding the world that Afghan women are not helpless victims without voice or agency. Their art is not only coloring physical walls, it’s also breaking down the metaphorical walls that Afghan women have been forced to stand behind for several decades. The artists liberate female issues from the invisibility and anonymity of four walls and secure their permanent presence on the public side of the wall.
Struggles, aspirations and stories narrated in their colourful artwork demonstrate that the world is not black and white and that female emancipation will not come simply with a new political regime. After years of observing political and media manipulations and their destructive power, the artists are hesitant to share in the enthusiasm about the supposedly groundbreaking presidential elections.
“We still do not know what will happen in our country, it seems to be a big secret. Maybe a new game is running in the background,” Hassani said.
Though reluctant to give an optimistic political forecast for post-election Afghanistan, she hopes the new era will usher in the needed change.
Suliman shares Hassani’s hopes. “I wish the new president and the new government start listening to Afghan women and think about our rights. I hope the new president has the humanity to give us the value of being humans again,” she said.
While placing high expectations on a new president who will be announced on May 14, the street artists are well aware that the end of female struggle will not come from a ballot box. With this in mind, they are determined to continue advocating for the rights of Afghan women by raising their voices of resistance and their cans of spraypaint.