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Capturing Afghan women's voices in graffiti

August 19, 2021

Afghanistan's first female street artist depicts Afghan women as they face renewed Taliban threats. Despite the danger, she pursues her work of resistance.

 Shamsia Hassani wearing a particle protecter mask sits in front of one of her artworks
Shamsia Hassani is Afghanistan's first female street and graffiti artist (photo from 2020)Image: Shamsia Hassani

Shamsia Hassani had already reached a certain level of international success over the past years. As Afghanistan's first female graffiti and street artist, known for her bold promotion of women's voices, she had traveled to do on-site murals and participate in residencies and gallery exhibitions in numerous North American, European and Asian countries.

She landed on Foreign Policy's 2014 top 100 global thinkers list and was included in the second volume of Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls, a best-selling collection of portraits of game-changing women from around the world.

This past week, as the Taliban took power in one Afghan province after another, eventually capturing Kabul, Hassani's presence on social media found even greater resonance.

Two powerful images showing girls in radiant blue carrying images of hope as dark, menacing gun-toting fighters loom over them — expressions of the extreme fear, despair and violent repression Afghan women now face — earned tens of thousands of likes on Instagram and were shared thousands of times on Facebook.

Hundreds of followers commented in response, concerned and praying for the women of Afghanistan and for the Kabul-based Hassani's safety.

A girl in blue clutching a piano keyboard stands in front of a row of dark, roughly sketchde Taliban fighters holding guns
'Nightmare,' published August 9, as the Taliban rapidly took control of a large part of AfghanistanImage: Shamsia Hassani
A girl in blue cries as she holds a pot with a dandelion and faces a shadowy Taliban fighter with red eyes
'Maybe it is because our wishes have grown in a black pot,' published August 14, just before Kabul fell to the TalibanImage: Shamsia Hassani

Over the past week, women have largely avoided the capital's public spaces, and many artists have deleted chat messages and social media accounts, fearful of violent, potentially fatal repercussions by the Taliban.

After Kabul's takeover by the Taliban, Hassani's social media accounts went silent for a few days, leaving fans wondering about her safety.

A new image in her recent series was finally published late on Tuesday, entitled Death to Darkness — confirmation that she was continuing to work and give voice to the experience of Afghan women.

Hassani's manager told DW that the artist was not available for an interview but was in a safe, undisclosed location.

A girl wearing blue cries behind a toppled pot with a dandelion in it as a shadowy gun-holding Taliban figure stands above her
'Death to Darkness,' her latest piece, published after the Taliban had taken control of AfghanistanImage: Shamsia Hassani

Female artists under double threat

Publishing the images is a bold move. Most analysts and human rights activists believe the Taliban will institute draconian restrictions and deadly punishments for women, as they did during their rule in the 90s.

Female artists face a doubly dangerous position as women and as creatives doing work that the Taliban has considered in the past to violate its strict interpretation of Islamic law.

"Some people think that art is not allowed in Islam and then they feel that they should stop me … If a lot of closed minds come together, they will be very powerful and they can do anything," Hassani said in a 2016 video interview for The Creators Project.

Shamsia Hassani holds a spray can in one hand as she stands in front of a wall she is decorating with her graffiti
Hassani in 2013, making graffiti at the French Cultural Center in KabulImage: Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images

Making women visible and changing perceptions

Born in 1988 in Iran to refugee Afghan parents, Hassani returned to Afghanistan in 2005 to study painting and visual arts at Kabul University. She had already completed her degrees when she took up graffiti and street art in 2010.

The precarious situation of women and girls in the male-dominated Afghan society has been at the forefront of her work since she started spraying.

In fact, graffiti's ability to publicly highlight the challenges that Afghan women face — but also their strength and resolution — was a major reason Hassani chose to work with the medium, she told Street Art Bio.

She wanted to change how people perceive Afghan women, including those who wear the burqa, a full-body covering, she said: "I try to show them bigger than what they are in reality, and in modern forms, in shaped in happiness, movement, maybe stronger. I try to make people look at them differently."

Hassani has also used her art to respond directly to attacks by the Taliban and other extremist groups, creating searing images of pain and loss. A composite paint-on-photograph work from November 2020 expressed grief in the aftermath of an attack on Kabul University, where Hassani is a professor of fine arts.

A grey-toned image from May of that same year was made in response to a deadly attack on a maternity ward.

A woman painted onto a photograph of a destroyed classroom has black plumes of smoke coming out of her heart
Hassani created this image after gunmen attacked Kabul University in November 2020Image: Shamsia Hassani
A woman cries as she holds a hand to ger pregnant belly in which a child can be seen and as a tank rolls over the mother's head
Her response to an extremist attack on a maternity ward that killed pregnant women, their unborn children and newbornsImage: Shamsia Hassani

She cannot see her future

The depictions of women across Hassani's body of work express a broad spectrum of emotions: longing and defiance, hope and heartbreak, freedom and fear. They tend to be boldly outlined geometric figures with lustrous colors whose many shades meld together seamlessly. Long, thick eyelashes fall over closed eyes as hair flows from under headscarves or freely like film rolls or medusa tentacles. They have no mouths, but often have elements of nature or instruments incorporated into their figures.

"I use them [music instruments] as a symbol for women to play her voice with it. She can use musical instruments to talk with people, to speak louder and [get] more attention, as she has no mouth. But this musical instrument gives her power to speak in society," Hassani told DW in 2018.

"Her eyes are closed, because usually she has nothing good around herself to see ... and sometimes she cannot see her future. And that's why her eyes are closed, but it doesn't mean she cannot see," the artist added.

Afghanistan's first female artist

Defying her own fear to work in public

The public nature of graffiti also attracted Hassani, who thought it was a good way to introduce art to people who have little chance to visit a gallery or museum. Yet working creatively in public as a woman in Kabul — even when the city was under Afghan government control — had its risks.

"I am really scared of public spaces. I am really scared of explosions happening all the time. And specifically, it's difficult for women to do graffiti and street art because usually people are not happy with women's activities … all the time I am careful," she told DW in 2018.

On the streets of Kabul, she would do graffiti that was not too large, so she could move quickly. To circumvent these challenges, she started taking photographs of buildings and painting her graffiti directly onto the snapshots, calling it her "Dreaming Graffiti" series.

Hassani works rapidly in her studio, too, which has led to a prolific output that includes everything from largescale canvases to miniature series on dollar bills — a commentary on US foreign policy.

Despite her success in the artistic world, Hassani admitted in 2018 to DW to sometimes feeling hopeless, unable to make a difference.

Nevertheless, she said she is dedicated to giving power and strength to people through her art: "I think that I change people's minds with my artwork and sharing my ideas with people."

With her recent images, she is publicizing the plight of women and girls in Afghanistan and helping to ensure they are not forgotten.

DW author Cristina Burack.
Cristina Burack Editor and reporter focusing on culture, politics and history