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Afghan Women Artists Took On Patriarchy For Years. What Now, Under Taliban?

Afghan women artists, despite imminent fears of a doomed future, are holding up their spirits and brushes in hope that art will prevail over terror.

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Tanvi Akhauri
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On streets, with digital tools, through photographs, on canvases — Afghan women artists over the last two decades were beginning to find compensation for all the opportunities of expression they lost during the Taliban's rule between 1996 and 2001. Dreams took flight into the horizons of possibility, of equality. Only to be shattered again.
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With the return of the radical Islamist organisation, there is fear the women stand to lose all that and more that they had so far reclaimed.

The capital city of Kabul fell to the Taliban on Sunday, sealing the transfer of power from the government to the religious militant outfit. Not long after Ashraf Ghani abdicated his role as President, surreal visuals emerged of the Taliban taking over the presidential palace.

The death knell was sounded weeks ago when retreating US troops gave way to the Taliban to gain a foothold in Afghanistan. It was only a matter of time before the 'dark ages' returned. For women, this could potentially mean a severe pushback on educational, political, sartorial, professional, financial rights. Women are scared already of stepping out of their homes, an activist and NGO founder tells SheThePeople from Afghanistan - read here.

Amid the unfolding nightmare, art is attempting to flow through the shackles. Fearless women like Shamsia Hassani, an internationally-renowned street graffiti artist and the first such woman from Afghanistan, are continuing to make art that pushes the barrier. This, despite the terror organisation closing in on the art, culture and expression of women in the land.

"Let us make peace. I want my country, my home back. I want peace and freedom for my people": Shamsia Hassani

Afghan Women Artists: Keeping The Brush High Even Amid Terror

Back in July, Afghan visual artist and photographer Rada Akbar had given a distressing view into her world - of powerful portraits, images detailing women's struggle for rights, art pieces speaking of freedom and... death threats. "Will I be alive tomorrow?" she had asked. "By killing some of us, they will force the rest of us to be silent."

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The Taliban, she said, were enemies of women.

afghan women artists Image: Rada Akbar / Instagram

With armed militants progressing into Afghanistan over the year, reports suggest women have been retreating from public lives and jobs. According to a report by the Centre for the Protection of Afghan Women Journalists (CPAWJ) by March this year, 20 percent women had left journalism. More recently, as the Taliban took over Kandahar and Herat, women working in banks were coerced to return home with male relatives taking their place.

For Afghan women artists too, the future is cloudy.

The Taliban, during their rule over the country during the Afghan Civil War, notoriously blocked out all forms of public art, entertainment and music. Women had to cover up and stay behind doors, within their religious and military diktats. Their promise of a 'changed' rule, women on-ground tell us, seems to be a sham.

Beyond the apprehensions, these women and artists are refusing to be silenced for as long as they can afford to. The country's people find another strong voice in award-winning artist Fatimah Hossaini who, through photographs, has documented Afghan women outside the constraints of patriarchal oppression and gender restrictions in their land.

Her 'Pearl in the Oyster' series is a colourful, empowering catalogue from Kabul of the liberation women in Afghanistan had so far achieved and could envision further in a future that formerly appeared free.

Will these 'stories of beauty, femininity, culture and hope' survive under Taliban rule in Afghanistan? Would little girls find the courage to find their voices through creative education? Will art - especially that coming from the silenced, oppressed, persecuted community of women - sustain the imminent doom that awaits?

Afghan women artists, despite imminent fears of a doomed future, are holding up their spirits and brushes in hope that art will prevail over terror.

Could it be then that the brushes and cameras and pens and dreams of women and girls will, hopefully, somehow, bounce back with greater power? 

Feature images: Shamsia Hassani


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