Prophets of Freedom

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Stories of the extraordinary women of Afghanistan

As I drive past the foreboding barren walls lining either side of Sidarat Cross road, a high-security zone in Kabul, I can see what draws Shamsia to them. Behind this wall to the left is the Indian embassy. The first time it was attacked, an Afghani friend was there and what stayed with him for days later was the sight of a burnt teenage girl. These are the kind of bad memories that Shamsia Hassani, a 24-year-old graffiti artist, wants to spray on every city wall. So far, eluding the mindful eye of the authorities, she has gotten away with nine works of wall graffiti.

“If I were to do graffiti on the street, in public places, people passing by would say bad things to me. Police guards could even arrest me. As a professor of Fine Arts in Kabul University, it’s important to have a good reputation,” she says. In the safety of the abandoned Russian cultural building, she had once sprayed an image of a burkha-clad woman on its bullet-ridden walls. ‘The water can come back to a dried-up river, but what about the fish that died?’ it asked in bold letters. “It would have been the art piece’s first birthday, had the building not been pulled down for reconstruction,” she winces.

As we draw closer to Darul Aman Palace (meaning ‘Abode of Peace’), a bombed-out building that is a stark reminder of the country’s violent past, she says: “Over time, I have created my own style for the picture walls of Afghanistan because of my situation. I look at various buildings around me and take pictures of the ones I like. I print them out, and then design my graffiti on the prints with acrylic paints and brushes.” She calls this ‘fantasy graffiti’. “Graffiti is done in other countries, but maybe graffiti in Afghanistan can only be like this. It’s a creation of mine. I am an artist. I can do anything, I can do everything.”

The situation in her country, Shamsia feels, is temporary. What women feel free to do today could soon change. For better or worse. As she puts it, “If the mouth of a fish is shut, the bubbles don’t come out. Women feel they can’t talk everywhere, can’t decide everything, their ideas are not important. It’s like a big black bubble stuck inside their bodies.”

Shamsia’s bubbles have come out in the open, turning the pockmarked walls of Kabul into a colourful comment on the times.

Sossan Feroz is 23 and has found fame and notoriety through the YouTube video of her only rap single: Our Neighbours. In the video, she is in hip hop-style gear, complete with torn jeans, chains, bracelets and a blue bandana that has skulls painted on it. She says the burkha is “a cage exclusively for chickens, sorry we are humans”.

Today she has her head covered with a red and black dupatta on top of her trademark black rapper T-shirt and blue jeans. Her eyes shimmer with liberal dabs of golden eye shadow.

Drawing from her sufferings as a refugee in Pakistan and Iran, she had decided by the age of thirteen to register her protest through rap music, like African Americans did. “If you walk in Iran, you face engineers and doctors,” she says, “but in Afghanistan, you will face drug addicts, kidnappers, terrorists. It’s all a gift from our neighbouring countries.”

For Sossan, facing threats of acid attacks from the Taliban is an occupational hazard, but one that her parents do not take lightly. They have both stopped working to spend more time shadowing her. Many of her mother’s colleagues who worked with her in Kandahar as midwife trainers were beheaded just for working—a heavy price to pay for bringing in life.

Yet, according to Sossan, women in Afghanistan are freer today. They can become artists or sportswomen or politicians and find their own paths. Be it because of the rebellious temperament of her music or just the impetuosity of youth, she is positive that at this moment, they have the means. And she urges the people of Afghanistan to stay. When she was away, “I dreamt kissing the dust of my homeland/We were the kings and queens in our own land,” she raps.

When we reach Tank-e-Tel, the Dasht-e-Barchi shopping market, a woman in a black and white headscarf (the hijab) stands out from the rest. She is negotiating hard with five men, at the successful outcome of which currency exchanges hands. Laila Haideri has taken Susan to buy her wedding dress. Susan, the bride-to-be, looks a bit lost but is clearly entranced by the lineup of mannequins in bridal gowns.

Laila was just twelve when she got married for the first time. As if to compensate for this, she seems intent on making this a really memorable day for Susan and Ali, two drug addicts who are being rehabilitated. When Laila decided to set up a camp to help addicts like her brother, her second husband deserted her.

Susan was brought to the camp with two of her children by a police officer. She did not know where her third child was. Her face showed scars of a terrible car accident. It was here that she met Ali. He is a handsome quiet man who is as committed to looking after Susan’s kids as being her partner. In Afghanistan, female drug addicts need to be invisible, and often live in denial.

Susan and Ali whisper to each other in the backseat when we cross the Pul-e-Sukhta. “It is the bridge under which the city’s drug addicts gather,” says Laila. “And what I saw was that ordinary people are even more sick than the drug users. They were throwing stones under the bridge to make fun of them. This affected me a lot. I had to do something.”

Susan and Ali’s wedding will be held at the Taj Begum. Fittingly, it is the restaurant in which inmates from the camp work as part of a gradual re-initiation into society. The customers are mostly friends of Laila from the art world. The money they earn goes into the care of the new addicts who turn up at the camp. As the light begins to fade and a musician starts to play the damboura, the evening comes alive. It is a warm safe haven that Laila has created, right in the middle of a harsh city.

Shamsia, Sossan, Laila and Susan. It is women like them who are now the living walls of Afghanistan.  Protecting, in their own ways, the country they love so deeply.  And hoping one day to open the gates to the Afghanistan of their dreams.