Woman, War and Walls: Afghanistan’s First Female Graffiti Artist, Shamsia Hassani

The plight of woman, an everlasting tale with noble protagonists that challenge the boundaries that repeatedly stifle female equality. Shamsia Hassani, 25 years old, female, courageous, critical, artist, another shining example of the diverse and powerful role of woman.


Four years was all it took. By the age of four, Shamsia Hassani was certain of her calling; she was a born artist. She uses her medicine, art, to heal the world, one wall at a time. Young Shamsia is Afghanistan’s first female graffiti artist. With each wall she transforms into a masterpiece, she hopes to rid Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, of painful war memories, share the healing properties of art, and remind women that they are powerful and capable.


Shamsia uses her tool to hide ruminants of war and bring colour to Kabul, a city she describes as colourless. “If I do graffiti it’s like I’m covering all the bad memories of war from walls,” she explains. Her massive murals bring beauty to dilapidated and bullet hole filled buildings.


She believes that it is important to play a role in the reconstruction of her home country. “Afghanistan died during the war, and after the war, it was born again. It’s just like a child; it still needs somebody to help. I think we need more time for our Afghanistan to grow, and so that someday it can walk by itself and make decisions for itself.”


During Afghanistan’s many years of war, thousands of people were displaced, with some of these people immigrating to Iran. It is a common occurrence for neighbouring countries of war stricken nations to grow frustrated when refugees escape to their lands, unfortunately to some extent this case was no exception. Shamsia and her family were one of the many families that immigrated to Iran during wartime. Luckily, they escaped the turmoil of their homelands but were still subject to political tensions.


Shamsia applied to study art her last three years in high school before moving back to Afghanistan, due to general tensions between Iranians and Afghans. At that time, her goals to further master her talent were harshly blocked. “They told me that Afghan people were not allowed to study in that department so I studied accounting…but when I came back to Afghanistan, I studied in the faculty of fine arts,” says Shamsia. Her experience was disheartening but she decided to look on the sunny side. “I just wanted to be by myself. I was very sad, I cried a lot, but I was happy I knew I could still keep my art,” she explains.




An NGO Called Beyrang


As a member of Beyrang, an NGO that supports artists, Shamsia plays an active role in developing Kabul’s cultural sphere. For instance, the NGO built a big communal studio for creative minds with no where to work and not enough money to buy materials. They provided them a space to express their ideas freely.


She believes that art is a powerful way to express one’s feelings to the world. “Sometimes one word is only one word, but one image is a thousand words. It’s a friendly way to fight…in an international language,” says Shamsia.


A Female Rights Activist


“The main problem is education… Most women are not aware of their rights, there are some good things in Sharia Law, but they are not aware of that,” she says.


“Also girls cannot get to school. In some places they stop girls from going to school. People pour acid on girls faces to stop families from letting their girls go to school and get an education,” she continues. Vicious cases of scorned men pouring acid on women and girls who refuse to marry them are also frighteningly common, not only in Afghanistan but around the world.

 “I think it’s very interesting that everybody thinks that blue is the colour of freedom but it’s the colour of covered women,”

“I think it’s very interesting that everybody thinks that blue is the colour of freedom but it’s the colour of covered women,” Shamsia says pensively. She refers to the blue burqa that Afghan women were required to wear during the Taliban. A burqa, also referred to as a chidari, is a long, loose dress worn predominantly by muslim women that covers the body from head to toe, leaving only a small net like opening for the eyes. Many foreign observers, particularly in the West argue that the burqa is a sexist tool that furthers the oppression of women in Islamic countries. In France, Belgium and Switzerland the burqa has been banned in certain public areas.


Shamsia argues that she does not believe that removing the burqa is necessary, at least not now. “I think it’s not the first problem of the people…there is no equality. I think this is a bigger problem than removing the burqa,” she explains. She goes on to describe that to many Afghan women the burqa is not a sign of inferiority, but security. Women feel safe tucked away in burqa’s, so men are less likely to scoff at them or make sexual passes. “Some women feel very comfortable that when men look at them they can not see their face,” describes Shamsia. Depending on the context a rat can be a sign of death or a sign of life. Perhaps being able to place yourself in someone else’s shoes will allow for better understanding.


“Freedom is not to remove the burqa, it is to have peace,” proclaims Shamsia.


Afghan women are subject to a sexist justice system that jeopardises their security and freedom, this was specifically true during the Taliban. The Taliban, is an extremist militia that ruled Afghanistan as a totalitarian dictatorship from 1996 to 2001. The regime issued multiple laws that made women inferior in society. Some of these laws included:


  1. Women were forbidden from the workforce
  2. Women were forbidden from going to school and university
  3. Women were forbidden from being treated by male doctors (yet most women were banned from working with the exception of a few doctors and nurses)
  4. Women were forbidden to leave their home without a male relative
  5. Windows of homes were forcibly painted black to ensure that women could not be looked at from the outside
  6. Women were forced to wear a burqa
  7. Women were forbidden from the radio, television, newspapers and public gatherings
  8. Women accused of having sex outside of marriage were publicly stoned


The Taliban justified their laws and governance with Islam, although Islam does not ban the rights of a woman to earn a living nor does it require her to hide herself from head to toe with a burqa. Shamsia does not use the burqa. She says “It’s not in Islam to cover our faces, [but only] to wear a scarf and cover your head.” In Afghanistan there is a thin blurred line where Islam and tribal culture meet, and this is the source of many disputes in the judicial system. By manipulating religion, specifically sharia law, Taliban officials condemned women to be second class citizens, properties of men rather than living, breathing human beings, capable of making their own decisions. With each law, they further ostracised women from public society.


During the war and during the Taliban, it was as if women disappeared from society, they existed solely in their homes, in public they were voiceless. “Women could not decide, they had nothing, and that’s why I want to remind people [about] women again, by creating graffiti,” she says. To do so Shamsia does not depict a weak, powerless woman, rather she paints a different type of woman. “I changed their shape to change people’s minds about them…to look at them differently,” she added.  “She is more powerful…a new woman with a modern shape…with lots of power and wants to fight for rights and wants to fight for equality,” declares Shamsia. The new modern woman, depicted by Shamsia, has submerged herself in society, she has a voice.


Shamsia always believed that she had to transmit an important message through her art, although her work did not always act as platform to voice women’s rights. She began portraying women in her art work about two years ago when she began graffiti. “The first time I did graffiti I started to paint a group of women coming out from water, blue and black. I did not want to show that they are very powerful, I wanted to show that together they will achieve everything that they want.” We mustn’t forget that there is power in numbers. Regardless, as individuals, we each have a role to play in bettering society. Shamsia beseeches other women to look to her as an example for strength. “I am a woman, like any other woman, if I can do something then anybody can do something.”


Shamsia teaches in the Kabul University of Arts, where she inspires her students to express their thoughts. She also travels around the world teaching techniques and speaking on the importance of women, all over the world, embracing and wielding their voices and strengths.