Shamsia Hassani, Afghanistan’s First Female Street Artist, Provides Hope in the Midst of Terror

Content and trigger warnings: mentions of suicide, female oppression, war, violence, terrorism

It is a hot summer day full of fear and frenzy. Frantic families swarm the Kabul airport, a few futilely clinging to the sides of departing planes. Parents thrust their babies up to American soldiers over a wall, desperate to give their children a future of freedom. A little girl hangs back outside her school, wondering if this is the last time she’ll see her classroom. After twenty years, the Taliban have resumed control of Afghanistan.

A militant Islamic fundamentalist group, the Taliban last reigned over Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. Their rule was characterized by oppression of women, violent punishment of their opponents and overall harsh terror. A twenty-year break came for Afghanistan when the US fought a costly, controversial war on terrorism in the area. However, President Biden announced earlier this month that the US had decided to withdraw all its troops from the area by September 11th. The Taliban seized control of Afghanistan two weeks before the intended withdrawal, and chaos ensued.

Many Afghan girls and women fear for their future. They fear losing their jobs and being banned from school. Young girls fear being forcibly married off to Taliban soldiers. Outspoken women’s rights advocates fear having their homes raided, their lives taken. Last time the Taliban reigned, women couldn’t walk outside without a man. But if you walk outside and stare at the decrepit buildings, pockmarked by the marks of suicide bombs, you find the unexpected: swirling images of women graffitied in rainbows of colors. You can see them playing musical instruments or them softly closing their eyes, surrounded by elements of nature.

This artwork is the work of Afghanistan’s first female street artist, Shamsia Hassani. Hassani has been splashing the war-torn Afghan streets with vivid feminist imagery for years now, making it her mission to introduce art to a country where art galleries are extremely scarce. She was born in 1988 in Tehran, Iran to an Afghan family. Growing up, she always had a sketchbook in tow. But while her parents were supportive of her artistic ambition, she couldn’t study art in Iran because she was Afghan. She chose to pursue an arts degree at Kabul University and later became a lecturer of fine arts at the same university. She is also the co-founder of Berang Art Organization, a group that promotes contemporary art to the Afghan public.

Following her attendance at a graffiti workshop in Kabul held by CHU, a British graffiti artist, Hassani started experimenting with street art of her own. She was excited about all the walls she could use as her canvases. Since proper materials were scarce, she mixed her own sprays. She quickly developed her signature subject: a sleek woman with closed eyes and no mouth, representative of the unseeable war horrors in Afghanistan and the lack of power women face. Her painted women channel their autonomy and strength into musical instruments, symbolizing their dreams and beautiful ambitions. She also addresses the misconception that the burqa is a symbol of oppression: contrary to popular Western belief, the burqa is seen as a strong symbol of humanity. Burqas are not the issue. Restricted access to education, for example, is what people really need to tackle.

Because being a woman painting in the streets is heavily frowned upon, Hassani must work quickly. Most of her projects have to be completed within hours, if not just fifteen minutes. Although her artwork is created quickly, what she intends to leave is long-lasting. She imprints beauty and hope onto the stricken walls of a war-torn country. Interestingly, her work juxtaposes objects of war and objects of hope, yet her hope is what remains with the viewer. She states, “I am from Afghanistan, a country famous for war. Let’s change the topic, let’s bring peace with art.” In addition to creating art in Afghanistan, she brings her mission to combat Muslim stereotypes worldwide. She posts her creations on social media, and has shown artwork in Australia, Germany, India, Iran, Vietnam and more.

When the Taliban took control, Hassani’s social media accounts went silent, prompting apprehension from her followers. Thankfully, a statement has since been released that says she is in a safe, undisclosed location. Posting on Facebook, she said, “Your messages and comments show that humanity and kindness are still alive, and has no boundaries. Thanks for your concern and support, I am safe.” She has vowed to continue illuminating the world with her insightful, profound artwork, despite the many dangers that await people like her – the people that defy gender confines, the people that are not afraid to represent their beliefs and visions through art, the people that work through the searing pain and hardships of war to bring citizens comfort and hope.

If you wish to help the people of Afghanistan, you can click here for a NYTimes list of resources.


Featured image credits: “Shamsia Hassani – Murales – Writer” by we_free is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 

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