A group of Afghan women are defying convention by studying and producing expressive contemporary art. Their work offers an abstract commentary on the restrictions that often govern women’s lives.

Ommolbanin Shamsia, with

KABUL, Afghanistan (WOMENSENEWS)–Ommolbanin Shamsia, 20, says she has been painting for as long as she can remember, as a child and refugee in Iran and later, after her family returned home to Afghanistan.

She considers herself mainly a student of accounting, but she’s also recently taken her first art class at the Female Arts Center in Kabul’s Center for Contemporary Arts Afghanistan.

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Photographs by Muslim Women


"For Liberty"


Manjia, 8, with her paintings.


Rahraw Omarzad with his students



One of her paintings depicts a woman with a layer of gold jewelry covering her eyes. "I tried to show a woman who cannot see the way because of the gold," Shamsia says. "She is in a golden cage."

Another of Shamsia’s paintings shows a woman standing at the edge of a pool of water. Instead of her own reflection she looks at a young, green tree. "This represents woman as life, as regeneration," she says.

Shamsia’s work was part of a February show of contemporary art by female artists. The exhibit was in a makeshift gallery of a local high school. Now the canvases–many offer stark testimony about the life of women–are stacked in different rooms in the center, their fate uncertain.

Unlike women’s fashion or sports, which have attracted abundant media interest, contemporary art by Afghan women is something of a sleeper, even though it may represent a stronger challenge to conservative concepts of women’s social place.

"The sense of inner life, imagination, as a way to express one’s feelings or thoughts–actually expressing oneself at all–is not part of woman’s life here," says Suzana Paklar, mission head for Medica Mondiale, a German nongovernmental group focused on women in conflict areas.

‘Hardest Role Imaginable’

Paklar, who works with female victims of war and violence on a daily basis, says being a woman in Afghanistan is one of the hardest roles one can imagine. "Women are expected to be an invisible part of this society; to fulfill their role of daughters and wives as ‘it’ rather than ‘I.’ That is the courage of this initiative and I do hope that its increased visibility, which is needed, will not jeopardize its security."

In the last three decades of conflict in Afghanistan, all art has been a casualty as the country struggled for survival and cultural conservatives held sway. During the Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001 paintings were dragged out of homes, offices and museums, and burned. Museum collections and cultural treasures were systematically destroyed and film archives purged.

Following the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, that began to change. But the artwork commonly on display here on the walls of restaurants, is largely produced by men and caters to tourist notions of Afghanistan. Common subjects are bactrian camels; women wrapped in voluminous, head-to-toe burkhas; horsemen playing buzkashi, a version of polo where the object of the game is to seize the headless carcass of a goat or small calf.

"The concept of contemporary art, of an art that is about ideas, is relatively new in Afghanistan," says Constance Wyndham, the manager of cultural projects with Turquoise Mountain Foundation, a British organization set up in 2006 to revive and preserve Afghanistan’s ancient arts.

Female Artists Test Taboos

"Art can provide a forum for discussing subjects that are still primarily taboo in Afghan society," says Wyndham.

While women have traditionally created handicrafts–jewelry, carpets, embroidery–few have ventured into more individualistic forms such as painting, music or dancing. When female singers or dancers appear on TV, criticism often follows from cultural conservatives including a small but influential body of religious scholars, the Council of Ulema.

In April, under pressure from the council, the government banned several Indian TV soap operas that featured women singing and dancing and extramarital relationships, though it has not enforced the edict. That same month, two clerics presented a parliamentary bill calling for a code of conduct to prevent women from being in the company of men who aren’t relatives.

In addition to social restrictions, women here suffer some of the world’s highest rates of maternal mortality, forced marriage, rape and fatal domestic violence.

Themes of Violence, Regeneration

All of these issues find some kind of expression in the work of students at the Female Arts Center, whose exhibit explored violence and regeneration as inextricable themes.

One of the most striking works is called "Condemned," painted by Shekeba Saifi, 28. In it, oblong blocks of color depict grave sites. In front of them another oblong shape is unmistakable as a woman’s rounded shoulders and covered head.

The group’s teacher, Rahraw Omarzad, a man in his mid-40s, was a graduate of the arts faculty in Kabul University and worked in a government art center until the Taliban era. He lived in the Pakistani city of Peshawar until returning in 2002.

He says he wanted to open contemporary art classes to break the gridlock in conventional art education. "By the time the students go through four years of traditional art courses and come to the subject of contemporary art, they have already lost the ability to think out of the box," he says.

Omarzad worries that the Female Arts Center may attract public criticism if it becomes better known. "Some people will not like the idea of women artists," he says.

But painting, he adds, is in some ways highly suitable to women’s social constraints. It can be done in private and, if necessary, at home. And abstract art, for all its expressive potential, does not break the prohibition in conservative Islam against depictions of the human form.

Aunohita Mojumdar is an Indian journalist who is currently based in Kabul. She has reported on the South Asian region for 18 years and she has covered the Kashmir conflict and post-conflict development in Punjab extensively.