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Robaba Mohammadi: One Brushstroke at a Time

Afghani artist Robaba Mohammadi will not give up. Born with partial paralysis, she faced extreme prejudice as a kid. But she taught herself how to paint by holding her brush in her mouth and now she inspires artists and activists everywhere.

This podcast is a production of Rebel Girls. It’s based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. This story was produced by Haley Dapkus with sound design and mixing by Bianca Salinas. It was written by Nicole Haroutunian and edited by Abby Sher. Fact-checking by Joe Rhatigan. Narration by Ariana Delawari. Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi. Our executive producer was Joy Smith. Thank you to the whole Rebel Girls team who make this podcast possible. Stay rebel!

Transcript

Fourteen-year-old Robaba Mohammadi watched her siblings get ready for school. As they slipped on their shoes and chatted excitedly about the day, it was tough for Robaba not to feel lonely. Robaba was partially paralyzed and unable to use her arms or legs. Because of her condition, she’d never been allowed to go to school. Plus, she had no way to navigate the rough and bumpy streets of Kabul, Afghanistan in her wheelchair.

As soon as her family left for the day though, Robaba launched into action. She rolled herself towards the table where her sister had left out a notebook and pens. Robaba didn’t know how or if she’d be able to use them, but today was the day she was determined to try.

I’m Ariana Delawari. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.

A fairy tale podcast about the real-life rebel women who inspire us.

On this episode, Robaba Mohammadi, an artist and activist who is changing the world one brushstroke at a time.

Robaba was born in a small village in Afghanistan full of giant mountains and rolling plains. When she was very little, her parents noticed that Robaba was unable to move her arms or legs. They decided to relocate their family to the capital city of Kabul, hoping that Robaba could get better medical treatment there.Kabul was a bustling metropolis, full of markets and activity. Unfortunately, there were also many prejudices and restrictions there — particularly against girls, women, and people with disabilities.

You see, at this time in Afghanistan, there was an ultraconservative political and religious group called the Taliban that was fighting for control. They had strict rules about how people should live. They didn’t want girls or disabled people to go to school at all, and they often hurt people who disagreed with them.

Robaba’s family couldn’t find anyone to help her medically and she was barred from school. She was basically told to stay home and hidden away. Robaba felt so lonely and depressed by herself day after day. It felt so unfair that her younger brothers and sisters got to go to school and she couldn’t even write her own name.

That morning as she looked at her sister’s notebook and pens, she felt a fierce longing in her heart. She wanted so badly to figure out a way to write or read or draw.

Her hands couldn’t grip the pen, but maybe she could use her feet instead? She stretched her legs up slowly, trying not to shake from the effort. Then she reached out with one of her feet and clutched a pen between two toes as tight as she could. She tried scribbling in the notebook with her toes but it was too painful. Maybe if she positioned it another way? The pen slipped out of her toes. She tried again and again, but it just wasn’t working.

If she couldn’t use her toes, what could she…oh wait! What about her mouth? Robaba bent down and pinched the pen between her lips. Ah ha! She leaned into the page and traced a line, and then a curve, the ink spreading out before her like a brilliant new path of hope.
Robaba spent hours drawing on the paper, exploring and experimenting. As the end of the school day neared, Robaba maneuvered the notebook and pen safely into the folds of her clothes, her own special secret. She couldn’t wait to take them back out and try again.
From that day on, Robaba spent her days teaching herself how to draw with her mouth. It was slow going as she tested out different angles and approaches. She needed to be very patient with herself and her body. But soon enough, she realized she could use her lips and tongue to control the pen. Her drawings started getting bolder and more defined. Still, there was so much more she wanted to learn, like reading and writing!

Robaba decided she had to tell her family what she’d been working on, so they could help her out. She was so hungry to take in all the lessons and skills they were getting in school.
The first time Robaba showed her family her secret notebook, they were shocked and didn’t understand how she could have done this on her own. Robaba smiled brightly and demonstrated her new technique of controlling the pen with her mouth. Her family was amazed.

After that, her family took turns teaching Robaba what they’d learned in school each day. Reading, writing, arithmetic – there was so much for Robaba to absorb! Tracing all of those numbers and letters was exhausting, but thrilling!

Then one day, Robaba saw a program on television about a visual artist. She’d never watched a painter work before. As the artist transformed an empty canvas into a stunning work of art, Robaba gasped. She couldn’t wait to tell everyone about it. “It was amazing! It was unbelievable! I wish I could become an artist!” she exclaimed. Her family exchanged looks. Robaba… an artist?
Yes yes! An artist!

There was so much Robaba wanted to paint. Cartoon characters and portraits! Landscapes and sunsets! The resilience and strength of Afghani women! Wait—she was getting ahead of herself. That’s what she wanted to paint…eventually. She had faith that she’d get there, but she’d start with something simple…maybe a nice tree?

Seated on the floor in front of a small easel, Robaba considered the blank canvas. She had a paint palette full of colors and a brush that she held securely in her mouth. She selected her first color: a warm brown. She started to swipe the paint onto the canvas by moving her head up and down, back and forth. She was doing it!

Brushstroke by brushstroke, she started filling out the tree-trunk shape she had in her mind’s eye. Now for the leaves! She imagined them sparkling in the late afternoon sun. She dipped her brush in emerald paint and began with small, soft strokes. But that didn’t look right, so she added some white paint. That didn’t look right, either. Maybe it needed some yellow? Or specks of blue? Everything she tried seemed to make it worse.

Robaba was getting so angry at herself. Why couldn’t she figure out the correct lighting and shading? She was getting dizzy from bobbing and shaking her head as she painted. Her jaw throbbed from clenching the paintbrush. Most of all, she was so frustrated that the tree on her canvas didn’t match the one she saw in her mind.

Her father heard her getting upset and hurried over to see what was wrong. He meant to comfort her, but when Robaba looked up, she found his eyes glued to her half-finished painting.

He was stunned.

Her painting was powerful and vivid. Sure, it wasn’t entirely realistic and maybe the colors were smudged, but he saw what she was doing. He felt the energy of this tree emerging; of her vision coming to life!

He told Robaba that even though it felt difficult, she had to keep going.

And so, Robaba picked up that paintbrush with her mouth again, dipped it in the green paint, and added another leaf.

Leaf by leaf, and color by color, Robaba created a magnificent tree. After that, she started on dreamscapes, animal sketches, and portraits of women she admired. As she got more comfortable with the brushes and paints, her paintings got clearer and louder. And Robaba felt stronger than ever before. Doing this kind of artistic practice gave her body and mind a new sense of purpose.

Robaba used her art to communicate her feelings about all the harsh restrictions she felt around her. She painted poignant images of young girls trapped behind barbed wire and another of a soldier in silhouette against a blazing orange sky.

Robaba felt herself becoming more and more confident not only as an artist, but as an Afghani woman. She started going out with her wheelchair in public as a proud disabled person. She wore bright makeup and did not put on the full face covering that was expected of women and girls. Robaba could tell a lot of people were staring at her for breaking the rules. But she did it anyway. She was finding new ways to express herself, and she wouldn’t let fear hold her back any longer.

Making her art soon became a political act for Robaba. As word of her accomplishments spread, reporters began to film and write stories about her. People posted about her online, sharing images of paintings they’d bought and encouraging others to support Robaba too. They loved her work for its beauty and its message. For Robaba, it was thrilling to sell her paintings and send these pieces of herself out into the world.

In 2019, at the age of nineteen, Robaba defied expectations yet again. With the help of her family and funded by the art she sold, Robaba opened the Robaba Arts and Culture Center in Kabul.

The school offered classes in art, public speaking, and music. It was a lively, exciting, and groundbreaking place to be, with plenty of space to navigate wheelchairs. The center quickly filled up with colorful canvases and creative energy. Robaba wasn’t just making her own dreams come true now, but the dreams of many other young artists, too.

The Robaba Art and Culture Center proved that accessible arts education was valuable and necessary. Its students got encouragement and instruction from Robaba and the other teachers. And the center flourished for two years.Sadly, in 2021, the ultraconservative Taliban did seize power in Afghanistan and they forced the Robaba Arts and Culture Center to close its doors.

For her own safety as a bold, female artist and activist, Robaba was forced to leave Afghanistan, but she refused to stop making art. Her voice and vision continued to shine. She took to social media to speak out about injustice there while trying to help more of her family escape the country. She also began working to move her school online.

Rebels, Robaba’s story is far from over. It’s really just beginning. She hopes that one day, she’ll be able to return to Kabul and bring art back home again. Until then, she works every day to share her strength and creative courage, connecting with people globally and encouraging everyone to do what might feel impossible.

Robaba is truly painting a brighter and more inclusive world — one brushstroke at a time.