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Shamsia Hassani: Painting a New Future

Shamsia Hassani is bringing art and inspiration to Afghanistan one spray paint can at a time. In a world where she is constantly told that being a woman means staying quiet and small, Shamsia is determined to help women find their voices.

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 Joy Smith with sound design and mixing by Bianca Salinas. It was written by Abby Sher. Fact-checking by Joe Rhatigan with sensitivity read by Schuyler Swenson. Narration by Ariana Delawari. Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi. Thank you to the whole Rebel Girls team who make this podcast possible. Stay rebel!

Transcript

Not too long ago, in a narrow alley of Kabul, Afghanistan, there was a young woman who was ready to change the world with a single can of spray paint. Her name was Shamsia. Now, Kabul is a city that has been torn apart by war for many years. The alley where Shamsia stood was covered in broken stone and glass. Instead of apartment buildings or stores on either side of her, there were just the shells and shadows of what once was. But for Shamsia, these crumbling walls were the perfect canvas for her next graffiti masterpiece.

She began painting, as she often did, by spraying the outline of a tall woman. Then, she gave the painted woman long arms draped in a blue burka; big, strong hands that looked like they were traveling up a piano keyboard, and a bright rosy face. The painted woman had no mouth and her eyes were shut tight, but somehow she looked loud and proud.

Until…

Uh oh. Shamsia heard people approaching. She wasn’t supposed to be here. Even though this wall where she was painting didn’t belong to anyone since the building had been destroyed, she still could get in trouble for painting on it; for being here at all. Because in Kabul, women were often harassed for even walking down the street by themselves. They were not supposed to leave home without someone else, or to speak in public places. And they certainly weren’t supposed to spray paint on the walls.

Shamsia wasn’t finished with her painting but she knew she had to get out of there, fast. She gathered her things and added one last touch for now. It was the word آزادی  which means “freedom” in Shamsia’s native language of Dari.

Then she slipped out into the shadows before anyone could see her or take her paints away.

When the men walking by came upon Shamsia’s picture, they laughed at it. What is this? Where’s the woman’s mouth? And why does she only have half of a piano? They told the local authorities so it could be painted over.

But this would never stop Shamsia. Even days later, after the wall was covered in a thick, dark coat of paint, she could still feel the outline of that long blue burka and the glow of those rosy cheeks, waiting to come back to life.

Shamsia wasn’t born a graffiti artist. She wasn’t even born in Afghanistan. In 1988, Afghanistan was in a brutal war that had been going on for close to a decade. Shamsia’s parents fled to the neighboring country of Iran so that when their little girl was born, she would be safe from all the bombs and fighting. Living in Iran was not as peaceful and calm as they’d hoped for though. As a little girl, she always had a sketchbook in her hand, and was so excited about studying art in school. But when she told people she was Afghani, many people in Iran treated her meanly or told her she couldn’t study art with them.

Shamsia was hurt and frustrated. She kept filling page after page in her sketchbook with new shapes and colors, but she longed to know more — to make her drawings feel big and alive; to share her love of art instead of tucking it away in a tiny book. When Shamsia was sixteen, her parents decided enough was enough. Their daughter deserved to at least learn about art. Things were changing in Afghanistan too — especially for women. There was a new constitution that was supposed to give women more rights and access to education and healthcare. 

Shamsia and her family moved back to Kabul with hope in their hearts and soon, Shamsia was attending art classes at Kabul University. She walked down the halls with a brush in her satchel and a paint-smudged smile on her face.

After a few years, though, life in Afghanistan didn’t feel as full of promise any more. There was a different war going on now — this time between many countries and factions of people in Afghanistan. Bombings and fighting in the streets were very common. Even when it was quiet outside, Shamsia felt how everything was tense and fragile. And no matter what the new constitution said, women were still treated very differently than men. Women were expected to be quiet and take care of their families. There were many areas of Afghanistan where women couldn’t go to universities or even to the doctor without permission from a man. 

Shamsia felt lost. She had so many things she wanted to say about the rights of every human being, but sitting in a university classroom studying contemporary art didn’t feel like a place where she could make any real difference.

And then, she picked up a can of spray paint.

It was 2010, and an arts advocacy group came to Kabul to teach a workshop about free expression. The leader of the workshop talked about how art could communicate so many feelings and ideas, especially if it was in a public space where anyone could see it. Afghanistan didn’t have many galleries or museums, so making murals or even small paintings outside were the most effective ways for sharing art. 

As the workshop leader spoke, Shamsia felt her skin tingling, her hands jittering with a wild excitement. Yes! This was how she wanted to make art. She wanted to cover the streets with all the colors and emotions inside her. She wanted to transform these burnt out buildings and shadowy alleyways into a new vision of what could be.

She knew she’d have to be sneaky about it. Carrying that can of spray paint into the street felt dangerous — but also freeing and empowering. 

She didn’t really have a plan for what she was going to make. She just knew she had to work fast, before she was caught. She started with the outline of a woman, because that was what she knew best. The woman had pointy shoulders and a billowing burka. Her face was tipped upwards and her eyes were closed because Shamsia felt like women had so much sorrow and the sky was always full of fire. Shamsia purposefully didn’t give the woman a mouth either, because she felt like in Afghanistan, women weren’t allowed to speak out and say their true feelings. Instead, Shamsia gave the woman long fingers dancing across a keyboard that floated all around her. And words of hope and change drifting through the air, written in Shamsia’s native Dari.

Sometimes Shamsia only had fifteen or twenty minutes to make one of these art pieces before she heard footsteps, or even the rumble of nearby explosions. She brought paints, brushes, and stencils too, but always had to be ready to pack up her things and run with a moment’s notice. Her paintings were often half-finished, but they still felt loud and alive. So many people who walked by a Shamsia piece of art felt a surge of energy and inspiration. Her colors changed the skyline. Her musical instruments made a song of freedom feel so close. If this painted woman on a crumbling wall surrounded by broken glass could find a way to sing, so could everyone.

As Shamsia said, “Art changes people’s minds and people change the world.”

This is a story that is still happening today. Shamsia continues to spread her bright messages of hope and freedom throughout Afghanistan and the world. Though she lives outside her home country now, she is very much a part of its landscape.

Her canvases are mostly abandoned building walls. Her pictures are usually women with no mouths but so much to say. There are musical instruments surrounding her and filling the landscape with new music; new possibilities. Her pieces are usually filled with vibrant blues, oranges and reds, because she wants to make Kabul beautiful again. She wants her art to be eye-catching and say all the things women aren’t allowed to say in her home country.

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I am full of color and life, dreams and daring.

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