KABUL — At first glance, the tastefully decorated rooms, embellished by dark wood floors and soft mood lighting, seem like an unlikely incubator of radicalism.
The occupants of this space, in a glassy residential tower overlooking one of Kabul’s poshest neighborhoods, wield master’s degrees, not Kalashnikovs.
Their weapons aren’t bombs but canvases — painted with searing images of agony and frustration, as well as something else never before seen in public in this deeply conservative country: nude female bodies.
This is Shamama Contemporary Arts Gallery, a female-owned commercial enterprise that represents a new front in the fight for women’s rights in Afghanistan. Munera Yousefzada, the gallery’s 30-year-old founder, said she opened the space last year to give Afghan women a bold new voice.
“Before I opened the gallery, I felt like I was trapped at the bottom of a well and nobody could hear my screams,” she said, recounting her struggle to live in a male-dominated society. “Now they can hear me, and they can hear the other women whose paintings hang on the walls.”
For women in Afghanistan, being heard too often means putting their lives at risk.
Despite years of liberalizing international influence and the influx of girls’ schools and women’s shelters since the Taliban were toppled in 2001, Afghan women still endure exceptional levels of violence and discrimination. Even now — amid a growing number of female television anchors, police officers and entertainers — the only way to ensure the female form is stripped of controversy is to cover it head to toe in a burqa and place a man at its side.
For this reason, the gallery has restricted access to the paintings to people in Kabul’s tight-knit, invitation-only arts community, but Yousefzada hopes to change that and begin exhibiting the paintings to the broader public as soon as possible.
To many, it sounds a lot like a suicide mission.
“Nude paintings are not acceptable in our society,” Mina Habibi, a 26-year-old government employee, said. “Afghans are so sensitive regarding Islamic- related issues. If anyone creates or displays nude paintings, then mullahs will issue a fatwa to kill them.”
For some, the paintings are a sign of progress, evidence that a new generation of women has benefited from the influence of Western nongovernmental organizations that have spent the previous decade financing initiatives that encourage female education and agency. For others, the paintings are a stunt created by attention-obsessed asylum seekers, people intent on escaping the country’s deteriorating economic and security situation with a provocative ploy.
The nudes are the work of one of the artists who exhibit here, an outspoken 21-year-old art student who works under the name Farah. She said her paintings may draw undue attention but are foremost a celebration of the female form.
Colored black, but surrounded by bright greens and blues, the nudes she has created are shapely and explicit. They are based on photographs she snapped of a local sex worker.
“In Afghanistan, men don’t care about the personality of the women, and they’re judging a woman based on her body,” Farah said. “I wanted to reclaim the female body, because it is something extraordinary and beautiful.”
Besides, she added, “I enjoy painting nude paintings of women personally, so why should I stop?”
Farah was born in Afghanistan, but, like many in Kabul’s emerging arts community, she spent a large portion of her childhood in Iran, where she was exposed to the country’s thriving contemporary arts scene. She returned to Afghanistan as a teenager with a new sense of possibility and pride, she said.
She began painting images of nude women about a year ago, which led her family to ban her from working at home. She has also been criticized on Facebook, where she was cursed at and questioned for posting images of her paintings.
She said she is generally unconcerned about her safety but sometimes fears becoming the next Farkhunda, the Afghan woman who was stoned to death and set on fire by a mob in downtown Kabul in March after she was falsely accused of burning a copy of the Koran.
Since Farkhunda’s murder, there have been at least 450 attacks on women in Kabul and surrounding areas, a 12 percent increase over the same period last year, according to the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. The attacks are rarely associated with sacrilege, but usually arise from a culture of violence that is inflicted on women in a male-dominated society.
Others think Farah will end up the next Kubra Khademi, an Afghan artist who narrowly avoided serious injury after she took to the streets in Kabul in suggestive body armor in March to protest street harassment. After her 10-minute walk, she received death threats and was forced into hiding. Critics accused her of using the performance to seek asylum in Europe.
Farah said she has no intention of leaving the country and vows to continue painting.
“I was born to be a good painter and a good artist,” she said. “I was born to help my people. I am a strong Afghan girl, and I will never stop working because other people are ignorant.”
M. Alem Farhad, a member of the fine arts faculty at Kabul University, said that an artist intent on creating nude paintings was probably attempting to make a name for herself instead of producing art in the service of Afghan society. Perhaps, he wondered, the artist is being influenced by foreign interests.
“In the West, nude paintings don’t create contradictions within the society,” he said. “In Afghanistan, we are a traditional society, and we should not create contradictions. An Afghan artist should consider the Islamic values and the cultural values of the people, or the people will hate Afghan artists.”
During his time as an art student in Ukraine, Hamid Kabuli, a member of the fine arts faculty at Kabul University, painted countless nudes. Since he returned to Afghanistan more than a decade ago, he has been asked to censor many of his paintings, and he said he has no problem with doing so, pointing to a large painting in his office in which he was forced to hide a female figure’s hair and remove a suggestion of her lower leg.
“In Afghanistan, nobody can draw the figure of a woman better than me, but I always consider the sensitivity of the issue,” he said. “I think it’s too early to introduce such ideas into this country. It will create a big problem for the artist, their work will be discredited, and people will assume they are an American instrument.”
Yousefzada, who spent eight years in Iran, also returned from living abroad with a new appreciation for contemporary art. To critics who assert that her gallery is a gathering place for asylum seekers, she said the opposite is true. The day she returned to Afghanistan from Iran, she said, was the day she decided not to leave again under any circumstances.
“It doesn’t matter if ISIS is here or any other extremists groups,” she said. “I want to work and fight here. Afghanistan needs people like me because the international community is leaving, so it’s the responsibility of Afghans to take care of our country.”