I wish to begin writing this story with a confession. Fatimah's Facebook profile was the magnet that drew me to reach out to her. To give you a little bit of context, I will describe Fatimah's Facebook profile first before delving into the personality behind the scenes. I wish to give you the same experience of discovering her, seeking her out, and getting to know her as I have had. I assure you, this story is designed to be one hell of a ride! So, grab your tea, coffee or water and settle in comfortably to allow yourself to be taken on a journey that would demonstrate without a shred of doubt: the power of imagination, vision and the determination of one woman to negotiate and create a space for her identity while always focussing on the beauty of her otherwise war-torn land. Fatimah's courage to uphold her journey through an artistic medium, adding to it the oft-overlooked aspect of beauty that women from her land add to the underlying narrative of peace in Afghanistan every day, encompasses her connection with her land in a rooted yet distant manner. When I first came across her Facebook profile, I found her albums showcasing a very different side of Afghanistan. Her photographs depicted an aesthetic lens for capturing Afghan women in traditional attire that was anything but conservative, sometimes in telling candids that spoke of life in terms of dynamicity with vibrant colors and striking frames. You wouldn't expect such captures from a war zone, would you? I didn't either. So after a quick chat on messenger, I decided to find some time over a Saturday morning to listen to her story.
Our dialogue began with Fatimah reflecting on her vision and her analysis of the need behind such a vision. She outlined how she uses Stage Photography to capture that which is an element of culture and life in the war zone but that which is not covered as an aspect of life in war-torn Afghanistan.
Fatimah: "We only see the dark, dank, gloomy, bloody aspect of Afghanistan in the media. When people think of women from Afghanistan, they automatically assume them to be only burqa-clad, maybe wearing a niqab with no way of identifying themselves otherwise in a unique way. In war zones like Afghanistan, women and art are most disrespected and underestimated. There is no place apparently for expression of identity and life through art for women. That is where my vision comes in. I founded Mastoorat Art Organization in 2019 to create a space to foster a culture of respect for art, women, and peace. The organization supports women artists through workshops, training, scholarships, opportunities to attend conferences, curate exhibitions, etc. Peace and Art can facilitate each other and women can become the medium for developing this in practice. I hope to empower many women through my initiative."
"Tell me more about how all this came about Fatimah." I probed
Fatimah: "Well, to be honest, this journey started with my quest to understand my own identity. I was born in Tehran in the early 90s. We are Afghan refugees in Tehran, and I grew up as a girl of Afghan origin who felt very much attached to Iran. However, I felt that I wasn't accepted as a native there because everyone saw me as an Afghan first. So this question of what it meant to be Afghan in the land of my birth, pushed me to try and find answers. For that at some point or the other, I knew I had to go back to Afghanistan. I used to love art but had taken up Engineering for my bachelor's degree. After realizing that my calling was a creative one and that engineering wasn't really my deal, I chose to experiment with visual art. It all eventually led me to start dabbling in Photography. My curiosity to understand the Afghan identity in order to find myself in a comfortable position within both my culture of origin and my culture of birth led me to eventually take to stage photography to bring my conceptual understanding of themes relating to identity and gender into creative expression."
Fatimah: "I was 14 when I started painting. I am from the Hazara community in Afghanistan and in the days when my parents migrated, the situation was terrible in Afghanistan. Though I was born more or less in a more stable environment in Tehran and have completed most of my education in Tehran, I have always been conscious of the notions of nationality, identity, and migration. In my work, these remain important themes as I try to reconcile consciously with the sense of who I am and where I belong. As a woman of Afghan origin, I somewhere feel a sense of responsibility to represent my land of origin in a more positive, hopeful, and colorful light while trying to uphold the important role that women play in the society beyond the narrative of conservatism that has chained them for generations now. When I decided to go back to Afghanistan, I taught for free for a year at the Kabul University as a lecturer in Photography for the Fine Arts Department. The youth do not get a quality education or resource persons there. Otherwise, if you look at it this way, the University of Tehran where I studied and the Kabul University are more or less similar in terms of when they were founded and for the years that they have been operating as educational institutions. But you see the state of Kabul University as compared to the University of Tehran and you would know what war could do to kill dreams and possibilities for young people."
I listened silently, carefully noting the process of introspection that Fatimah was spontaneously undertaking as she narrated her reflections, observations, and memories. I could see the sacred combination of empathy, social and moral responsibility, and the instinct for transforming through creativity fuelling her drive to do something about the land that she was connected to yet uprooted from. She was trying to paint and sketch an imaginary home that she had never known. There was a deep sense of pain in the exercise, a longing and quest as if to lose herself in the process, only to find herself again: maybe as a more grounded and self-assured Afghan? I could glimpse the source of her courage by now. It was the search for the self that guided her, search for her power and pride from the identity that was denied to her. This woman did not know how to stop or give up. As if on a deeply spiritual quest, guided by the light of a purpose that drew her to the abandoned cradle that she knew she had the claim to but that she had to re-build to have, Fatimah's story was unfolding in multiple dimensions to me with every word she uttered. I was hypnotized, almost witnessing everything in real-time. It was a while before I found my voice again
" How did you manage to do stage photography and campaign for women, art, and peace especially in Afghanistan? You must have faced a lot of obstacles!? " I enquired.
Somewhere I knew that I was assuming but then I wanted to be proved wrong. In bringing her work to my attention and with her story unfolding so powerfully, I was already opening up to looking at possibilities in a war zone more hopefully.
Fatimah: " In Stage Photography, I generally direct the shoots and they are most of the time, not candids. I direct the shoot as per a concept. Sometimes we had to shoot on streets and places where women do not usually go so, yeah, we attracted quite some amount of stares and disapproving looks. However, I am lucky that it all worked out so far more or less smoothly. I take permission from the women who shoot with me for publication purposes."
"Tell me more about the message you carry to the world. How has the world received or acknowledged your initiatives?"
Fatimah: " I have participated and taken my message to many conferences, summits international forums. I was a representative and panelist from UNHCR at the Global Refugee Summit in Islamabad, Pakistan in February 2020. The panel was called "Voice of Refugees". I have also participated in Asia Media Conference, Delhi Photo Festival, Asia Peace Film Festival in Pakistan among others. Recently I have been nominated for the Hypatia International Award. I also have a number of publications to my credit where my art and work has been featured like in Article called " Afghan women, the resilient struggle for future" in a Polish magazine, " Pictures and Impressions from Kabul's bustling street life" in a Swedish magazine, "When photography and Women's Rights are one", "Between Veils, Feminism and Patriarchy" among others. My work has helped people to look at a war zone like Afghanistan differently. I hope to continue working to bring women and art for peace more prominently to the world's attention."
The 28-year-old young artist brought to life her own inner quest for identity, her love for colors, life, and the land of her birth to build power and pride for other women from Afghanistan. In a matter of a few years, Fatimah has earned a name and reputation for her vision, taught and trained other women in the region, and taken up advocacy to stand for the rights of many like her, with the desire to create a ripple of hope and aspiration for the beauty that showcases the silent, resolute power of the feminine despite aggression and violence in the middle of a war zone. I came away from the dialogue, inspired and open to more possibilities, realizing all over again that art never loses its relevance and that the spirit expresses itself most potently through art, often to show the way for those who heed it. Having abandoned a "safe" career like engineering to journey forth into uncharted grounds, Fatimah consciously chose to wisely build her life on her reclaimed identity. And as it turns out, she is not only doing well but also inspiring many towards previously unforeseen possibilities. I close this dialogue with this reflection and hope that you would take up your own journey with as much enthusiasm, heart, and curiosity as the heroine of this story did.