Afghan graffiti artist risks her life to challenge the burqa under the Taliban
By Katie Booth on May 21, 2015
Malina Suliman began her career as an artist on the streets of Kandahar, Afghanistan, armed with only a can of spray paint, and the fierce conviction that the burqa, and the oppressive rules imposed by the Taliban, were stifling and silencing Afghan women. Facing threats to her life for her subversive street art, Suliman relocated to the Netherlands in 2013. She continues to explore the highly charged clothing item in her new exhibition, Beyond The Veil, opening in London at Art Represent Gallery on May 28. The exhibition, which combines video with installation and audio, examines the burqa’s place in Afghan culture, and draws comparisons between East and West. Women in the World spoke with Suliman about what it was like to grow up beneath the burqa, and how she harnessed the power of her art to change the course of her life.
Women in the World: What was it like for you growing up in Afghanistan?
Malina Suliman: I was born in Kabul. I have quite a big family – 5 brothers, 3 sisters, my mom and my dad. I was the youngest, so they gave me lots of love. But I felt strange in my own family, because I had a very liberal mind, and I would ask myself, “Why is there this discrimination between men and women?” In our culture, the man should be outside and the woman should be at home. I wanted to study, or meet my friends, and I couldn’t. And I felt very different.
WITW: What about the presence of the Taliban?
MS: At that time I was a child, but I can remember. My brothers were growing up, and it had an affect on their thoughts about women. That they should be at a home cooking and cleaning. So this became part of their nature, and when it affects brothers, of course it will apply on their sisters.
WITW: What role did the burqa have on your life? Did it seem strange to you that women had to be covered?
MS: Of course. When I was 12 my brother told me I had to wear the burqa, but I really wanted to play, because I was a child. It’s an age you want to play outside and have a good time. And they told me I had to wear it or I couldn’t leave the home. I felt it was controlling me, because when I wore it I felt I wasn’t a child anymore. The burqa is a way of controlling the woman, but in the name of respect. Every culture or religion gives a different name for the burqa. It is honor, or culture, or religion. Really, it just controls the woman and keeps her inside.
WITW: Did you ever express to your family that you felt something was wrong? How did they react?
MS: I wanted to study architecture. So, I moved to Pakistan and I started to study, but I didn’t tell them I was going to college. But my mom knew, and my sisters. They were supporting me the whole time. When I came back from Pakistan, I wanted to take computer classes nearby. I asked my brother. I was in my home, cooking for my family, and all our relatives and guests. But I said, “I want to live my life as a woman, but I want to study.” But, he told me, “Just study at home, you don’t need to go out.” He said, “If you go to the courses, what will our relatives say? They will lose respect for us.” They told me, “We know you’re feeling different, but we cannot do anything about it.”
WITW: At what point did you decide to start working as an artist?
MS: For those 10 months back in Afghanistan after university, I felt I had no rights. It felt like I didn’t exist. It was like I was their doll, and I was lost, somehow. My sister’s husband brought me to an art gallery. It had a big effect on me. I started shouting and crying, and I felt like I was back, and I existed again. There are two ways. One is to be a puppet, follow the culture, and do whatever they want. That was mentally disturbing to me, and still is. And the other way is to go out. I knew there would be problems from my family, and also from my environment. But I thought that physical pain would be better than the mental pain. And I started working as an artist.
WITW: Has your art always been political?
MS: It was after I came back [to Afghanistan]. I felt there was so much discrimination. I felt like OK, if I don’t say something, who will? So all the work I did was to challenge politics, culture, and women’s rights. I felt like I really wanted to break out. That’s why I wanted to use graffiti. It’s more open. I don’t need people to come to an exhibition. Graffiti gives a voice to the walls.
WITW: What made you focus on the burqa?
MS: I have always used the burqa because men are using the burqa in the name of culture and religion to take freedom from women. Women are alive, they have their own wishes and desires, but all the time they have to sacrifice that. They are a kind of skeleton, which doesn’t have muscles. They’re just breathing, like a kind of puppet that barely exists. If women spoke for their rights, they were beaten by their husbands. So they don’t have a voice. They lose their voices and their wishes and their happiness.
WITW: What was it like to create your art out on the street? Were you ever scared?
MS: I started in Kandahar. Every few houses, you find the Taliban. It wasn’t about beauty. I couldn’t stay in front of it for more than a few minutes. For me it was more about the message, that I’m a woman, I’m fighting for my rights, and I’m fighting for you. So why are you sleeping if I’m out here fighting? When I was making it I couldn’t breathe. I was shaking, and I could barely concentrate. I would draw a bit, and leave, and come back if I could. I saw that people wanted to stop me with harsh words. If people say harsh words to me though, I don’t care. It’s a risk to my life. The Taliban don’t want us to be working, so they’ll shoot us. And women who break their rules, they put acid on them. I said, if they shoot me, OK, but if they put acid on me, I will be alive as a dead body. I was always so afraid of that.
WITW: Has the prevalence of the burqa changed since you were a child? What’s it like for women in Afghanistan today?
MS: I mean, moving from Afghanistan to here was just one and a half years ago. And I’ve seen the situation in Afghanistan get worse. It’s the same as when I was living there. If a woman is wearing the burqa, it’s not her wish. It’s more that she feels secure from the Taliban, secure from acid if she were to show her face. And, it’s the force of the man. Women have to wear the burqa. If they don’t and they go out, they don’t know what will happen. But if there is a woman today, and she had a peaceful life, or a man gave her the choice, if she felt safe, I’m sure that no woman would wear the burqa. It’s not their choice, it’s the pressure of their family and their environment.
WITW: Tell me a little about what you’re hoping to accomplish in this exhibition. How did you approach it?
MS: In Afghanistan I was doing street art because it was more open, but when I had a show, only men would come. I said, I’m an artist not only for men, but for women too. So that’s why I like graffiti. But this show is also about graffiti in a different way with different materials. This show is more about culture, and comparing two societies. Afghans think the burqa is a permanent part of culture. But, if you bring it to Europe, how would people react? Afghanistan doesn’t want to change its culture, but it can change, all the time. So why are Afghans giving so much value to it? The burqa is not natural. It’s not human nature. My exhibition is looking at how it could change.
WITW: What are your hopes for Afghan girls growing up today?
MS: Most girls hope for basic things. They had wishes to go to school and study at university, have a job, and work. And that if they get married, their husbands will not be conservative, and give them some freedom. If I start talking about my own hopes, it’ll take hours. The biggest hope is that there’s not any more discrimination between men and women. That women could have equal rights. It’s very painful when you see in your family that a brother can do anything he wants, but at the same age, you can’t.