Afghans Are Painting Over Images of Women While Culture Workers Are Putting Art in Storage as Afghanistan Braces for Taliban Control

On-the-ground sources say no looting has taken place yet—but they don’t necessarily trust the Taliban’s assurances.

Mazar -i- Sharif. Photo: Cheryl Benard.
Mazar -i- Sharif. Photo: Cheryl Benard.

Five days ago, images of Afghan women publicizing beauty parlors on walls around the city of Kabul were plastered over with white paint. “When people heard the Taliban was attacking Kabul, they rushed to hide all public images of women,” a local Afghan cultural heritage professional told Artnet News this week. “We look out our windows and see the Taliban patrolling the streets and we wait to know what will happen to us and our country.”

Thousands of Afghans rush to the Kabul International Airport as they try to flee the Afghan capital on August 17, 2021. (Photo: Sayed Khodaiberdi Sadat/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Thousands of Afghans rush to the Kabul International Airport as they try to flee the Afghan capital on August 17, 2021. Photo: Sayed Khodaiberdi Sadat/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images.

The world watched aghast on Monday as scenes of chaos at Kabul’s international airport, where scores of Afghans were trying to board American jets, went viral on social media. Several people reportedly died in the crowd. The day before, Afghan president Ashraf Ghani fled to the United Arab Emirates as Kabul fell to the Taliban. The group’s gains came shortly after U.S. President Joe Biden withdrew troops from the region, ending a 20-year war in the mountainous country situated between Central and South Asia.

The site of the giant Buddha statues, which were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001, is pictured in Bamiyan on January 9, 2021. (Photo by WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images)

The site of the giant Buddha statues, which were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001, is pictured in Bamiyan on January 9, 2021. Photo by Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images.

Against the backdrop of this swift change in power, many in the Afghan cultural sector are stuck in a tense holding pattern. They fear that restrictions limiting freedom of expression and women’s rights, as well as the looting and destruction of ancient monuments, are not far off. Scenes from March 2001—when the Taliban blew up the UNESCO World Heritage Site Buddhas of Bamiyan, home to two 6th-century monumental statues—are still fresh in their minds. Under Sharia law, which the Taliban practices, the depiction of both gods and the human form are forbidden.

Afghanistan is home to a wide variety of precious cultural heritage sites and objects, including the 62-meter-high Minaret of Jam and the city of Herat. A center of the arts in the Islamic world in the 14th century, Herat was seized by Taliban fighters on August 12.

 

Chaos and Fears of Looting

Taliban fighters blew up a statue of rival Shiite militia leader Abdul Ali Mazari on Wednesday, according to the Associated Press, marking the first known destruction of a public monument since the takeover earlier this week. Mazari defended Afghanistan’s ethnic Hazara minority and was killed by the Taliban in 1996. The destruction of the statue, while not a historical monument, has incited fears about what the Taliban might do to other sites, and to their enemies.

So far, the outlook is hazy. Two sources in the cultural heritage sector based in different parts of the country told Artnet News they had not observed or heard about any looting as of Wednesday.

Two women pass by the National Museum of Afghanistan. (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)

Two women pass by the National Museum of Afghanistan. Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images.

“There has been no looting in the museum,” Mohammad Fahim Rahimi, the director of the National Museum of Afghanistan, told us. “Over the past few days, we managed to save the museum with a few guards. There is the high risk of looting, so that’s why we are asking for help. Until now the museum is safe and hopefully it remains safe in the future.”

As can often happen during times of war and chaos, Rahimi added that museum staff “saved the museum from opportunists, criminal groups who are taking advantage of the crisis to loot artworks.”

An Afghan cultural heritage expert based in Kandahar, a southern city with one of the oldest known human settlements, told Artnet News that as of yet the Taliban had not destroyed anything related to culture.

But experts remain on high alert.

Left, Cheryl Benard, president of ARCH International, the Alliance for the Restoration of Cultural Heritage.

Left, Cheryl Benard, president of ARCH International, the Alliance for the Restoration of Cultural Heritage. Courtesy of Cheryl Benard.

Cheryl Benard, President of ARCH International, the Alliance for the Restoration of Cultural Heritage, told Artnet News from Washington, D.C. that she had heard reports that the Taliban is camping out in the Herat Citadel, which dates back to 300 B.C.E. So far, she has heard no indication of active destruction.

“I have reached out to everyone I know on the ground in Mazar, Herat, and Kabul, and there is no proof or even a strong rumor of any deliberate or non-deliberate damage by the Taliban of anything related to cultural heritage,” she said.

 

Will History Repeat Itself?

For now, the Taliban is seeking to project a more moderate image. “We understand that the world and Afghans have queries and questions about the form of the system to be established following the withdrawal of foreign troops,” Baradar said in an open letter released to the media.

In a press conference on Tuesday, Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, widely believed to be the country’s next president, told the media that “women will be afforded all their rights…within the limits of Islam.”

A Taliban fighter walks past a beauty salon with images of women defaced using spray paint in Shar-e-Naw in Kabul on August 18, 2021. (Photo by WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images)

A Taliban fighter walks past a beauty salon with images of women defaced using spray paint in Shar-e-Naw in Kabul on August 18, 2021. Photo by Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images)

Despite such reassurances, many Afghans are apprehensive about what the future holds. Laila Noor, an Afghan women’s activist and fashion designer based in Germany, told Deutsche Welle that she believes the Taliban is likely to refrain from implementing repressive measures for the next six months and crack down after that, as they did in 2001.

Most Afghans on the ground in Kabul were apprehensive to speak to this reporter out of fear for their safety. “Everyone is holding their breath waiting to see what will happen,” said one Afghan female arts practitioner. “In the Taliban press conference, they said women will have rights under Sharia law, but obviously creatives are afraid because previously the Taliban rule was extremely strict. You weren’t allowed to have images as it was seen as idolizing or haram, ‘forbidden.’ I don’t know what this means for artists in Afghanistan or female artists.”

 

The Challenges of Outreach

Some cultural organizations with ties to Afghanistan are looking to raise money to support locals—but even that is far from simple. Afghan Visual Arts & History (AVAH), an independent research collective founded by a group of Afghan artists and curators in 2019 to combat the lack of information about Afghanistan’s rich heritage and contemporary artists, is working with Afghan cultural organizations like Marcaz to stage a print sale to raise funds.

“It is a nightmare getting any funds into the country,” one Kabul resident said. “All the banks in Kabul are closed right now following the panic. Many people cashed out and fled the country following the Taliban takeover.”

AVAH’s founders are working to find a local organization with which to partner to ensure the money is in safe hands.

Afghan women weaving. Courtesy of Tanweer FBMI.

Afghan women weaving. Courtesy of Tanweer FBMI.

Some arts and crafts organizations, meanwhile, haven’t ceased operations or closed their factories. A regional director of Tanweer FBMI, which supports women creating Afghan carpets and other artisanal wares all over the country, said his organization is used to dealing with the Taliban.

“We are present in the communities in the south, areas where the Taliban have always had a presence,” Farshied Jabarkhyl, an Afghan based between Dubai and Kabul, explained. “In certain areas in Afghanistan, people have lived under the Taliban, and our only aim is to employ women in those areas in order to empower them.”

“Our factories and operations are still running, and the women are still working. Our model allows women to work from home, use their skills and importantly, their heritage, to create artisanal items. We employ them while also helping their children go to school. We have no political affiliations.”

 

Sadness and Fear

It is not just fear that Afghans are experiencing—there’s also sadness and bewilderment about the possible return of a situation they thought would never take place again.
“This is a huge disappointment not just for Afghans but for the international community,” said Jabarkhyl, who was born in London to Afghan parents. “All the hopes, all the investment and lives lost. All the hard work and commitment by the international community to rebuild Afghanistan to support the underprivileged and the poor seems to have disappeared.”

Reza Hazare, <i>Afghan Wedding</i> (2009). Courtesy of AVAH Collective.

Reza Hazare, Afghan Wedding (2009). Image courtesy of AVAH Collective.

As Afghans await their fate, many are trying to cling to some form of hope that the empowerment and cultural development fought for over the past two decades won’t go to waste. Hopefully, as Jabarkhyl said, “This time things will be different—we won’t lose everything we have worked so hard to achieve.”

 


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