Kabul, Afghanistan: Photographer Rada Akbar’s striking self-portraits are a declaration of her independence and heritage — but in Afghanistan that comes at deadly risk.
The 33-year-old artist’s latest exhibition was forced online after she faced threats for her work showcasing some of the nation’s powerful female figures.
High-profile women including media workers, judges, and activists are among the more than 180 people who have been assassinated since September — violence the US and Afghan government blame on the Taliban.
“We are the minority who are fighting, raising our voices. By killing some of us, they will force the rest of us to be silent,” she said of the insurgents.
“They are sending the message: ‘You have no place, if you want to do this you’ll get killed,” she added.
Like most of her friends, she no longer follows any routine and has restricted her movements around the country.
“We keep saying (to) each other that ‘ok, we need to stay alive because if we died, then what is the point?” she said.
The militants are waging a searing offensive against Afghan forces after peace talks between the warring sides broke down.
Last week, all US and NATO forces left Bagram Air Base near Kabul — the command center for anti-Taliban operations — effectively wrapping up their exit after 20 years of military involvement in Afghanistan.
Reminiscent of the Mexican feminist artist Frida Kahlo, Akbar is often captured wearing a crown, with heavy gold and silver jewelry prized by nomad tribes in her self-portraits, while known for her stunning photos of daily life around Afghanistan.
She has been behind a series of exhibitions celebrating International Women’s Day at Kabul’s former royal palaces.
Last year she used mannequins to portray exceptional figures including a filmmaker, a footballer, and — under a gauze cape showered with pebbles — Rokhshana, a woman stoned to death by the Taliban for fleeing a forced marriage.
This year, she made a virtual presentation of her show on Abarzanan — Superwomen in English — that was broadcast to empty chairs set up at Kabul Museum.
One of five sisters, including Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission chief Shaharzad Akbar, she has always received the support of her parents, a writer, and a teacher.
Unusually for a single woman in Afghanistan, Akbar has lived alone for ten years in a Kabul apartment.
“(Afghanistan) is much more conservative now, in the past women had roles in society, in art, the private sector… they enjoyed more freedom,” she said.
Queens and fighters
Everything changed with the arrival of the mujahideen, whose fight against the Soviet invasion in 1979 was funded by the Americans.
After the Soviets were kicked out and civil war erupted, the Taliban established a foothold before seizing power and imposing one of the harshest regimes in the world, which banned women from education and work.
She says women have often been portrayed as victims in the West, an attitude she is dedicated to changing.
“The history of Afghan women didn’t start after 2001,” she says of the US-led invasion which toppled the Taliban.
“We have a long and rich past to which women have always contributed.”
She finds it “disrespectful” when the international community claims to be behind female empowerment in Afghanistan and is frustrated that a modern Afghan woman is often measured by whether she can speak English and if she wears Western clothes.
“We are attacking our culture. It is another form of colonization,” she says.
Left feeling betrayed by Washington’s withdrawal deal with the Taliban — which saw the US promise to leave the country in return for security guarantees, without insisting on any women’s or human rights protections — she is losing hope.
Having only ever known war in Afghanistan, Akbar says the deteriorating situation has had an impact on her mental health, her concentration, and her creativity.
“I feel that I’m very close to death these days. Will I be alive tomorrow?”