Afghanistan’s 1st Female Street Artist Painting Messages About Hope, Hijabs & Feminism


Move over Banksy, looks like you’re not the only artist making social statements on the streets! The woman pictured above is Shamsia Hassani, a street artist based in Afghanistan whose work has become so powerful it is being displayed across the world.

Shamsia was born in Tehran, Iran, and eventually moved to Afghanistan with her parents, where she earned a bachelors and masters degree in visual art. Although both of these countries are synonymous with the taking-away of women’s rights and oppression in a number of ways (due to the Taliban rule in Afghanistan and the Iranian revolution in the late 70s), Shamsia has said she wants her art to show a different side of Afghanistan in order to promote hope and peace in her community.

Her artwork has also been seen as feminist due to the portrayal of women in ways that are not often seen in more conservative cultures.

“I have changed my images to show the strength of women, the joy of women. In my artwork, there is lots of movement. I want to show that women have returned to Afghan society with a new, stronger shape. It’s not the woman who stays at home. It’s a new woman…You can see that in my artwork, I want to change the shape of women. I am painting them larger than life. I want to say that people look at them differently now,” she told Art Radar Journal in an interview in 2013.


“In the past, women were removed from society and they wanted women to stay only at home and wanted to forget about women. Now, I want to use my paintings to remind people about women.”

Shamsia started becoming interested in street art in 2010, when a visiting graffiti artist from the UK came to Afghanistan to teach a workshop. She is a teacher and faculty member of the Fine Art Department at Kabul University (she is the youngest teacher there) and also hosts graffiti workshops. The street art environment in Afghanistan is very different to other countries, because it is not illegal, like in the US or the UK. But while she doesn’t have to worry about the law, there are other concerns.

“Here, I have no problem with police. I have a problem with closed-minded people and I have a big problem with bad security,” she said.

Her art work generally features images of women in various situations, including playing music, and not all of them are drawn with burqas. Shamsia has said that there is too much focus on Muslim women and the burqa, but there are much bigger problems to focus on instead.


“There are a lot of people around the world who think that the burqa is the problem. They think that if women remove the burqa, then they have no problems. But this is not true. I feel that there are lots of problems in Afghanistan for women. For example, when women cannot have access to education; this is more of a problem then wearing a burqa. If you remove the burqa, they still have the same problems. It is not the main problem. We should not concentrate on this,” she explained.

“We should think about the main problems, then the burqa is not so bad. You can develop your talent and still wear the burqa. You can work and stay in society and still wear the burqa…For me, freedom is not the removal of the burqa. For me, freedom is to have peace.”

It is a great reminder to those of us in the West especially, and any non-Muslim who believes there is only one way to achieve freedom for women in the Middle East. This is why we believe in amplifying the voice of Muslim feminists who are helping to expand the modern definition of feminism, which is lived out in many different ways.

The reaction she has gotten is mixed at times, with some of her dissenters not altogether understanding what the purpose of graffiti is.


“There are different groups of people who see my work differently. Some of them are interested in knowing what it is. I like people to ask me about my work. There are some people who like the work but do not know it is graffiti or what it’s called. Others say ‘you are making some image. It is not allowed’ and ‘why do you want to make the wall very dirty?’ Some people think that I am very free, and have no job and that’s why I am dirtying the walls. There are many different kinds of ideas,” she said.

Despite the common narrative surrounding Afghanistan in the media, Shamsia says art has been around for a very long time, with some painters from the country dating back to the time of Leonardo da Vinci. With her job, she is able to share with students the importance of not just classical painting, but contemporary art like graffiti art.

“I can show them and teach them a new form of art and introduce them to it. There are now lots of artists in Afghanistan. When I came to Afghanistan eight years ago, I could not find any good artists or artwork. Now, everything is developing, and it’s much better than before,” she said.

One of the biggest issues for street artists is finding “canvas” space, a problem not known by Shamsia because there is an abundance of street walls and buildings to paint on without fear of breaking the law. Her work has now been seen in countries like Denmark, Switzerland and here in the United States as she often works on canvas as well to recreate street art images.


Some of her most popular series’ are ‘Secret’, ‘Once Upon A Time’ and ‘Birds of No Nation’ which intertwine stories of women who are breaking free of oppression while searching for hope.

“I wanted to show the secret beneath the burqa, which is that there is a real person inside. I wanted to remove the restrictions on women and the guitar represents her ability to speak up and express herself. It is red because the color is used to draw attention to important things in Afghanistan,” said Shamsia about the image of the woman in purple holding a guitar from the ‘Secret’ series.

“Birds are constantly migrating to find food and shelter, they have no nationality because they find comfort in any safe place. I see this in the Afghan people as well, they are moving from country to country in search of peace and safety. It seems as if they have no nation like those birds. In this series, the woman is in a new area and she is feeling displaced because nothing is hers and so she does not fit in,” she said about the image from ‘Birds’.

“The title comes from the traditional way of telling a story. My tale is of a woman living in the past and present at once. This woman has tried to free herself from her unhappy situation and so she is sitting above it all, looking in from the outside. The city view is in black-and-white, representing the way that we see the past, while she is in full color and in the present,” she explained about the ‘Once Upon A Time’ series.


She hopes her images will continue to inspire people around the world and continue to get recognition, especially from a certain street artist.

“I would love to connect with the artist Banksy. I have used his work for some of my ‘Dreaming Graffiti’ work. There is a series that I call ‘Dreaming Graffiti in Collaboration with Banksy’. I like to use some of Banksy’s graffiti and then I paint my ‘Dreaming Graffiti’ behind his artwork. I hope to connect and collaborate together with him some day,” she said.

We love to see women using their talents to flip the script on a narrative about themselves that is mostly negative. While there are many areas in Afghani society that still need improving for women, the visibility of a powerful activist like Shamsia Hassani is going to impact many others in her community.

“Usually I am painting women with burqas in modernism shape on walls, I want to talk about their life, to find some way to remove them from darkness, to open their mind, to bring some positive changes, trying to remove all bad memories of war from everybody’s mind with covering sad city’s walls with happy colors,” she said in a statement to the Kabul Art Project.

You can see more of her story in the video below from a Kabul At Work TV news report:

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