Art in exile: Afghani Sara Nabil fights for women’s rights

What is politics and what is art can hardly be separated in the works of Sara Nabil. The Afghan artist – who now lives in Germany – processes her own experience of oppression, escape and search for identity in her work. Through photographs and performances, she describes how women in Afghanistan are victims of systematic oppression. She also explores ways to regain control of their identity.

For the new exhibition at the Kunsthalle in Mannheim, Sara Nabil deploys an artistic radicalism that she has never seen before: in a performance before the start of the exhibition, the artist has completely cut off her long black hair in front of an audience.

She cut and cut before finally shaving off the last bits. This artistic protest was a way for Nabil to show how the female body in Afghanistan has increasingly become the site of political ideologies, cultural conflicts and power struggles, especially as the Taliban have regained power l ‘last summer. There, such a public staging of female corporeality is taboo.

Women’s rights in Afghanistan

For Sara Nabil, art is an act of self-liberation. “In Afghanistan, we have an Islamic and patriarchal society. Because of my identity as a woman, I have always been oppressed,” she told DW. “By cutting my hair, I regain freedom over my body. I am going against the rules, laws and regulations imposed on me as an Afghan woman by religion, society and the government. “

READ ALSO | No travel for Afghan women unless accompanied by a male relative: Taliban

During the performance, she called on the audience to donate their own hair, as a show of solidarity with women in Afghanistan and those who have suffered the same fate.

The Kunsthalle Mannheim performance was filmed by three different artists, with the various videos incorporated into the exhibition, as well as Nabil’s hair.

“What is important in Sara Nabil’s work is that there is an option for action in art, which is a way to claim freedom over one’s own body,” said the curator of the Christina Bergemann exhibition at DW.

Nabil witnessed a suicide attack in Kabul and fled

Sara Nabil was born in 1994 in Kabul, the Afghan capital, and went to school after the overthrow of the Taliban regime in 2001.

As a teenager, she began studying modern art at the Center for Contemporary Arts Afghanistan (CCAA). In 2008, she participated in an exhibition also presented in Germany.

She then studied political science at Karwan University in Kabul from 2013. Even then, as a women’s rights activist and artist, she was threatened by the Taliban. In December 2014, she witnessed a suicide bombing at university.

A man blew himself up in front of her. For Nabil, it was a turning point: “This time I survived, but next time I will die”, she remembers thinking.

Shortly after, in February 2015, she took advantage of an invitation to a student conference in the Netherlands to apply for political asylum in Germany. Since 2016 she has been studying art at the Hochschule für Gestaltung (University of Art and Design) in Offenbach.

Opening the dialogue through art

Since she was able to obtain a visa, her escape differs from the flight of many other people from their home countries, Nabil said. But she shares the experience of exile with millions of people who are persecuted because of their religion or their political position.

She still has not accepted her escape, says the young artist, adding that she has the feeling of living between two worlds. She also continually asks herself: how will my art be received in Afghanistan? She says she is not always understood there.

Some things seem shocking to Afghan society, she said. “But that’s what I want. I want to say something strong that makes a difference and opens up new dialogues.”

Sara Nabil also broadcasts her message via social networks.

On Instagram, she posted a video outside the United Nations headquarters in Geneva on March 8 to mark International Women’s Day. In it, she screams into the camera for a good two and a half minutes, visibly tensing up at the end. “It is a cry for survival, resistance, equality and liberation from all social and political shackles,” Nabil wrote in the post.

Appalled by the destruction of the artistic sphere in Afghanistan

“It’s very painful for me that the art isn’t happening right now in Afghanistan,” the artist told DW. Everything that has been created in the field of art over the past 20 years has been destroyed by the Taliban, she says.

For example, graffiti in public spaces has been covered with phrases from the Quran. At the National Institute of Music in Afghanistan, the Taliban destroyed instruments and arrested artists. Friends of Sara Nabil were also arrested. Her family had to flee to Germany after being threatened by the Taliban due to Sara’s activism.

It’s scary how women and girls are stripped of their identity, says Nabil. She deals with this subject in her series of photos “Power”, exhibited at the Kunsthalle Mannheim. The black and white photographs focus on a veiled person beyond recognition.

“Sara Nabil uses various, partly fictitious, forms of the full veil to show that the Taliban deliberately use rules of dress and behavior to oppress women and girls in their fundamentalist interpretation of sharia law,” explains Christina Bergemann, commissioner of the exposure.

Advocacy for girls’ and women’s education

Nabil said the veil prevents women from being able to both perceive and properly shape their surroundings. Thus, they would be more or less excluded from the public domain.

Nabil does not aim to criticize the headscarf or those who decide to cover their hair. However, she denounces the oppressive mechanism of the full veil and the power structures associated with it.

The last image of his “Power” photo series is completely black; you can’t see anything. “That’s what the Taliban envision for women. Women have completely disappeared,” says Nabil.

Nabil’s work extends well beyond art. To help girls in Afghanistan in a meaningful way, she founded an online program for schoolgirls called E-School Afghanistan. With this program, she wants to ensure that at least some Afghan girls receive an education. The Taliban banned girls from going to school beyond sixth grade, despite announcements to the contrary when they took over the country.

The “Sara Nabil” exhibition runs until August 28, 2022 at the Kunsthalle Mannheim and is open to the public free of charge.