An Afghan cartoonist, now a refugee, sheds light on the plight of women | News

When the Taliban returned to power in August 2021, thousands of Afghans fled the country fearing restrictions on freedoms. Cartoonist Sayed Muhammad Hussainy was one of them.

The 29-year-old artist, who has found refuge in Germany, said he feared the Taliban would attack him for cooperating with the previous Western-backed government of President Ashraf Ghani.

His sketches depicted women as confident, colorful and important roles in society: athletes, doctors, teachers, engineers and officers.

But Afghanistan’s new rulers don’t seem to see women through these lenses. Instead, they gradually push Afghan women out of public roles in society and deny them access to education.

The group said the crackdown came under its interpretation of Islamic law, despite being the only Islamic country to ban women from education. Most Muslim-majority countries have criticized the Taliban for imposing restrictions on women.

Before the Taliban takeover, Sayed’s art channeled Disney qualities, with imaginative characters beaming with infectious smiles and wide-eyed gazes. It would depict women with hope and a secure sense of purpose, often draped in the red, green and black colors of the Afghan flag adopted under the previous Western-backed government. The Taliban have adopted a new flag.

Now Sayed’s striking and unrelenting art is littered with muted faces staring blankly at the viewer as chaos swirls around them, rendered by heavy downpours of rain or menacing people engulfing the entire space.

“You can see the difference between my art before and after the Taliban took over,” Sayed said. “It’s like night and day.”

In one of the sketches he shared on his Instagram with more than 18,000 followers last April, several men circle a woman. With weapons in their hands, they forcefully place the veil on her. Their muted tones are in sharp contrast with the bright colors and shades of the woman. She is sad, but her grip on the books is strong and unwavering.

Sayed, who drew the picture from an unknown location in Afghanistan knowing full well that his life was in danger because of his actions, knows that his crude images could make viewers uncomfortable. But he says his duty is to help amplify the voices of those fighting for women’s rights and freedom of education in Afghanistan.

An Afghan cartoonist uses his talents to improve the position of women at home
[Courtesy: Sayed Muhammad Hussainy]

The art also reflects Sayed’s internal struggles facing the reality of what people in Afghanistan are going through today, which includes rising levels of poverty and food insecurity.

“I feel the pain and hurt of my country and I try to portray those emotions in my art,” he said.

Despite the overwhelming sense of hopelessness in Sayed’s drawing, he said women in Afghanistan are heroines who have the strength of resilience and perseverance.

“I want to amplify the voices of Afghan women, I want to show the truth about what is happening to women in my country,” said Sayed.

Traveling through Afghanistan in search of passion

Sayed discovered art at a young age as an outlet to silence the frenzied noise around him from the daily violence and the discovery that friends and family were affected. More than 240,000 people were killed during 20 years of US-led war and occupation. The Taliban, who have led an armed insurgency, have also been blamed for attacks on civilians.

“It’s hard to be a child in Afghanistan,” said Sayed. “You don’t have the same rights and freedoms as other children from around the world.”

What started as a hobby soon became a passion that would take up most of his days. He left his native Sar-e Pul province in northern Afghanistan to research a digital art course in neighboring Balkh province in 2014.

However, his hunger went beyond the course, he often looked at the drawings of famous comic book artists like Clay Mann to study dynamic poses. YouTube tutorials from digital artists such as Ross Tran and Sam Yang have also helped Sayed hone his skills when it comes to painting techniques.

After completing the course, Sayed traveled to the capital, Kabul, where his art attracted the attention of government ministries.

The night Kabul fell

Sayed’s first digital poster was commissioned by the Press Directorate of the Presidential Palace in 2019 as part of a campaign to condemn violence against women in Afghanistan.

While Sayed had more work to do portraying Afghan women in secure positions of power, the Taliban were making their way towards Kabul.

Sayed vividly remembered the night the Taliban captured the presidential palace, as he worked nearby.

An Afghan cartoonist uses his talents to improve the position of women at home
[Courtesy: Sayed Muhammad Hussainy]

“It was horrible, when I came out of the presidential area everyone was running and screaming, it was like a horror movie,” said Sayed. “It was like zombies had come to town.”

With the sounds of gunfire and chaos around him, Sayed managed to flee the scene. It took him four hours to get home that night.

In the days that followed, Sayed’s family moved locations while he deleted personal images from his social media accounts.

A friend who was detained by the Taliban told Sayed that they saw his art on his phone and asked who drew the pictures. Because he worked closely with the government, Sayed believed he would be targeted by the Taliban.

“I hid, I cried every day for three weeks,” says Sayed. “I could not believe what happened to my country”.

Sayed tried to leave Afghanistan for more than a year, fearing retaliation from the Taliban, and even desperately contacted human traffickers who offered to smuggle him to Iran without a visa. Last September, he finally managed to enter neighboring Pakistan, from where he reached Germany.

Renewed artistic purpose

Since arriving in Berlin, Germany as a refugee five months ago, Sayed said he draws about four hours a day to hold an online dialogue about women’s rights in Afghanistan. He often posted using the hashtags #LetAfghanGirlslearn or #DontforgetAfghanistan.

“I used to draw my art to get the attention of people living outside Afghanistan,” said Sayed. “Now I draw to give hope to Afghans as well.”

Although Sayed said his mind is calmer these days as he adjusts to his new surroundings, he still stays awake at night thinking about friends and family still in Afghanistan.

“In Afghanistan, under the current government, it’s okay for women to beg on the street late at night, but it’s not okay for women to go to school or college,” Sayed said.

“This reality is so shocking to me. I cannot remain silent.”

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