The Burqa Issue. OF NOTE Magazine. 2016 The Burqa Issue. OF NOTE magazine. 2016 - Page 64

I recently had the pleasure of spending a day with Afghan artist Hangama Amiri. We spoke at length about how she uses the burqa as a symbol of invisibility in her paintings and video installations, and also of her mission to tell the stories of the women of Afghanistan — starting with her mother. With her artwork, Amiri aims to bring attention to the violent oppression of women in Afghanistan and provoke social reform within her country. Amiri was born in Kabul in 1990. Because of threats from the Taliban, her family was forced to flee as refugees when she was seven years old. In 2005, Amiri, her mother, two brothers, sister, and later father were all granted residency in Nova Scotia, Canada where they are now based. In the past eighteen years, Amiri’s journey has led her from Afghanistan, to Pakistan, to Tajikistan, to Canada, and to the United States. Now, at twenty- five years old, she is a Canadian Fulbright Fellow at Yale University doing independent research on the subject of war, women, and Afghan heroines. In October, I attended a three-day symposium in NYC called Distant Attachments: Unsettling Contemporary Afghan Diasporic Art. At the event, Amiri screened her video installation My Motherland where I witnessed the impact that the work had on the audience. Several men commented on feeling the sadness of the woman’s isolation, while others empathized with the woman in the burqa and were outraged by her situation. Following is the story Amiri shared with me, about how the women in her family inform her art practice, her relationship with the burqa and its role in her artwork, and the importance of using her childhood memories from Afghanistan in her artistic process. W hen the Taliban came to Kabul in 1996, my mother stopped teaching and was forced to wear the Afghan chadori (chadri). It is the same as a burqa, but we call it a chadori or paranja in Central Asia. The chadori was considered a symbol of modesty and faith, and the Taliban required all teenage girls and women to wear it. My mother has six sisters, so I grew up around a lot of women. They all hated wearing the chadori. They said that it was difficult to see through the eye grids and that it was cumbersome to move around in it without tripping over the cloth. They also complained that it was really hot inside the chadori. In my artwork, I address issues of women’s bodies and identity. My work is not about the chadori. But I find that the chadori is a useful symbol to show the invisibility of women in Afghan society and their lack of power to make decisions about their own lives. In my work, the chadori is never positive. I remember the morning in 1997 when my family fled Afghanistan. We gathered a few of our belongings and very quietly left. We walked and walked. We took busses and got lifts in trucks. When we finally got to the southern border crossing to Pakistan near Kandahar, an old fruit seller told me to cover my head and body. She explained that I should try to look poor and dirty. I didn’t have a chadori. I was too small; I could never walk in that much fabric. So I took one of my mother’s white scarves and put it on the dusty earth. I remember that it was really exciting to stomp on the scarf and make it as dirty as possible. Then I wrapped my whole body and head up in the scarf and we passed through the border checkpoints without any problems. 64 OF NOTE Hope (2011) from the series, “The Wind-Up Dolls of Kabul.” Courtesy of the artist. I think of the fruit seller’s advice whenever I go back to Afghanistan. I try to look modest. It is still provocative for Muslim women to look too flashy or confident there. When I am in Afghanistan, I wear a hijab, or simple headscarf. For me, it is a question of safety. In 2010, I traveled with my family to Afghanistan for six months to visit relatives. This was the first time we had been back. I was twenty years old and studying art in Canada at NSCAD. I was excited, but the trip felt dangerous at the same time. While there, I spoke with different women about their experiences under Taliban rule and heard their stories of desperation and survival. As we talked, I did a lot of sketching. My sketches were a visual way of taking notes and recording the strong feelings and impressions that were overwhelming me. I wasn’t prepared for the flood of childhood memories I experienced. When I returned to Canada, I wanted to make paintings that showed what life is like for women in Afghanistan. I called the series of six paintings The Wind-Up Dolls of Kabul — a reference to my childhood memories of Afghanistan. When my sister and I were young we didn’t have any fancy toys, so we made dolls to play with from sticks and fabric. We always started out with two sticks, one a bit longer than the other. Then we bound the sticks together in a cross by winding string or fabric around them. We also made heads for the dolls and clothes that we pinned on to them. We called them our ‘wind-up dolls.’ I was inspired by six particular women who shared their stories with me, so I painted one painting 65 OF NOTE