Empowering Afghan women: How art became beacon of hope amidst adversity

Picture source - Reuters
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In the northern expanses of Afghanistan, 19-year-old Khushi has found solace within the sanctuary of her home. Armed with a pencil, she sketches a poignant self-portrait, depicting an enigmatic figure shrouded in a cerulean burqa, symbolizing both resilience and confinement.

In earlier times, Khushi diligently pursued studies in law and political science at a prominent university in the northern Balkh province. However, her aspirations were dashed when a Taliban decree last December halted women’s access to higher education. This unexpected blow plunged her into despair, prompting her to seek help. Psychological therapy led her towards art as a therapeutic outlet.

Using the pseudonym Khushi for safety, she shared, “Realizing the depth of my mental anguish left me profoundly disheartened… I felt trapped in perpetual sadness, like a bird ensnared in an invisible cage, stripped of its joy.”

“The Taliban’s decree, cutting off women from education and derailing our academic journeys, filled me with profound sorrow. With each passing day, my mental well-being eroded, until I sought the guidance of a psychiatrist in search of healing,” Khushi revealed.

Her experience resonates with countless Afghan women who grappled with the edict to shelve their dreams, triggering a rare public outcry in 2022.

This decision, coupled with the closure of girls’ secondary schools, further restricted the majority of female humanitarian workers from their vocations.

These stringent measures, confining women to a realm of isolation, have garnered international criticism. While the Taliban claims to uphold women’s rights according to their interpretation of Islamic law and Afghan tradition, a profound disillusionment pervades women’s lives, particularly in urban areas where education and employment opportunities blossomed during the presence of foreign forces and a Western-backed government.

Both Afghan women and mental health professionals acknowledge a prevailing sense of despair and psychological struggles among these women, overshadowing their newfound freedoms.

“Since the rise of the Islamic Emirate, women have been subjected to a range of constraints, barring them from universities, leisure spaces, and beauty establishments, essentially curtailing their existence,” noted Khushi’s anonymous psychiatrist, citing art studios as a sanctuary where girls can unravel their thoughts, connect with kindred spirits, and nurture their artistic talents.

Bi-monthly visits to her psychiatrist have become a ritual for Khushi, whose therapist now encounters more patients, predominantly women, due to the Taliban’s ban on female higher education.

Health organizations estimate that half of Afghanistan’s 40 million inhabitants have grappled with psychological distress, a consequence of enduring decades of conflict and instability.

In Mazar-i-Sharif, the capital of Balkh province, an art studio serves as a haven for young women like Khushi. Paintings on the walls attest to the healing power of creative expression.

Guided by mental health experts, many women seek refuge here from isolation, gaining a new skill alongside conventional therapy and medication.

“When despair tightened its grip, my doctor advised me to find solace in an environment that fosters serenity. I chose the art studio. Here, I not only formed deep connections but also embraced the healing potential of art therapy,” shared a former university student with gratitude.

For Khushi, art therapy has become a lifeline, offering an escape from home confinement and a glimpse of hope. “Each pencil stroke reaffirms my sense of accomplishment; above all, drawing empowers me with newfound confidence,” she affirmed.

Amidst disappointment, Khushi remains undeterred, a resilient fighter who holds onto the belief in brighter days ahead.