Afghan tattoo artist championing women's empowerment

25 Nov 2020, 11:47

  By Baber Khan Sahel, EFE-EPA

Suraya Shahidi, a 27-year-old Afghan tattoo artist, attends to a client at her house in Kabul, Afghanistan, 27 September 2020. File Photo: EPA-EFE by HEDAYATULLAH AMID.

Suraya Shahidi, 27, works as a tattoo artist in Afghanistan, the first female to do so in the conservative Muslim country where the practice is limited to a few men in urban areas, while the majority consider it prohibited under Islam.

Tattooing has gained prominence among the younger generation since the arrival of foreign troops and nonprofits in the country after the United States' invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 that led to the overthrowing of the hardline and orthodox Taliban regime.

"Tattooing practice is on the rise among Afghans, particularly the young generation," Shahidi told EFE, referring to those who grew up under new values and practices during the last two decades, particularly those who worked with foreign organizations or visited foreign countries.

Unlike other tattoo artists, Shahidi comfortably interacts with all clients irrespective of gender in a country where, as per social norms, women are expected to avoid coming in close proximity to unrelated males, let aside touch a man's body.

"I receive hundreds of appointment requests whenever I post my new designs on my Instagram account," said Shahidi, who has been doing her marketing and advertising online since turning professional two years ago, after learning her craft in Iran and Turkey.

Despite the rising popularity, tattooing is still limited to only a few big cities and is still something strange for most Afghans, who view it as strange and prohibited by Islamic law.

The older conservative sections "hate tattooing as much as the girls and boys love it," said Shahidi, adding that while there have been calls for tattoo artists to stop plying their trade, Islam and Afghan culture has never prohibited the art.

"You can never find a book or reference in Islam or in Afghan culture saying tattoo is prohibited," stressed Shahidi, who claimed to have done extensive research on the subject.

She believes tattoo to be the modern and upgraded version of Khal-Kobi, an age-old Afghan tradition in which women decorate their faces with small dots on the chin, cheek or forehead, by inserting plant-based green dye under the skin using sewing needles.

Today, the youth are using tattoos as a means for self expression, and even to impress their loved ones.

"Most of them ask to draw the first letter of their loved one on their bodies, while others ask for tattoo designs such as wolf, dragons, hearts and butterflies, mostly on their hands and arms," said Shahidi.

Lila Ahmadi, 25, who got the first letter of her boyfriend, now fiance, tattooed on her left hand, told EFE that for her it was "something special" as it was "the symbol of my love" and made her feel proud when among her friends.

For the conservative sections, the work of a female tattoo artist stands out even more, given the patriarchal and male-dominated nature of Afghan society, where in most rural areas, women are still not allowed to leave home without a "burqa" or veil.

Currently, even though females account for nearly 40 percent of the nine million children in schools, millions of girls are still deprived of education and personal freedoms due to conservative social mores.

Shahidi reflected that Afghan society, particularly the status of women, has changed in recent years with the breaking the taboos, as more women have access to education, and a large number of them work outside their homes and even hold top government posts.

Many of them are now accustomed to new values and lifestyles that include driving, singing, taking part in sports, eating out and tattooing their skin, something unimaginable under the Taliban in the 1990s, when women were deprived of all liberties and confined to their houses.

The tattoo artist said her work was an effort to bring a "change in society" and that there were still many taboos that prevented the progress of women and their empowerment, and against which they needed to stand firm and fearless.

"I have not seen even a single girl ride a motorcycle freely on the streets in Kabul, but I am riding my motorcycle on streets without being scared of anything. So I am trying to do something new and to break those taboos, which prevent girls from enjoying their liberties," Shahidi underlined.

She also said she received many threats and negative comments on social media but that did not deter her, as she prepared to open a new shop in a Hazara neighborhood in Kabul, frequently targeted by Islamic State militants in recent years.

"I am not scared of the security threats, this is our country and we should try to work for a positive change," stressed Shahidi.