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Interview with Rada Akbar: “We Have Lost our Future in Afghanistan”

Rada Akbar 8M
Photo: Collage with photographs by the artist Rada Akbar.

On International Women's Day, 8 March, Rada Akbar will speak in Barcelona on 'Voices of Strength and Resilience: Celebrating Afghan Superwomen', at the invitation of the ISGlobal Equity and Gender and Commission. Her exhibition Invisible captivity is currently open to visitors at the Imaginart gallery until 31 March.


She identifies as an artist, activist, and feminist, heir to millennia of powerful women, queens, poetesses, warriors, and liberators, those she calls her sacred roots. Rada Akbar (Kabul, 1988) is no pushover. Even as she listens attentively to the questions during the interview, she exudes a rare serenity for a woman in her early 30. We were connected by videoconference, and she appears silhouetted against the white wall of a room. The simplicity of the scene only underlines the strength and calmness that characterise her. In 2021, she was named by the BBC as one of the 100 most influential women in the world.

-What was your life like in Afghanistan in 2021?

-Normal. There was insecurity and uncertainty in the atmosphere, especially because of the peace process, but at the same time, everyone was focused on their work. I was living in Kabul and was very busy with my second Superwomen (or Abarzanan) exhibition, to commemorate International Women's Day, and working on setting up the Women's History Museum in Afghanistan. I had just met with the former president to ask for a site for the museum.

-Did you imagine the situation would go so wrong?

-We knew that the peace process was not going to end positively because the Afghans weren't involved, the women weren't involved, the victims weren't involved. The government wasn't even involved at the beginning of the process, but we still couldn't believe that the United States was going to give up on Afghanistan. It was an extraordinary betrayal.


Photographs by Rada Akbar for the exhibition 'Invisible captivity'.

Afghanistan's women, beyond the cliché

-Is that still an open wound?

-Of course! We have lost so much! Much more than people can imagine, because it's not just our houses, our jobs... we have lost our future. For almost a year and a half now, millions of girls have not been able to go to school. And things are getting worse. But even if they were to get better, the damage inflicted is already irreversible.

-What is our image of Afghanistan?

-People are not very well informed about Afghanistan. There are a lot of stereotypes. When the Americans and NATO invaded the country, one of the main points of their agenda was to save Afghan women, and all these years the image of Afghan women has been that of victims. But Afghanistan has 5000 years of history. Afghan women were given the right to vote one year before American women, and only one year after British women.

-It's not justWestern” women who know and talk about rights... It's universal.

-I have seen women in very rural areas of Afghanistan with an incredibly free spirit! They knew what they wanted. They had big dreams. About twenty years ago, there was a generation of women who lost their basic rights, who were not allowed to work or study by the Taliban regime. They became victims. But all these women wanted their daughters to be educated. Not because they were told to by Americans, Westerners, or anyone else, but because they knew! They knew they wanted a better life for their daughters. They wanted them to be independent.

-Your mother wanted you to be independent? And your father?

-Both of them! They wanted their daughters to be economically independent, to speak for ourselves and also for other people who cannot speak for themselves, they wanted us to fight for human rights. The wars we have suffered have never been our wars. There was a war between Americans and Russians, and another war between Americans and Saudis, Pakistanis and Iranians. We have suffered and lost much.


Photographs by Rada Akbar for the exhibition 'Invisible captivity'.

Being a refugee: survivor's guilt

-Are you in contact with women who are still in Afghanistan?

-Yes, and it's heartbreaking for me because we refugees live with survivor's guilt. We don't have a perfect life, we have to adapt as quickly as possible, resettle without having had the time to process what has happened, but we are still alive and free. I can raise my voice and create new opportunities for myself through my artwork. But the women and girls of Afghanistan are deprived of their most basic human rights, and there is nothing we can do about it. It is heartbreaking.

-How has this experience of being ‘torn away’ changed you in this year and a half? And how has it changed your art?

-I try to include in my work what I am experiencing as an exile. For example, how I'm losing my own language, which I hardly use anymore. On the other hand, in my country, I worked as a photographer for a living and could be more independent as an artist, and I had the support of my family and friends. Here it is different. Some professionals tell me that my work is very good for museums but that it is not easy to sell, and that I have to think about surviving as an artist. I know that's what every artist has to do, but for me it's new: do I have to make my human rights art commercial? Because I don't want to give up the raison d'être of my art.

-Why did you choose human rights as the focus of your artwork?

-Living in a society where you are discriminated against every day just for being a woman has always been exhausting and I want to talk about it and make changes. For me, art is a tool that allows me to talk about all these issues and makes it easier to address taboos.

What we can do for the women of Afghanistan

-How do we react to your work in the West?

-I see that people are moved and interested by it, but some people also find it too dark and intense. They say they need something lighter. But this is what I can show and what I have to show, because this is what is literally lived in Afghanistan. Real life is even worse, getting worse every day.

-What can we do to help Afghan women?

-Everyone should look at the situation in Afghanistan and take it very seriously. We are talking about almost 40 million people held hostage by the Taliban. There are women prisoners in their homes. We have to ask ourselves: what will happen? How will this affect the rest of the world? Because if this happens in Afghanistan, it can happen elsewhere. Maybe not now, but later. We have a responsibility to question politicians and hold them accountable.