Fatimah Hossaini

Migrant and refugee rights. Women’s rights.
Mastoorat Art

Fatimah Hossaini is an Afghan-Iranian artist and photographer who has been a refugee in Paris since August 2021, when the Taliban took over Afghanistan. Her family, of Afghan origin, had to flee to Iran during the eighties, due to the Afghan-Soviet war. She was born and raised in Tehran, but in 2013 she decided to return to Afghanistan. Since then, her life was divided between Kabul and Tehran. Although she studied industrial engineering, she soon knew she wanted to work in the art world. Of this decision, she explains: “At home, my parents always wanted me to study engineering, it was their dream, so I decided to do it. I was good at maths at school and I enrolled in engineering industrial. However, I was always very interested in the world of art. As a teenager I really liked to paint and art was a part of my life, but I never thought that I could do it, or at least, the way I’m doing it now. But that wasn’t the case, and I soon realized that I couldn’t continue studying engineering.” It was then that Fatimah Hossaini applied for a scholarship to study photography at the University of Tehran and was granted it. Despite the initial opposition from her environment, she was able to develop in this area.

During the years she lived in Afghanistan, apart from carrying out his artistic projects, she taught at the University of Kabul. Her photographs have appeared in exhibitions around the world and in several international media such as BBC, The Guardian or Al Jazeera. In 2019 she founded Mastoorat Art, a non-profit organization that works for women, youth and peace with the aim of empowering women through art and photography and bringing art to all people regardless of the field in which they work.

2001-2021: twenty years of war

After the attack on the twin towers in New York (2001), the United States decided to invade Afghanistan in order to bring down the regime of the Taliban (which had risen to power in 1996), at that time tied intimately with Al-Qaeda and Bin Laden, intellectual author of the attacks. The result was twenty years of war with thousands of people dead both from the fighting (an estimated 241,000 people died) and from the resulting famine and disease.

To understand the devastation of the country, however, we have to go back to 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded it. At that time the United States supported the Mujahideen and the USSR had to leave the country in 1989. However, the civil war continued until 1996, when the Taliban finally came to power and established a government based on their interpretation of sharia, Islamic law. They were dark years, especially for women, who were restricted in all their freedoms. Images of women covered in burqas were disseminated around world. In 2001, the Central Asian country was again invaded, this time by the United States, led by the administration of George W. Bush. The United States was able to control Kabul, the capital of the country, but in the rest of the country the situation changed little.

The return to power of the Taliban and the loss of freedom for Afghan women

In the summer of 2021, international troops left Afghanistan for good and the Taliban returned to power. Since then, the situation in the country has been deteriorating day by day, especially the situation of young people and women, who now are not allowed to study beyond the age of 12. They can’t go to high school or college. They have also been prohibited from exercising certain professions, going to the doctor alone or to parks and gardens, driving or traveling alone. The obligation to wear the burqa has been reinstated. And, although in August 2021 – when the Taliban returned to power – they said that women would continue to be part of Afghan social life, the reality has nothing to do with it.

It is not only women’s lives that have deteriorated: since the Taliban took power, both men and women who have dared to speak out against the regime have been systematically tortured and executed. The media have had to stop publishing and international NGOs have had to leave the country.

Humanitarian crisis

Due to the war, the Taliban’s return to power and a series of climatic circumstances, the country is experiencing a humanitarian crisis with thousands of displaced people. The Afghan population is one of the largest refugee populations in the world. Three quarters of Afghan refugees have been hosted by Iran and Pakistan. In these two countries there are about two million refugees, according to UNHCR. It is estimated that there are 3.4 million internally displaced people in a country of about 40 million inhabitants. In the summer of 2021, Afghanistan experienced one of the worst droughts of the last decades, which caused a humanitarian crisis whose consequences still linger. Approximately 95% of the people of Afghanistan suffer from food insecurity and malnutrition problems. To this situation must be added the blocking of international aid, which has caused the collapse of an already weakened economy.

Interview with Fatimah Hossaini

One of the most popular photo projects that you have undertaken and are trying to continue in France revolves around Afghan women dressed in traditional Afghanistan clothing. You say that it is very important to portray these women from another dimension than the usual one, the one that the media show us and which is always the same: with the burqa. You say this is the Afghanistan of the Taliban, not the real Afghanistan.

Exactly. That was always my idea. At home I always listened to the stories my parents and grandparents told me about this other Afghanistan. Ever since I first went there in 2013, I could see the endurance, resilience and beauty of these women. When looking for information about Afghan women, you only find what the media says about them; and it is always very dark information. I never agreed with it and decided to change it.

Give another perspective on the life of Afghan women.

Women are always at the center of my work. When talking about areas that are in conflict, women are always the least considered. They are underestimated, they and their life. And this is the reason why I wanted to put them in the center, but not from the cliché and from the darkness, but highlighting their beauty, their colors and their resilience.

Who was the first woman you photographed?

My sisters! But that was before I started the project, because I found that what I saw through my mother and my sisters was totally different from what was explained.

You have been a refugee in Paris since the Taliban returned to power in August 2021. Were you able to continue the project?

I would like to, but it is not easy. I had to leave Kabul on August 21, 2021, five days after the Taliban took over the city; so I couldn’t finish the project. Here, in exile, it’s getting complicated because I’ve lost my sources and disconnected from the inspiration I need to carry out the project. Now I focus on my journey before I leave Afghanistan, in exile. My grandparents had to go into exile, my parents too, me too. Although I never imagined I would have to leave my home the way my grandparents did. But this is the reality of my life at the moment; and I think I need to give him an answer. My artistic work now goes with this new wave.

You had a visa to go to the United States, but at the last minute you decided to go to France. Why?

The experience of having to leave Kabul and the fall of the city is very fresh in my memory and still hurts. It’s been two years since all of this. To be honest, I have to say that I felt betrayed by the United States, and I know it’s not just me: all Afghans feel this way. The day I decided to leave, I was in shock, but I was clear that I did not want to fly to the United States, even though I had a visa because I had an exhibition planned in September in New York. I joined the line of people marching to the United States, but then I began to notice how the American troops were behaving. The media didn’t talk about it, but I saw the behavior of Americans with people who had lost their homes. I could not believe it; and I didn’t want to go to a country that had betrayed us. I looked to join one of the ranks of the European countries. The authorities were calling: Italy, Great Britain, Germany… There were a lot of people. The French troops were marching and I called them and went that way. France evacuated French journalists and artists and that’s how I got to Paris.

How have these two years been in France?

Complicated; and they still are. It is not easy to be far from your roots, from the smells of your city, from the people you love. Then there is the whole psychological process: I never would have imagined that after two decades of democracy in Afghanistan this would happen. I had high hopes for the future of this country. I still can’t believe I left my house with a backpack on my back and in a military plane. I still struggle with this thought and try to survive it and not lose myself. I am also happy here because both France and Paris are treating me very well.


I am a person who has lost everything; and this country has not only saved my life, it has also saved my voice. I have been offered the best art residency in France and I have a studio in the heart of Paris. During this time I have had the opportunity to exhibit both in France and in the rest of Europe. I’ve also met some amazing people. But the feelings are contradictory: because my heart still hurts.

What was life like in Afghanistan before the Taliban came back?

Life was not perfect, but the new generations were doing things that were very good. In Kabul there were cafes, social gatherings, institutes to meet and talk about politics and many other topics. We women could do that. I was teaching at Kabul University and was in contact with the female students. In my classes no one wore the veil. Without being able to compare with Europe, however, in our context, we were experiencing freedom. Many people from the diaspora had returned and there was hope. Obviously, there were also security issues; but we had a life.

Were your entourage also able to leave?

The vast majority of friends and family do, but I know students of mine and some journalists who are still there.

Do you think you will be able to return soon?

I don’t know. Some countries have recognized the Taliban regime. In fact, they have even opened embassies in some countries, such as Italy. Then, no; I have no hope at the moment. In addition, the Taliban of today are not the Taliban of twenty years ago. They know more; they have social networks and know how to communicate. They also have access to all the country’s data and technology that the US left there. It is complicated to make predictions; what I do know is that I will not live under their regime, under the regime of a terrorist group that has killed my relatives, friends and students; a regime that has erased Afghan culture and that has erased the country. Also, if we look at the statistics, one thing is clear: in most cases, people who go into exile never return to their country. And the Afghanistan I lived in has nothing to do with Afghanistan today.

Maybe if things change…

When I see that my life and the lives of other women are not in danger, I will go back.

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