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Fatimah Hossaini - Finding beauty and resilience through war and exile

Forced into exile when the Taliban took over Afghanistan in the summer of 2021, Afghan photographer Fatimah Hossaini continues her work from the Cité international des Arts in Paris. Beauty amid war is the title of her photobook, but also the mission she set for herself. As an artist and a woman activist, she seeks to capture the beauty, the resilience and the hopes of Afghan women.

Interview by Amélie Rives


A quest for identity

Her story is one of exile and migration. Fatimah Hossaini was born in Iran, in an Afghan family who escaped their home country two generations before under the Soviet regime. She was raised in a country that never recognized her as one of its citizens, while carrying the passport of a country she didn’t know. In 2013, aged 20, she visited Afghanistan for the first time “to answer an identity crisis”. She went back in 2015, the same year she finished her Bachelor in Industrial Engineering and enrolled in a degree in Photography at the University of Tehran, finally embracing the career she had always dreamt of. This is when her first photo projects took shape. In The one who is me, the one who is not me, she portrays herself wearing a Burqa in the streets of Mashad to question identity and stereotypes. In Modern Bondage, she uses the Burqa again to question the role and place of women in the Iranian society. “Identity, migration and gender are the three most important themes of my work, because they have been the main challenges of my life.” When she graduated in 2018, she moved to Afghanistan to pursue her quest for identity and to develop her art. She taught Arts at the University of Kabul, contributing to the development of what was then a thriving and vibrant artistic scene. From very early on, she also dedicated herself to advancing women in Arts and encouraging female artists in Afghanistan. She created Mastooraat, an organisation dedicated to support them through scholarships, workshops, art and peace summits, exhibitions…

Revealing beauty amid war

She also used her art as a medium to tell the stories of Afghan women. “I wanted to show something different about Afghan women. They are so much more than just victims: they are so strong, so resilient, and they have achieved so much in the past twenty years. Living among them in Kabul, I could see the many beautiful stories that were never reported in the media. This is when I came up with this idea to showcase their resilience and their beauty”. Rather than opposing the restrictions, the bans, the discriminations and the social stigmatization, she sought to commend the courage, the strength and the femininity of the women of Afghanistan. In Burqa behind the steering wheel (2015-2016), captured with Afghan actress and film maker Samreh Rezaie, she portrays a woman who “breaks the taboos, comes out of the shadow, and lives the life she wants”: driving her car, bare face, smoking. She also finds beauty in the cultural diversity that these women pass on from generation to generation through their traditions and exclusive clothing. She portrays them in The Pearl in the oyster (2018-2021), where she photographed women of different ethnicities wearing traditional clothing in symbolic places. An inspiring but risky endeavor that took her from the bazars of Kabul to the mountains of Bamiyan and the streets of Herat, to pay tribute to the rich and diverse culture of her country.

Coping with exile

“And then 15 August 2021 happened. The Taliban took over Kaboul. I left 5 days later with a US military aircraft that took me to Dubai, and from there an Air France flight brought me to Paris. This was a very dark and painful episode of my journey. What happened to my grandparents happened to me too. And I am in exile, again, and I cannot go back to my home country, again…” Leaving her photo project behind was among the most heartbreaking consequences. She tries to continue working with her students in Kabul remotely through Mastooraat, but it is getting more challenging each day. “Arts need free souls. Today, people are too busy trying to meet basic needs and facing restrictions. There is no inspiration, no materials. In war zones, Arts rarely are a priority.” She also intended to finish The Pearl in the Oyster from Paris, “but it is hard to continue. There is no more beauty, no more freedom, no more of this bright image I wanted to show. And all of these women have left Afghanistan now.” And so she looked for beauty, hope and resilience among 4 renown women artists who, like her, fled Afghanistan in 2021 to continue their work in exile. Cannes’ Jury Prize Award winner Agheleh Rezaie, actress Yasamin Yarmal, actress and painter Atefer Amini, and whirling Darvish and dancer Fahima Mirzaie are all portrayed in An elegy for a miracle, wearing their traditional Afghan dresses as a way to keep their culture alive far from home. 

Fighting clichés and stereotypes

Coming to France also made her question her approach. “It made me sad, and more pessimistic too. You cannot ignore the suffering of course, but the Western look is so dark, it is mostly about victimization. I didn’t realize how much until I came here.” To contribute to change the way Western media portrayed Afghan women, she took part in the Time Magazine’s “Far from home” photo project in 2022, with a team of female journalists and photographers. “While the Taliban takeover spelled the end of two decades of freedoms for the Afghan women, the aim of this project was to show the resilience and resolution of these women who escaped the Taliban rule to start anew abroad.” Among others, Fatimah tells the story of Batool Haidari, a psychologist and sex therapist who used to work with women and the Afghan LGBTQI community. After escaping to Iran in 2021, she traveled back to Kandahar to retrieve her Ph.D. research, her proudest achievement. She stayed on to organize protests against the Taliban regime before she had to escape again to Italy.

Despite these beautiful stories, Fatimah finds it difficult to remain optimistic. “In the first weeks after the takeover I was still hopeful, but in fact we all knew what was awaiting Afghan women. There is nothing to negotiate with the Taliban, they only speak with their guns. But being here gives me a change to continue to talk and to share the stories of the women of Afghanistan. It is the only thing I can do today.” Deprived of her sources of inspiration in Afghanistan, she embarked on a new project to document the history of textile on the silk road and that of all the woman behind it. The Tadjik, Kazakh, Indian, Iranian and even North African women all share part of their traditions and culture, and their dresses and clothing proudly reflect this heritage.








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