Women tattoo artists are rare in Afghanistan. So Suraya Shaheedi takes on a big risk with every person she serves. But she makes customers happy by creating artwork on their skin.
It has been 18 months since Shaheedi launched her mobile tattoo business in Kabul, the Afghan capital. Since starting, she has received death threats for two reasons. One is that tattoos are seen as unacceptable in Afghan culture. The other reason is that she is an unmarried woman who is willing to work with men.
“I have struggled a lot, even been threatened with death, because people in Afghanistan think doing tattoos is haram,” Shaheedi told The Associated Press. In Arabic, the word ‘haram’ means banned by Islamic law.
Shaheedi was once married, but her marriage ended in divorce. The 26-year-old single mother said she does not care if the people she works with are men or women.
In a dark room, surrounded by his friends, a young man shouted in pain as the needle dug into his skin and injected coloring for a tattoo.
“I can’t leave the profession I love,” Shaheedi said.
Beliefs about tattoos have started to change, leading to more tattoo businesses opening up in Afghanistan. Shaheedi easily gets customers willing to pay for her artwork. It is the kind of small, but important change that she feels a return of Taliban rule could threaten.
After years of war, Afghans want peace. A big concern for many is that United States-led peace talks with the Taliban will provide support to the militant group.
“I am happy if the Taliban return results in peace, but if they disagree with my work and impede the freedom and progress of women, then I will be the first to stand against them,” Shaheedi said.
Women like her have created a space for themselves in a society where tradition heavily restricts the roles and education of women. This year, one survey found that the families of close to 40 percent of Afghanistan’s young girls do not let them go to school. And the families of almost 20 percent of these girls require them to suspend their studies after about six years of schooling. The Asia Foundation development group reported the study’s findings.
Taliban forces now control or hold power over nearly half of the country. In those areas, women are not permitted to leave their homes without a man. The Taliban ruled Afghanistan with an extreme form of Islamic law from 1996 to 2001, when U.S. forces invaded.
Shaheedi divorced her husband eight years ago while she was pregnant. She and her son now live with her parents. Her father supports her work, although Afghan society often bars a woman from touching a man to whom she is not related or married.
Shaheedi’s father, Hussain, believes the traditions controlling women in Afghanistan need to change. “I support my daughter in every way, and she makes me proud,” he said.
Shaheedi uses Instagram and other social media to find and meet people looking to get tattoos. She does not keep a storefront with a set location out of concerns for her safety.
Tattoos were once common in some of Afghanistan’s rural areas, especially among Pashtun and Hazara women. But the artwork was used in small amounts, often as only a few small green marks on the face.
Tattoo artists say demand among the younger generation has risen for more noticeable and personal designs. At the same time, the number of tattoo businesses increased in Kabul.
Omid Noori, age 23, has 16 tattoos all over his body. He wants to add another on his left arm, showing the head of a lion. But Noori only wants new designs on parts of his body that his clothing can hide, because he is tired of hearing people’s criticism.
He also worries what would happen if Islamic militants caught him.
“I’m thinking that if the Taliban return, they’ll cut off my hands and legs,” he said.
He got his last tattoos at a business belonging to a former Afghan army officer, Nazeer Mosawi.
Mosawi fought for seven years in Afghanistan’s civil war with the Islamic militants. He says he is still fighting the war, but this time his battle is against society’s conservatism, with his tattoo machine as his weapon.
Mosawi receives threatening telephone and social media messages almost every day, demanding he close his tattoo business. “They even threaten to beat me, burn my shop,” he said. “I tell them, OK, I can’t flee this country because of these threats. It’s my homeland.”
But for every threat he gets, Mousawi said he gets several messages of support or questions from people who want to learn more.
I’m Anna Matteo.
And I’m Pete Musto.
Tameem Akhgar reported on this story for the Associated Press. Pete Musto adapted this story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
We want to hear from you. What restrictive traditions are changing in your country? Write to us in the Comments Section.
Words in This Story
customer(s) – n. someone who buys goods or services from a business
mobile – adj. able to move from one place to another
divorce – n. the ending of a marriage by a legal process
needle – n. a very thin, pointed steel tube that is pushed through the skin so that something can be put into your body or so that blood or other fluids can be taken from it
profession – n. a type of job that requires special education, training, or skill
impede – v. to slow the movement, progress, or action of (someone or something
role(s) – n. the part that someone has in a family, society, or other group
survey – n. an activity in which many people are asked a question or a series of questions in order to gather information about what most people do or think about something
proud – adj. very happy and pleased because of something you have done, something you own, or someone you know or are related to
location – n. a place or position