The Art of Making Their Voices Heard

For thousands of years, the woman of nomadic tribes in what is now Afghanistan and its environs have been weaving rugs by hand. The oldest known and intact example of these rugs in the world is the “Pazyryk” rug dating from the 4th century B.C. (currently housed in the St. Petersburg Museum). These traditional pieces of folk art have long depicted the same deeply rooted motifs and patterns, with occasional images derived from the artist’s everyday experiences. However, about 25 years ago, all that suddenly changed. Following the 1979 Soviet invasion into Afghanistan, rug dealers began seeing drastic alterations in the content of Afghani rugs. Tanks replaced flowers, rocket launchers replaced vases and airplanes replaced abstract borders!

After the Soviet departure from Afghanistan the new ruling power instituted the strict Muslim Sharia law which governs the religious, political, social, domestic and private life. This law stripped many Afghani women of basic rights including banning them from talking to men outside of their family, walking outside alone, or working. Women were also made to abide by the practice of purdah which is the seclusion of women from public observation by having them wear concealing clothing from head to toe, like a burka, and by the use of high walls, curtains and screens erected within the home. This separates the women from learning about the outside world in order to make them ignorant of the practicalities of life and deprives the woman of economic independence by not allowing them to work outside the home. In order to keep females submissive, women know only what their fathers, husbands, and sons want them to know. The women who practice purdah have no voice or free will.

For women who break the fatwas, or edicts, associated with Sharia law, including purdah, there are dire consequences including harsh beatings or even death. Additionally, since Sharia law dictates that it is taboo to represent animate subjects in art; weavers were no longer allowed to portray images of birds, animals or people.

Thus as the artists iconography changed so did their outlets for expressing it. Those living outside of the war-torn Afghanistan can’t comprehend the reality of living in a world where the images depicted through the rugs are a part of everyday life. To the women of Afghanistan the rugs have become a way to make their voices heard and to communicate to the rest of the world what they live with everyday.

This new category of rugs has been termed “war rugs” and has sparked an underground movement in the art world. Many collectors see the rugs not only as art, but also as historical documents and a testament to the times.