Afghan artist overcomes disability, discrimination to open art centre

AFP and Salaam Times

Nineteen-year-old disabled Afghan artist Robaba Mohammadi is fighting back against discrimination in a country where the odds are stacked against women. Despite being born without the use of her hands and unable to walk, she taught herself to paint by holding a brush in her mouth and now creates elaborate and colourful portraits. [NOORULLAH SHIRZADA, NAJIBA NOORI / AFPTV / AFP]

KABUL -- Unable to use her hands, arms or legs, Afghan artist Robaba Mohammadi has defied unlikely odds in a country that routinely discriminates against women and persons with disabilities.

Denied access to school, as a child she taught herself to paint by holding a brush in her mouth, clenching it between her teeth to create elaborate and colourful portraits.

Today, the 19-year-old's works sell and exhibit internationally, and she is so accomplished that she has launched a dedicated centre to help train other disabled artists.

"I do paintings mostly about Afghan women, women's power, the beauty of women, the beauty of paintings, love and the challenges women face," Mohammadi said.


Nineteen-year-old Afghan artist Robaba Mohammadi, who is unable to use her hands, arms or legs, paints in her studio in Kabul last December 5. [NOORULLAH SHIRZADA / AFP]


Afghan artist Robaba Mohammadi, 19, sits next to her paintings during an interview with AFP in her studio in Kabul last December 5. [NOORULLAH SHIRZADA / AFP]

Some 50 students attend classes at her centre in Kabul, which she opened last year and funds herself with money from selling her paintings.

An inspiration for others

About 1.5 million of Afghanistan's approximately 35-million-strong population has some form of disability, including tens of thousands of Afghans suffering from land mine injuries, according to a 2015 national survey.

Even with such a large minority affected, Afghan society still stigmatises those who are not able-bodied.

Mohammadi was born with a permanent physical disability that means she cannot use her limbs and now suffers from a degenerative condition called arthrosis.

"Because of my disability, I was never even able to go to school," Mohammadi said, adding that she had looked on enviously as her siblings went to get an education.

But with the help of her family, she eventually taught herself to read and write and can now use social media on her mobile phone as adeptly as any other teenager -- by typing with her tongue.

"We are so proud of Robaba; she is an inspiration for other disabled people," said her brother Ali Mohammadi, 24, who hopes to create a literacy course for Afghans with disabilities who have been unable to go to school.

Double prejudice

In Afghanistan's ultra-conservative society, disabled women are often forced to stay hidden away, even in the comparatively progressive capital Kabul.

"I was feeling tired and sick of not being able to leave home," Mohammadi said.

"I felt really upset. When our relatives would visit, they would whisper that my parents committed some kind of sin that they delivered a disabled girl."

Such treatment stems from double prejudice "due to womanhood and due to disabilities", said Benafsha Yaqoobi, commissioner at the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.

"All these are the results of discrimination, caused by negative attitudes towards females as the so-called 'second sex', and disability, looked [at] not as diversity but as a shame and stigma," Yaqoobi said.

Overcoming difficulties

For Mohammadi, art was a way to release her frustration.

She first started drawing by holding a pencil loosely in her mouth but then realised she could improve details in her sketches by clenching the pencil between her teeth.

"It was very difficult, and I cried several times," she explained as she coloured a vibrant scene featuring a large tree.

"It was hard to do the lighting and shading of the paintings; then my dad encouraged me," she added.

Noor Ahmad Azizi, a 22-year-old disabled student at Mohammadi's painting centre, said he had been unable to attend school because of his disability.

"I love to do painting," he said. "I would love to learn to paint professionally, and I also want to become famous like Robaba."

Government efforts to help the disabled

The Afghan government is actively trying to help disabled citizens, particularly those who have become so as a result of the long-standing war.

More than 320,000 disabled people and relatives of those killed in the war are registered with the Ministry for Martyrs and Disabled Affairs, according to the ministry's spokesman Ziaul Haq Fazli.

The ministry provides jobs and educational opportunities to those registered, he said.

Also a group of Afghans who graduated last year from the prosthetics department of the Herat Institute of Health Sciences are providing an invaluable service for their compatriots who have lost limbs in the war.

These young men and women have learned how to make and fit prosthetic arms and legs so that people disabled by war can have fresh hope for life.

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There should be a continuous raise in the awareness on issues pertaining to health, education, accessibility, livelihood, and reproductive rights of people with disabilities, what challenges they face, how to come up with strategies that will help see more women and men with disabilities accessing health institutions and ask about their right with dignity and respect. Sweet, innocent and the most beautiful Robaba is an inspiration and lots of love.


Oh my Gosh! How sweet and beautiful she is. May God put blessing on her fingers. Another thing is of the inconvenience. You should not introduce the whole Afghan society as cruel to the people. People of a whole nation are not cruel. In every nation, there are different types of people. Anyway, thank you very much for writing such a beautiful report on this pretty girl.